Designing Digital Products for Asian Markets

Designing for the Asian market is a whole new challenge. Asia is bound with diversity, and the way technology is adapted in its regions is vastly different to each others. For example, the China market is a pretty unique market rooting from its relatively “closed” system that prevents western apps being used extensively inside. In the end, it is logical that the market tries to help and support itself: local startups and companies have been racing to develop and market their apps specifically for domestic audience. Being a bit “apart” from the global tech scene allows the local apps to establish their own “norms” and “behaviours”, largely influenced by the local users. This introduced some “culture shocks” to designers, engineers and product teams who are used to the western or the larger global markets, because they often have to unlearn and re-learn most of the “established” notions in design and products.

China is one major example, because it’s strongly unique, but Asia is a very large collection of diversity. Japan and Korea are the other cultural differences when it comes to tech. Then, we’d come naturally to the more emerging markets like Southeast Asia and South Asia, which present their own problems and cultural differences.

This article is a summary of the research done by fellow designers and researchers around the world. From there, I took some pointers that hopefully can be used as a thought base for designing your own products.

Unique Visual Language

Asia is a myriad of culture with long history. The history and culture are also intense with visual heritage, and artefacts usually have strong visual designs. Take for example fabrics, carvings, architecture, and even food. Colors are strong signifiers of meanings, and they mean a lot. With less emphasis on the textual world, people usually pass on legacy with either verbal stories or visual artefacts. This follows on until today where modern-day users of digital apps, for example, have strong expectations over designs that are d

  • Visual design is an important aspect of any digital experience
  • Playfulness is a strong sticky factor, e.g. introducing mascots or characters. One example of this is how Expedia Japan incorporated a bear mascot.
  • Icons and emoticons are geared towards comical, cute, and “cartoon-y” characters.
  • Some icon designs might mean different things. E.g., the “gear” icon might mean settings in the western world, but in China, it could mean “discover”.
Chinese apps that have cute characters (collected by Dan Grover)

Most Chinese apps have “Discover” icon that vary from compass to “directional” icon that is usually used for map direction in the west (collected by Dan Grover)
Example of stark difference between Yahoo! Weather app in the US vs. the one in Japan. The Japan version is more visual and “fun” (collected by Shindo Isshin)

Everything in One

People love to see everything in one page, in one fold or in one screen. They want the bird’s eye view to everything, even if it means a crowded layout. Anything that is outside the fold can be potentially considered “missing”. This is why many apps in Asia have the “grid” menu where you can see everything at a glance. “In both China and Japan, users tend to be comfortable with cluttered, high information density apps and sites,” says Alan Stafford, solution architect at Frog (a design agency). Some sources assume that it’s because of the language’s characters that are compact and thus provide more opportunity for density, and that there is no bold or italic, so they need some other ways to emphasise something. Other reason might also include how “less is more” in western advertising/content composition does not really convince people in Asia who are more critical consumers in some parts.

Some action points:

  • Consider having most important action items in one area or in one fold.
  • Consider using pictures or iconography that are distinct to quickly convey your meaning, so users can scan them fairly quickly.
  • Test with users a lot and validate your designs or ideas so you know what they are expecting in a particular screen or flow.
The Gojek app in Indonesia follows the norm in China/Japan where bird’s eye view is used.
Line app, also with grid layout and strong visuals.
Yahoo! Japan site, currently the most popular site in Japan with 46 million daily visitors.
Rakuten Japan site. A bit cleaner, but still retain that portal look from early 2000s.

Diverse Language Ecosystem

Asia and Europe are the only two continents where most countries use native languages as their official languages. There is an approximate of more than 2,000 different documented languages in Asia, but certain countries have more undocumented ones. Papua New Guinea, for example, has nearly 7,000 languages that mostly are undocumented. However, let’s safely assume that we only need to cater the majority, and even that we already find a diverse system of languages.

