Actually the title should have said something like ‘a first attempt at understanding web design for Chinese markets’, but that did not sound as cool. (Thanks @AskAaronLee for inspiring this title.)

I have felt a bit like Robert Langdon, in the Dan Brown book The Da Vinci Code, for the past few months, as I have been trying to unravel the mysterious (to me) cultural codes driving Chinese web design. This because I am more and more often faced professionally with the challenge to create web experiences also for Chinese markets.

Like many other westerners, when I see a Chinese website I am overwhelmed by the amounts of (what seems to me) unstructured information, animations and rich use of bright colors. It feels very eclectic and from a western perspective we would label this type of design as ’kitsch’.

I am completely aware of the fact the my reaction to this kind of design has everything to do with my cultural background, and that I just do not understand Chinese culture well enough to be able to judge or appreciate Chinese web design appropriately with the right cultural frame of reference.

This frustrates me, which then feeds my quest to better understand and appreciate some cultural principles that might be drivers of design in China. Knowing that any principle would be a generalization, as of the many subcultures in China, but this is at least a first step into a world that is unknown to me.

The importance of “Face”

After talking to quite a few people, both Asian and not, I started to understand how important the notion of “Face” is in China. This is very roughly what we call honor or reputation in the West. We also know the expression of “loosing face”, but it does not seem to have the same sophistication and weight as it does in Chinese culture.

For example expressing a direct disagreement in public to someone in China is considered giving bad “Face” and showing a lack of respect. It says something about being able to communicate directly and openly the way western cultures are used to.

So what does that mean then for web design, or better said, online communication? We design for very clear and direct calls to action. It is considered good web design to be very clear, and create a hierarchy of the calls to action within a page, guiding the users to where they need to be. Or… where we want them to be.

Now here lies the issue, I think. Could it be that Chinese just don’t feel comfortable with this directness in design? That would explain the quantity of options and content on an average Chinese website – leaving it up to the visitor to absorb the vast amounts of options, and decide themselves on their preferred path. Inconclusive, but an interesting thought I think.

Another aspect of “Face” has to do with avoiding mistakes and showing mastery at something – to others but also to one self. Maybe close to what we call pride. Making mistakes is not as accepted it seems in China as it is in the West.

Now an interesting fact I discovered while reading the article Showcase Of Web Design In China: From Imitation To Innovation is that typing in Chinese on an alphabet-based keyboard can be slow and cumbersome, especially for the older generations in China. Subsequently it is easy to make mistakes when typing searches in a website.

Taking these two insights into consideration it would put another reason to the designers table for making as much content available at a glance so that the only interactions needed are clicking and scrolling, avoiding searching as much as possible.

I am very curious to hear your comments on this, as obviously I feel like I have made my way into a dark crypt in one of Dan Browns books and am trying to put some pieces of the puzzle together.

Some interesting related articles

YouTube = Youku? Websites and Their Chinese Equivalents

Chinese vs. Western Web Design

Why Is Chinese Web Design So Bad?

Chinese Eye Tracking Study: Baidu Vs Google


In the next episode…

I will be looking into the relationship between the online Chinese demographics and how that influences current web design practices in China. Would love to hear your views, stories around this topic so feel free to comment or contact me on Twitter @ThomasMarzano

Article originally posted on iStrategy Blog