This was originally a four-part series of articles I wrote while working as a designer at Camp Pacific. I’ve collected all four here as one long-form piece on how western enterprises can rethink their web design practices for a Chinese audience.
As China’s business and consumer presence grows larger and larger on the world stage, it’s becoming increasingly important for western companies to develop a presence in their market. This isn’t as simple as simply adding a “.cn” to your web address however. There are a number of cultural differences that extend far beyond the language barrier for businesses to reach consumers, and this is even more true for B2B companies: China is a country where business deals are traditionally based around relationships and respect. Any company trying to break into this massive market that makes one oblivious wrong move can ruin their chances for success. Over the next four articles, we’ll attempt to unpack these nuances a little and better inform your business on how its web presence can become a strength rather than a weakness.
Items we’ll cover:
Overview of the Chinese market
Chinese Cultural Practices
UX/UI Design In China
Chinese Social Media And WeChat
A Note on the Chinese Market
At first glance most Chinese websites look daunting to western eyes. Often a jumble of links and text crammed onto one long-scrolling page, many sites feel overwhelming even without an understanding of the written characters or what they are trying to communicate.
Historically, there are a few reasons for the current state of Chinese web design. From a business standpoint, design as a whole in China is viewed as something that can impact one’s business in equally bad and good ways; therefore, it’s common that businesses will request near-exact copies of designs that have worked for successful competitors as a way of weeding out factors that may derail their own success. Because of this, design has been slower to change in China compared to western markets and why many Chinese websites still look like Yahoo.com circa 2000.
Largely though, differences in design come down to the vast number of characters in Hanzi, the Chinese phonetic alphabet. Hanzi has some 40,000 characters and is more heavily dependant on the shape of each character than sequences of characters; as a result Hanzi is much more conducive to dense amounts of text as its characters are much easier to “scan” than western words. Because of this, culturally, Chinese readers are accustomed and welcome to having more information “up front” and in greater level of detail.
A drawback to Hanzi however is that “search” as a function has much more difficulty with a phonetic alphabet; many web designs historically have gotten around this by displaying large amounts of links per page to encourage exploration of a site.
Despite this, web design preferences in China are now moving towards more minimal, clean layouts with an eye on maintaining the preference for descriptive detail in copy. Even massive Chinese tech companies, like Lenovo , have adopted a cleaner look. For companies attempting to break into the Chinese market successfully, their website needs to follow more subtle changes rather than a complete redesign to be successful.
“Mobile First” is still a common phrase heard in most western web design circles. In this aspect, China is one far step ahead: Chinese web design should be thought of as “Mobile Only.”
According to the Chinese Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC)’s Internet Usage report (2017), close to 95.1% of Chinese with access to the internet use their phone as their primary source. Furthermore, 95.6% of Chinese businesses use the internet for office work, and mobile makes up part of this percentage. 93.7% of employees access work-related internet via wifi, while 32.3% use mobile data. 75% of all mobile traffic in China is over Wifi as well. According to the same CNNIC review, 54% of Chinese enterprise companies have “official” mobile websites; 75% have an “official” WeChat account (more on WeChat later). Desktop viewing is more common for B2B companies, but one should design with the expectation that their site will be viewed on a phone or tablet.
China’s most commonly used operating system? The answer isn’t pleasant- Windows XP. According to a 2017 Internet Trends report by Umeng.com(Chinese) Windows XP makes up 27.6% of China’s overall OS market share. Does this mean we’re all back to using tables, image maps and frames to display content aimed at other businesses? Thankfully, no. This same report describes legacy browser use plummeting in the last few years, and Internet Explorer 8 (shudder) or older is only in use in 6.4% of Chinese workplaces.
According to the same 2017 report, 60% of desktop internet usage is on screen sizes of at least 1366x768px, a common breakpoint for many websites one might frequent today. This implies that the normal responsive grids used in Western websites should be usable for Chinese sites as well, and therefore very similar designs should be transferable from the existing Western site to its Chinese version. Historically Chinese consumers are more accustomed to dense page layouts as mentioned before; thankfully modern Chinese websites are changing to reflect Western “minimal design.” This can be seen with IBM’s US site compared to its Chinese site, or the Lenovo example above.
The Great Firewall
Does this mean setting up a Chinese website is as simple as putting your existing Western website through Google Translate? Unfortunately, no. For businesses looking to localize in China, there remains a massive elephant in the room: the Great Firewall of China. This is a catch-all term for a group of government laws and tech that acts to block the average Chinese citizen from reaching certain foreign websites in an act of blatant, but accepted, censorship. The catch? These sites include behemoths like Facebook, Twitter and Google, including all the tools they provide. The end result of this has seen a wealth of Chinese domestic look-alike companies spring up in the void of their Western counterparts. For Twitter, they have Sina Weibo; Youtube, Youku; Amazon, Alibaba and so on. This firewall will not prevent a Western business from establishing itself in China, but it does provide some unique constraints.