Do consider that:

  • There is a vast array of language differences in Asia, some of them have different characters and writing style.
  • The different languages affect UI interfaces, e.g. search terminology & results (“do I search in English, but can I view the results in Japanese?”), keyboard, and voice recognitions.
  • People might use voice more prominently because typing can be a bit hard.
  • The web and app technologies are built mostly based on western ways, including the written language of English. Also consider how to adapt this to local languages, not only in terms of translating textual content, but in ways to present that information, e.g. layout, emphasis, composition, illustration, etc.
  • Some languages are “logographic”, which means they are based on visual references and are packed into one single character. Japanese and Chinese characters are such logographic languages. One character can basically be one or two words.

Collectivism and Strong Family Ties

Citizens of some Asian countries tend to have strong ties to their homelands and families. Even if they migrate to a different country, they will tend to come back once in a while to visit their families. This happens because by culture, family is the most important and stays that way until the end of life. Living together is common, even some culture retain cluster/nuclear family living, in which the larger family members live in the same area, even in the same house.

It is considered a sin to “betray” your parents, or to neglect them when they are old because they have raised you and fed you well in the past.

In many Asian countries, coming of age doesn’t mean they need to “get a new place” or live separately. They even need to stay in the parents house before they are married.

In the language system, sometimes there are also different terminologies/prerequisites to address the elderly and the younger ones. For example, in Indonesia, you can’t address your parent by the name only. You have to call them “Bapak” or “Ibu”, which are “Father” and “Mother” respectively. Then, if you want to address the grandparents, you have different terms, “Kakek” and “Nenek”, similar to “Ah Goong” (granddad) in Chinese. You have to put these prefixes in front of their names when addressing them verbally or in writing.

The concept of communality and collectivism is strong in many Asian countries. Being neighbors mean you should take care of each others. You are also expected to talk to each others and come to the houses in specific occasions like festivities, death of a loved one, or when invited. Sometimes, in a more rural areas, visiting somebody’s house unexpectedly is not considered a breach of privacy, and the host must accept the guests with open arms.

There is also a strong tendency to belong, even if it’s only with the same users of a product. We see a lot of communities revolving around a brand, e.g. motorcycles, cars, and even digital products. Yahoo! acquired Koprol in Indonesia, a Foursquare-style platform, back in 2009, and it couldn’t take off without communities. People form Koprol user communities in suburbs, campuses and other cities in Indonesia.

In designing for Asia, we should consider:

  • Designs or flows that allow for group decisions.
  • Prepare strategies that would elevate the community of users around the product. Engage with them to increase usage and promote the product organically.
  • Language and tonality of the product must be respectful.
  • Products that cater for families or ar attentive to family needs will be highly regarded.
  • Marketing targeted to “serving” older people will be a great plus.

Morality and Respect

In most cultural settings, moral is being upheld high, be it stemming from social values or religious values. More often, it’s religious values. Patriarchy and vertical hierarchy are held up high as well. People who are older and “more senior” are ought to be respected, and often, cannot be challenged. In an increasingly diverse (and protective!) religious/cultural values held by people across Asian nations, it is important to research what works in a local setting and what doesn’t.

In designing products for this type of market, we should:

  • Identify user journeys that might conflict with morality, e.g. in muslim majority countries, some money-lending fintech startups are seen as “evil” despite them being normal in the westernised markets. In Uber and Grab in Indonesia, there has been continuous harassments from drivers to customers. In highly homophobic societies, apps like Grindr are simply not welcome.
  • Avoid brand names, features or visual identities that are in conflict with local values. In Indonesia, there’s a brand of cooking ware called “Silit”, which basically means anus in Javanese. It is an offensive term.
  • Apps that facilitate open discussion and egalitarian platform like Facebook, Youtube and Twitter might be considered offensive in some markets. It is important to know what kind of content is allowable and what is not.

