How Culture has redesigned online marketplaces ?

An observation on local market and online marketplaces in China

How you present the information on sites, is valuable as much as the information itself, sometimes even more.

Sites have been the gateway for people to access the internet. Businesses and entities have used sites to market their deliverables by avoiding the real-life hue and cry of marketplaces which is also accepted by consumers. The initials websites acted only as an alternative to getting the service, but with time online marketplaces have become more than just an option; they have become an experience.

With the development of new technologies, better services like cloud hosting and a better understanding of the software development cycle and data flow related to internet and website, sites are becoming better and better day by day. Thoughtful designs along with new efficient methodologies, such as Material design, are making the experience more user-friendly. With time developer are following some standards and trends such as bending towards a minimalist approach adhering to the concept of “showing only what matters”; as excess information can be overwhelming, but not necessarily useful for customers. The evidence of such concepts can be derived from the popularity and wide acceptance of hamburger menu.

Even though these design standards are not followed strictly by every developer, it has been regularly proven that such developments provides a better experience and faster learning. But whether or not the site follows such approaches, almost everybody prefers to get the relevant context-specific content. By context-specific manner, focus is on “what to show”, like job search sites should not post real estate property. But even with relevant contents, we observe different levels of acceptance for sites. There are many things which contribute to this, but this post will discuss some observations on how culture-specific biases have redesigned content presentation on sites, over time.

The online marketplaces had necessarily modified our online presence, and most of internet literate customer’s purchase is being done on websites. When we open a site for some transaction, intuitively we expect the website should look like a real-life marketplace, for example, a book rental site should show books in some categories, and not in haphazard order. This expectation seems to be very trivial, but if we think for once, is it that trivial or are there any reasons?!

Let’s experiment. Suppose you are going to a book rental site and expect to do two things

  • Check different books
  • Read the summary/plot/abstract and rent

Below are frames of two book rental sites. First one shows you books on the left side scroll pane and have integrated both tasks into one page, whereas

Wire-frame of first site

the second site gives you a two-page solution for the same functionality. In the latter case, we have the tasks on two different pages.

Wire-frame of second site with two pages

Now think which one you would have chosen in the real world assuming you don’t have a particular book in mind to rent. I guess, most of us will agree on the fact we will read the summary only after we like something about the book, like the author, domain or even an attractive cover, because there is no need to use our time to read a book without liking anything about it. We would like to have clear choices. This is a bias created from the fact — we love to choose what we want to read.

On psychological level, we want to see the merchandise at online portals as we see in the real marketplace. For example, if you go to a physical book renting shop, there are the exclusive places for new arrivals or original/signed copies. Same applies to other marketplaces too, watch shop, jewelry shop, footwear, clothes; everywhere. These practices have defined both “how to show” and “how much to show”, and created a bias specific to a society. In most cases when we project these ideas in a particular environment, these all hold true and along with them, some more constraints get added to them. To make the idea more transparent, I’ll provide one observation.

In China, marketplaces look full of alternatives, stuffed with several types of one thing, and the same thing being sold by more than one seller. They like to have many options so that they can get the merchandise at the desired price. In many places, it had been quoted that in China people often haul with local sellers to get something for a lower price (which is also true for some other countries like India); even after having so many options. Whatever may be the reason, it seems having a lot of option and bargaining had been an integral part of shopping for these societies. Hence this shopping practice has created a bias in their society which has resulted as a culture over time.

Let’s take a look at Amazon web pages. If you observe correctly the content contours of Amazon website looks like this.

General Amazon site content contour

In contrast to the general trend, if you check, amazon’s China website, it looks something like this, where each boundary represents some information.

China Amazon site content contour

You can see, China amazon page varies from other amazon pages which seems to follow a general pattern. Amazon has learned (knowingly or unknowingly) to replicate the marketplace to an online platform by allowing cultural details that would help a China-man to get what he expects from a real market by satisfying his shopping bias.

From a non-china man perspective, you’ll find the china amazon site a bit more stuffed with information. If you think the clutteredness is only because of the spatial density of Chinese language then check out Japan’s Amazon page. Despite the fact, both Chinese and Japanese script are spatially dense; you’ll find yourself comparatively more comfortable visually in Japan’s site if you’re a regular user in your countries amazon page.

So cultures have sometimes redefined “How online platforms should look like?”

Don’t take my word for it. I’ll give one incident as proof.

eBay failed in its attempt to take on China market, and if we read between the lines, then you can find out that these bias contributed to eBay’s failure. 
When eBay was taking big moves to expand in Asia, it bought¹ a 33-percent stake in Chinese auction site EachNet. eBay invested US$30 million in EachNet, which is considered as one of the most significant online trading communities in China during the initial internet days. This investment was more massive than the investments being made to Alibaba, which was in its early phase. After this investment, many more interactions are being made in between EachNet and eBay, and eventually, eBay got the right to make some decisions. Among those decisions, many fired back which was the reason for the failure of eBay in China. Among those decisions, one choice was to move the EachNet platform to the eBay platform, revamping the design and functionalities of the website. eBay’s China site, modeled closely on eBay on the USA, looked foreign² to local users.

In contrast to what eBay did, Alibaba stuck to keep the warmth³ of real markets in the online marketplace; thanks to Jack Ma.

In an interview⁴, Meg Whitman, the then eBay executive who handled eBay’s China operations said,

“We made a big mistake. We should have left EachNet on their platform in China. Instead what we did was put EachNet on to the global eBay platforms because it had worked everywhere.”

Of course culture is not the only contributor to this redefinition of sites, after all we can check for previous snapshots of a site only to find out most of them changed over the same time and in same measures irrespective which culture they belong to.

Open culture of the internet and more interaction between international boundaries have diminished the culture-specific details to a great extent but who knows a bit of cultural touch may help your site platform to stand out of the crowd.


[1][2][4] These information are taken from the book, Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built.

[3] the availability of options and a chance to bargain

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +367,690 people.

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