China has an internet user population of over 771 million, with the average user spending 27 hours online per week. Considering China’s vast online presence, what sort of UX are today’s Chinese websites offering? Are users satisfied? And are there major differences from what we’re used to in the West besides the language?
Chinese websites are complex—but are they complicated?
Foreigners are quick to point out that Chinese websites are overly complex and busy looking, but as the Nielsen Norman Group points out, much of that impression stems from the fact that foreigners can only look at the site and cannot actually use it. Anything that you don’t understand inevitably looks, sounds, and feels complicated. That’s human nature.
Their study concluded that Chinese sites are often complex, but not necessarily overly complicated for Chinese users. Sites that were pointed out as being too complicated even for Chinese folks are rooted in design that attempts to fit too much onto the page (including excessive ads), and cause frustration arising from usability issues (like functions being difficult to access).
In any market there will be examples of excellence as well as those that don’t quite make the cut. To establish some sort of baseline, let’s take a look at Amazon—which is a global standard for e-commerce sites—and the Chinese e-commerce site Taobao (which, at the risk of oversimplifying, is the local version of Alibaba), and see what strikes us as being different.
A cultural preference for warm colors
Connie Liu, Moravia’s APAC marketing coordinator, points out that “bright orange and other warm colors are commonly used in Chinese e-commerce and corporate websites. For example, the top three local e-commerce companies in China—Tabao.com, JD.com, and Sunning.com—all use warm colors such as red or orange as the main UI element on their website and app.”
This preference for warm colors runs deep, as we can see if we look back at Taobao’s web design over the years.
It’s clear to see that the use of warm colors like orange persists even though web design is trending towards shorter text and more images. Similar trends of simplified text and image-dominated layouts can be observed on other Chinese websites too, such as the consumer electronics company Changhong (cn.changhong.com), the Chinese sportswear brand Li-Ning (www.lining.com), the drone manufacturer DJI (www.dji.com/cn), and the mobile electronics and software company Xiaomi (www.mi.com), just to name a few.
Now, let’s look at www.amazon.com and www.amazon.cn. Although Amazon tends to feature dark and bluish colors on their sites, including the .com, the .cn site has a warmer overall color scheme to fit local preferences. Amazon has done their homework well.
The difference between high-tech companies and others
Generally speaking, high-tech companies in China all feature a clean UX with a cosmopolitan design, trending towards less text and more dominant images. The big exceptions to this are websites for non-tech companies, such as Wang Lao Ji, a Chinese herbal tea dating back to 1828 that is still one of the most popular tea drinks in China today (www.wlj.com.cn).
Ah, now that’s more like it: the crowded, chaotic, busy UX that Chinese websites are known for. But remember that these sites are likely to be this way intentionally. Their target demographic is not necessarily impressed by a cool and sleek design. Sites targeting the younger generation tend to be more fashionable and attractive, while older-generation-facing sites tend to maintain a 1990s design since it offers a feeling of familiarity.
But are there other factors involved besides pleasing the target demographic?
The pragmatism behind Chinese web design
Some Chinese websites look modern and competitive. Others look like they’re stuck in the 1990s. So why the difference? One theory is that brands that are heavily reliant on internet commerce put more effort into modernizing their websites, while those that rely more on traditional retail channels don’t see their website UX as being mission-critical. So, although some products may be well known by everybody in China, their websites are not a joy to look at.
Is there an online + offline sales dynamic skewing the UX?
When discussing China, we can never leave out WeChat. For many businesses, WeChat is in fact the most important channel, and websites serve more of a secondary, supportive role. Case in point: McDonald’s.
The www.mcdonalds.com.cn site promotes featured menus, campaigns, and corporate activities. In short, it does the same things that most McDonald’s websites all over the world do. A big difference is the QR code near the middle of the page. This code takes users to a landing page where they can easily follow McDonald’s WeChat public account, access coupons, and use services like self-service ordering with payment through the app. It also suggests the nearest McDonald’s restaurant where people can pick up their food. In the store, there’s also a special terminal that lets people place their self-service orders. It’s a thorough system that makes sure the customer enjoys a comfortable UX at each possible touch point.
It’s more complex, and logical, than you think
Chinese website UX may look bad to the unexperienced eye, but:
- It works for consumers if they understand the language
- It may be addressing a demographic that prefers that look
- It could be tapping into preexisting cultural preferences
- It might be skewed or influenced by the presence of another channel
When considering how to develop your online presence for China, it’s important to leave any presumptions that western UX is “better” at the border. Chinese UX has evolved over the years to meet the needs of Chinese users, albeit over a contracted timeframe compared to the west. There is wisdom to be discovered by studying the market leaders. Also, market research, identifying buyers, and learning their preferences are critical. Understand the specific requirements of Chinese buyers and the unique characteristics of Chinese UX and use them to your advantage.