This starts with hosting. For websites that aren’t blocked, the “firewall” still greatly throttles the loading speed of any site that isn’t hosted on a server based in mainland China. The simple workaround involves using a hosting service based in China, of which there are many. It should also be noted that these require a Chinese business license to use.
User Experience Considerations in China
On the surface, the average Chinese user’s experience on the internet seems similar to Western habits. The basics are the same: Chinese and Western users prefer largely similar reading experiences in a header-body-footer format. Clear, direct displays of information in an upfront manner are considered trustworthy and clean, minimal sites are equated with higher status, luxury and “good design.”
This is especially true when it comes to B2C and B2B sites. Like in any culture, deals and exchanges are heavily dependant on a sense of trust. This is especially necessary in regards to the Chinese user. When it comes to creating Chinese naturalized websites, overwhelmingly Rule #1 is: Don’t auto-translate your English site! All the Chinese languages have their own grammatical nuances and simply running your copy through Google Translate will not only be transparent to any fluent speaker, it screams that you have neither the respect nor time for your Chinese client and any chance of a trustful relationship will be dashed. The most important step one can complete when converting their site for the Chinese market is hiring a copywriter fluent in at least Mandarin to help translate the sentiment and meaning of your message, not just the literal words.
Chinese users prefer a greater level of detail of content, and find businesses easier to trust with more information given upfront. This is partially due to a holdover of older design trends, where Chinese web designers were forced to put massive amounts of links on each page due to the issues with search outlined above. While things have progressed since, small details such as more descriptive hyperlinks or longer previews are the norm; skimping on description or directions can come across as if the website is trying to hide something. This doesn’t mean every page has to be a novel: According to a Nielsen Norman Group study, Chinese users find western designs a little too empty of information but overall prefer clean and minimal design.
The days of having every page of a website listed as hyperlinks on the homepage in a jumbled blue wall of text are gone. Menus, sliders, and header and footer designs for Chinese-localized western websites are often largely the same as their Western counterparts as the example from Lenovo above shows.
One area where differences are noticeable is site navigation. A quick browse of any native Chinese site will often reveal menus nested in sub-menus nested in sub-sub-menus. Generally, Chinese browsing habits show a preference for multiple levels of navigation and shorter content pages instead of long-scrolling pages that are currently popular with Western businesses. These menus are usually organized horizontally, rather than descending vertically, as Hanji is easier to scan this way. Many larger Western companies that have an established presence in China default to plainly translated versions of their original menu structure; rebuilding this area for your Chinese site could be looked at as an opportunity to stand out as more trustworthy compared to your competitors.
Other affordances can be found with a deeper look at Chinese sites as well. As an example, it’s more common for most Chinese hyperlinks to open in a new tab or window instead of within the same window. Historically this might have been due to slow load times on Chinese ISPs, but with broadband being widespread now this practice can be looked at more as an alternative method for breadcrumbs, especially on a larger site.
Differing affordances aren’t just limited to navigation. Input forms, specifically for names, don’t follow the typical Western “Surname” and “Given Name” convention. Depending on the area you’re from, you may or may not also have a “Generational Name” between the two, and a “Title” at the end depending on the formality of the situation. Forms will either have a field for each, or they’ll skip this completely and have a singular “Name” field for all names, as Chinese names are written without spaces. Contact pages specifically will often have alternate means of reaching out as well. Social media is so tightly integrated in Chinese culture, connecting with a company via WeChat can be accomplished by scanning a QR code directly off a desktop “Contact Us” page.
Colour and Imagery
Colour can have surprisingly different connotations depending on the culture it’s being associated with, and this is especially accurate for China. It’s not just associations with colors in general; specific uses of color can have symbolic meaning too. For example, wearing a green hat means your spouse is cheating on you; black borders around a portrait indicates the person is dead; and wrapping a gift in white is a rude gesture intended to remind the recipient of their own mortality.
Even the good colors can have tricky associations. Red in general is a favorable symbol for luck and prosperity, but overdoing it can associate your brand with Chinese New Year celebrations. Gold is also usually associated with nobility and wealth, but overusing yellow risks associating your product or brand with pornography. Purple is safe as it also has ties to the upper class, while green products are usually associated with being contaminant free but not necessarily environmental.
White and black are the most opposite to Western views. White in China is always associated with death; it should be generally avoided. That said, the concept of “whitespace” on a page is still welcomed and does not have the same connotations. Black is often looked at as a colour for respectful and formal celebration but has negative, even evil, connotations if used as a background for text.
