East and West, a difference in the interface?

I do consumer research, and have spent most of my life working in videogames, and now chiefly mobile games. We offer usability and focus group services in Asia, as mobile game clients want to know if the interface of their game is “right” for Asia.

At first blush I would think “an interface is an interface.” But maybe not.
Some Danish academics did a study with Danish consumers (representing “the west”), and Chinese consumers, on how they evaluated interfaces. They were looking at email and word processor programs, but I think the work should apply across a wide range of software interfaces.

Actually the response was very, very different. For the westerners, they wanted the interface to be very functional. How do I get from A to B. Efficiency and clarity was the highest value.

For Chinese, on the other hand, they were very interested in the overall look and feel of the entire screen — was it pretty, appealing, satisfying. And, they wanted the interface to be fun. They were taking in the whole sense of it.
(press here to link to their study)

A very bright academic friend who’s travelled and worked extensively in China, and speaks Chinese, says that she still can’t navigate Chinese web sites. If you’ve ever looked at one, they’re a blur of images and color, all rushing right at you. But that apparently is what Chinese users like. Often western web sites are sleek, minimalist, and I’ve heard numerous western designers talk about making an interface so simple and “intuititve” that you just know what to do, without thinking about it.

One person trying to explain the above repeated what is probably an old statement, that those in the east think in a circle, and those in the west in a straight line. This reminds me of the importance of relationships in Asian business culture — the team is everything in Japanese business, much more than in the US. When I was in business school in the late 70’s Ouchi was advising western companies how to build relationships among their employees as a key value (and charging the astronomical sum of $4000 a day, because he only wanted to work with companies that were very serious about change, so I heard). I believe Hewlett-Packard was one of the main firms he worked with.

When I attended the recent GMIC mobile gaming conference in San Francisco, first thing, it seemed most of the panels were talking about Asia. Also, the app store and distribution channel for mobile games in China is incredibly fragmented (20 significant app stores, it’s not just iTunes and Google Play). One exec said, nevertheless, when making distribution deals, often personal relations were the key factor.

Perhaps the Asian view that the relationship of all the parts of an interface is so important, is similar to their feeling that the relationship of all the parts (people) in a company is so important.

In my world, mobile games, the taste of Japanese/Koreans and Chinese is markedly different than in the US. Recently I looked at the top 10 iPhone games in those Asian countries, vs. the US. The US list is dominated by what are called “tap,” games, largely based on reflexes. In Asia, you see a predominance of role playing and real time strategy games — where you might be building a city, leading an army — i.e., managing a complex system (not just tapping).

Tapping games, of course, require a simple interface. In strategy games, a clear interface also is helpful, but your mental process is much more involved (you have to look at all the parts of the big picture).

If it seems like I’m reaching, perhaps I am. I was always sensitive to people, adept at understanding people’s feeling — as a freelance writer when I was young, my best skill was asking questions. Yet, when I worked at Sega — which I consider overall my best work experience ever — and I liked the people I worked with so much — it was clear to me that I would never fully understand what it is to be Japanese.

Except, as the world continues to get smaller, perhaps we will understand each other better.

Reach me at 650 712–1506, hugh@bowenresearch.com

Click here for my web site, www.bowenresearch.com