Analog Can Be Better

Some countries are still underdeveloped and sometimes the best way to deal with things is the manual ways. This includes paying for e-commerce, validating your ID, confirming a document (through faxes, for example), and visiting brick and mortar stores. Of course, it also happens in more developed countries, but in countries where the technology infrastructure is not yet mature, and the government is bureaucratic at best, we should mix and match analog and digital for the best user journey.

Here are some recommendations:

  • Identify the average user journey for a particular country, does it make it hard for users if we are going the fully-automated way? Should it involve a trip to the bank? Should the regulation dictate that users should be ID-verified, and if so, how do they verify the ID? Think about roadblocks.
  • Once roadblocks are identified, find ways to smooth the journey, even if it means manually doing the activity, but will smoothen the overall journey at best.

Strong Personalisations

Although Asia is largely a communal or collective culture, where conforming matters more, there is a certain degree of individualism. This could be that expressing individualism in the public is seldom encouraged, which in the end make individuals want to express it in different and “safer” ways — in their virtual lives.

Asians are generally rich in cultural expressions, but it never really encourages individual expression or focusing on that individual’s interest. It is always about the larger collectives. It is indeed interesting how this contrasts to their use of technology.

Personalisation here focuses on the way people customise the products they use to their preferences.

Some pointers:

  • People regard their gadgets as extensions of themselves. They want them truly personalised.
  • This personalisation usually focuses on the outside/cosmetic look, like theming of the application, phone physical appearance, or additional accessories.
  • Customisations are hardly to do with efficiency or effectiveness, but mostly for individual expressions of personality.
  • A product that is designed to express individual personality is considered a delightful product.

Payment is as Diverse as Asia Itself

Although credit cards are common in a few more developed Asian countries like Singapore, South Korea and Japan, the majority of Asian countries still rely on cash. This makes it challenging for e-commerce everywhere in Asia to adapt. The issue is not only on technology and regulation, but cultural and religious. For example, in muslim countries, conventional bankings are not regarded as good faith. Taking (money) credit and giving credit is considered a “sin”. This allowed tailored financial products that cater to people who don’t want to take credits, and moreover, to people (generally older generation) who don’t trust their money online. If it’s too easy, it’s too risky.

Even in more developed economies like Singapore, the path to fully digitize payments is a bit long to go. See the graph below from Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS):

That being said, there have been many “adaptations” or “alternatives” to mainstream payment methods in the west (credit cards, money transfers, etc.) which focus on adapting to cultural, technological and regulatory issues pertaining to each country in Asia.

In general, to tap on payments in Asia today, here is a summary:

  • Prioritise on bank transfers and escrow systems
  • Many financial technology startups are also tapping on top-up based wallets, but with a heavy lift: how to market and make a habit out of your own platform. It is hard to educate and make a habit, especially in payments
  • Identify daily touchpoints in payment among the community. Usually, this revolves around offline convenience store payments, ATMs, SMS banking, internet banking, and in a few transactions (like phone credits), it can be agents who take cash payments who will then convert it to a digital value.
  • There is still an opportunity explore in QR codes. Chinese apps integrate payment within conversational apps like WeChat and AliPay, and they can pay directly with QR codes.

Focus on Price

Many Asian countries are truly developing markets, like Indonesia or Vietnam, and they don’t have high buying powers like their Singaporean or Japanese counterparts.

  • Price wars are pretty common in the market, and often time, quality is not number one.
  • In lower-spending markets, customers spend based on the money they have now, not the money they will earn tomorrow. This is why credit cards are feared and seldom work.
  • Some markets would demand to see more honest pricing, e.g. total pricing with taxes and fees, instead of per person (like in Japan).
  • Honest pricing, however, can be a two-edged sword, because if people are put off by the high numbers, we risk drop offs. We need to find a good balance between showing the only price we charge vs. displaying every cost in a totality.

More readings

The above pointers and analysis are not solely based on the following references, but also based on the writer’s observations. Please take the following resources as a way to learn more or kickstart your own learning in this matter.