Chinese web design practices are starting to match western trends in regards to imagery: large hero banners and high-res colourful pictures are used as liberally as you’d expect. For Western companies that have built a site for the Chinese market, it’s common to see stock imagery feature someone of Asian descent instead of where the company is originally from; this is a minor change though, and usually a diverse range of people in images is as common on Chinese sites as it is in the west.
In general, iconography is also more or less the same in China as it is in the west. Hamburger menus, search icons, a Settings gear- they’re all the same. Symbolism is much more common however: the numbers six, eight and nine are all considered lucky and prosperous, while the number four is associated with death. Cats, cabbage, fish and knots also symbolize good luck and a long prosperous life.
Historically, Chinese websites have been limited to a total of four different web fonts that could be used due to the Firewall. This has changed in the last four years, as there are now two Google Fonts / Typekit-like services based in Taiwan that are able to serve webfonts to China-hosted websites: JustFont and Youziku. Both of these host hundreds of different Hanzi typefaces, including Han, a massive all-encompassing family developed in tandem by Adobe and Google that mimics many of the traits of commonly used Western fonts.
Mainland China uses a simplified variation of their character system that is referred to as GB232, while Hong Kong and Taiwan use a much larger, traditional character set referred to as Big5. Most webfonts will have both versions, and depending on the target region of the website, the correct character set should be used. This is coincidental (and somewhat confusing) and not dependant on modern geographical uses of Mandarin/Cantonese. There are a number of best practices for using CSS with Chinese characters; they can be found here and here.
When typesetting, the minimum legible text size for Chinese characters is 12–14px with large (1.7x the font size or larger) line-heights to maintain scannability. Characters are monospaced and paragraphs are almost always left-justified. Heavier weights (eg. bold) as well as text colour are used often in conjunction to highlight or call out certain important parts of copy. Hanji has historically been written vertically, but thanks to the structure of a web page and that standar being developed in the west, vertical text is generally saved for decorative titles at most.
Chinese Social Media & You
Historically, due to the “Great Firewall” western forms of social media do not exist in China. Looking for a Twitter to post your thoughts? China has Sina Weibo. Want to watch some user-uploaded video? Forget YouTube, but there is Youku. Instead of sending your friends money through Venmo and PayPal, they’ve got Alipay. These are just a few: the biggest of them are China’s Google equivalent, Baidu, and WeChat, their Facebook/Whatsapp clone.
Search Engine Optimization
On the surface, these internet services serve the same basic use that their Western equivalents do. Baidu is the biggest search engine in China; it also serves as the main gateway for B2B partner and client discovery in China. Much like Google’s SEO strategies, Baidu has its own services to optimize your website for: “Search Engine Marketing” refers to things like AdWords and social ranking. Baidu’s algorithm prefers sites in a Chinese language, hosted within mainland China and heavy integration with Chinese social media. This can include links to a company’s Sina Weibo presence, QR codes that have some mobile WeChat function, or streaming videos hosted on Youku and embedded on your website.
Like we’ve mentioned in a previous article, the need for naturalized copy and information is crucial; not only are word-for-word translations transparent as poor efforts and untrustworthy, they’ll ALSO deplete your website’s search ranking. That said, converting your website over for the Chinese market and favourable Baidu ranking shouldn’t require a full redesign. A quick look at a number of China-based Western enterprises shows the name of the game is subtle tweaks, such as Intel US vs China, Qualcomm US vs China or Oracle USvs China. These sites are China-oriented and generally navigation reflects products/services that are available in China; it is common for links, often with (English) added to the end, to link to global sites without search ranking penalty.
E-Mail use historically hasn’t existed in China like in the west; mobile phone numbers are the preferred method of messaging between people. That said, for more formal business use, 91.9% of businesses use e-mail in some capacity. Chinese users put a high importance on customer-to-company chat/instant messaging being ever-present on most websites, similar to services companies like Intercom provide.
WeChat, China’s version of Facebook and WhatsApp, has become the primary mode of communication and interaction on the internet for most Chinese users. What started as a simple encrypted messaging app has blown up in recent years as users have the ability to pay for items through it, visit websites and single-purpose landing page “light apps,” order services like cleaning or ride sharing, banking, contacting the police, and connect with nearby users. Later in 2018, it is poised to become China’s state-run digital identificationand may eventually replace other forms of ID. Essentially, it is China’s main app. Core to its functionality is a QR code reader: widely shunned in North America, QR codes are commonplace in China and used for everything from linking to websites to automatically signing up for services to even triggering payments for goods under a certain value. The sight of someone scanning a QR code off their desktop screen with their phone might be seen as silly in North America, but is done without thinking in China.
In 2016, Tencent launched WeChat Enterprise, a form of WeChat for employees to use to communicate with one another akin to Slack but with a social Moments feed. Presence on WeChat for all businesses is a must, even just to act as customer support and newsletter distribution. With a strong WeChat presence, any business has the opportunity to distribute marketing materials via Light Apps or push new articles or content somewhat similar to a blog. The CTAs in WeChat light apps are almost always a social “Share” function, as opposed to Sign Up / Buy in western websites. QR Codes are commonly used to follow a business on social media, download marketing materials, or provide quick payments. An advantage of bringing content to WeChat is the ability to share this content within work communication channels; single-use pages could be shared and posted as a Light apps much more organically over work communication channels like WeChat Enterprise.
The New Age of WeChat
For B2B and enterprise companies, Western or Chinese, a significant presence on WeChat is becoming an increasing necessity. In 2017, 60% of new connections made in the app for the near-billion person installed user base were work-related contacts; 80% of these users report using WeChat to complete work-related tasks like arranging meetings or saving someone’s contact info. WeChat has achieved something even Facebook has been walled off from: influence over both working and personal hours.
It’s not as simple as your company just signing up for WeChat, however. For your business to be taken seriously, it will need a WeChat Official account. WeChat doesn’t make it easy; you’ll need an overseas business license along with a Chinese address, bank, et al. to fully operate an account and even then Tencent (the maker of WeChat) reviews overseas applications on a case-by-case basis and can take months. Alternatively, it is possible to buy a WeChat account through a 3rd party; this is cheaper and faster to obtain, though the obvious drawback is that you don’t fully own your account. There are three subtypes of account to choose from:
This account acts similarly to a blog. The focus on published content should be around info that relates to the company’s brand. When a WeChat user subscribes to this type of account, you are able to push one message/story to their inbox a day and post up to six stories to your own account every day. Think of it like an email newsletter.
This account type has a wider scope. Service accounts, like their name suggests, are focused around Customer Service as well as CRM and other communication targets. If you have a Service Account, you’ll have access to a library of APIs to customize the user experience of your WeChat profile- these accounts help make WeChat a “white label” customer service app. A drawback is that they do not allow posting as frequent as Subscription accounts: only four days per month are you able to post up to six articles as “Moments.” The advantage: every single one of these posts get pushed to your followers’ feeds automatically.
The Enterprise account was developed in response to the fact that many employees were already creating “work” groups within WeChat. Think of these as an internal Intranet and messaging platform like Slack or Hipchat. These accounts aren’t public facing and allow employees to talk and share to their moment feeds internally. Confusingly, WeChat has a standalone app to directly target companies like Slack called Enterprise WeChat, but WeChat Enterprise accounts do not necessarily need to use Enterprise WeChat (the app) to function.
QR Codes, those jumbled zebra-like squares that you’re used to seeing on community college ads at the bus stop, are massively useful on WeChat. QR codes can be found on literally any marketing materials in China, digital or physical: they might link off to the advertiser’s main account, they might initiate a download of an app or visit of a specific mini site, they may open a direct message thread with the company, or they can be used to subscribe automatically to the content that company produces on WeChat.
That content had better be customized as well. WeChat may be a novelty to many Westerners, but in China the platform is already saturated with new content being posted every day. The need for your brand to be unique and deliver a valuable message is huge; sharing or the passing on of useful posts on WeChat is common regardless of whether it’s for personal or business use.
We’ve mentioned “Light Apps” and “Mini Sites” a number of times over the past weeks- what exactly are they? Essentially HTML5 apps, Light apps are small and have a single purpose like driving sign-ups; they can be thought of as lead-generating landing pages in their simplest form. Where they differ from “apps” is that Light apps do not need to be downloaded, they disappear after being closed, and do not exist in an app store: they only live on WeChat. Light apps are an organic way of marketing to your target users- if your content is unique and engaging enough, early adopters will spread the app through their channels for you.
China has their own brand of “Influencers” on WeChat and other social media channels: Key Opinion Leaders. Much like in the west, KOLs are often courted by businesses to feature their content and reach a wider audience. These are more than just celebrities, musicians or athletes as any expert in their respective field often will have a matching online following as well. The influence of these KOLs can be huge: one prominent blogger helped fashion brand Givenchy, who do not have a large presence in China, sell $200,000 USD worth of bags in 12 minutes on their WeChat store. Search engines like Robin8 exist for companies to find the right KOLs with the right audience.
Thankfully, with all these intricacies WeChat offers a number of tools for their account holders. Advertising on WeChat is split in to two camps: Moment Ads that appear on other followers’ Moments feed; and Account ads, which exist at the bottom of your own WeChat profile. Analytics are available for these ads, as well as for profile visits and light app downloads.
Service Accounts gain even more options in their toolbox. Template messages can be constructed to send off to all subscribers for things like service notifications. Auto-reply messages are also available for service accounts- it’s almost expected by new followers to receive some welcome or greeting message from your account upon subscribing to updates. The automation doesn’t just stop at Auto-Reply; Service accounts get access to nine different APIs for their accounts that allow even further automation and customization.