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Having started MING Labs in China in 2011, we have seen a big development from the old-internet world of overladen landing pages, to digital products of world-class defining design today. In parallel, we have seen the move from clunky desktop applications with small user bases, to the mobile-first B2C revolution to the rise of the super apps that are the new all-encompassing ecosystems in the market.
Throughout those major shifts in digital products and behaviors, some preferences have remained constant that differ from those in Western markets. Understanding what is actually different, and what is just a different stage of development, is an important factor when launching your product in the market. From key differences in UX requirements to the preference for larger ecosystems and a different understanding of value, China is unique in many aspects (as are other markets, to be sure).
Over the years, we have helped many startups and MNCs to launch their products, built and validated in their home markets, into the Chinese market.
We have thereby seen many of those differences in action and came to certain conclusions on what a good approach of scaling into China should be.
This article is therefore mainly aimed at those thinking about, tasked with, or actively working on expanding into the Chinese market, and who are wondering what that means for their digital products and services.
Three options in adaptation
When launching in a new market that has some important dissimilarities from your home market, essentially you have three choices in product adaptation.
At the very least you will have to translate the interface into Mandarin, to make your product accessible. Additionally, there might be certain legal requirements for your industry you will have to adapt to if you want to do business in China. Replacing certain pieces of technology might also be necessary, in order to get through the Great Firewall (many Western services are blocked).
At this stage, you might be redesigning the UX of your product to fit the local market tastes or you might port your product onto local platforms (such as the WeChat and Alibaba ecosystems). In the Marketing, you might also adapt your messaging to emphasize the points that would resonate more with Chinese customers.
3. China business
In some cases, it might be necessary or advantageous to pivot your target audience or business model, which will result in a very different way of doing business. Your core value creation might still be relevant, yet other parts of the business have to change drastically. We call this “China Business” as the local operations will be very dissimilar for your other operations in a China-focused approach.
The trade-off here is that with an increasing China customization you are reducing your Economies of Scale, as a very localized business will not be scalable into other markets and will need a lot of local, dedicated resources, whose learning you can’t leverage in your global expansion. At the same time, a low level of customization will stay highly scalable, yet might not yield success as it is a very specific market.
That trade-off and the decision is by no means trivial. Finding a good answer typically requires taking on a beginner’s mindset (going back to the Exploration stage) and first testing your product and value proposition locally.
Assume that you have lost product–market-fit as you enter China, and start over with an open mind, local research , and fast iterations to the right approach.
In the next parts, we will assume that you have come to your conclusion and you are opting for a Localized approach (as Minimal is straight-forward and China Business goes to Business Design). What exactly then are the differences in UX design and local platforms you should be aware of and adapt to?
Cultural Differences That Matter
Some of the preferences in design and interaction are rooted in Chinese culture. There are few things to be aware of that make a big difference:
On an international scoring of Individualistic versus Collectivistic cultures, China scores among the highest on the Collectivistic scale. This means that every context is about the group, the larger unit, and deviating from group norms or standing out is not desirable. Similarly, group approval and high degrees of communication and social context are important.
2. High-Context Culture
The Chinese culture, and also language, are very high-context. This means that every interaction needs to be seen through myriad lenses of context, instead of being taken at face value. In a low-context culture, a “no” is a “no”. In a high-context culture, it can mean “ask again”, “not yet”, “not like this”, “have your boss ask me”, “let’s have a drink first” or many other things. The context of when it is said, how and by whom matters to understand the answer.
3. Chinese calligraphy
4. Complex Language
The Chinese language is low on grammatical complexity, yet very intense on the complexity of the vocabulary. There are over 20,000 characters in use and different combinations mean different things. Not only is it very tedious to type in Chinese (which means drawing characters or typing in Pinyin to find the right characters), but it is also impossible for search engines to understand whether you made a mistake in your query and suggest corrections.
These are substantial differences from the West and also from some other Asian cultures. And they invariably manifest in specific preferences from social interaction to communication styles and UX design.
UX In China — some pointers
The cultural differences manifest in different preferences regarding UX and service design, which produce the services you see on the Chinese internet today. While they often have Western inspirations or counterparts, they work differently in some key aspects. Including:
1. Practicality > Aesthetics
As typing Chinese is painful and auto-correct is not an option, websites are created to allow for browsing as the main behavior rather than searching. What that also means is that aggregating functionality is popular, as quantity and context make it seem useful rather than cluttered. From the early stages of the internet and the local differences, patterns have formed that are now deeply ingrained. Respect them, and do not try to “enlighten” them.
2. Social anywhere
Everything lives within a social context and the group is more important than the individual. Hence everyone is always connected and sharing. Wangwang is hugely important for Alibaba, because users don’t trust the information on the website. They want to speak to people. Similarly, reviews are more trusted than in the West. Do not save on customer service. Always have ways of direct contact and chat available.
3. Everything connected
No experience exists in isolation, it is always embedded in a context and connected to everything else. O2O is a very important trend that has taken over in much of the physical space in China. The key is to remove friction and media breaks for the consumers and connect experiences in the most straightforward way possible. The most popular services in China are dynamic, lively, high-context, and interesting, offering discounts, games, and other interactions.
These are a few guiding principles to consider when redesigning your digital experience for China. Driven by cultural differences, these are expectations that exist with consumers today towards any product or service.
How you incorporate them is up to your creativity, and again we would recommend short and fast iteration/feedback loops and a discovery mindset, rather than a big-bang design approach.
Rise of the super apps
Any thoughts on product adaptations for China would be incomplete without the considerations of local platforms — first and foremost super apps. These are applications owned by the biggest ecosystem players in China (Alibaba, Meituan, Tencent), which aggregate many different services into one touchpoint, offer foundational layers of identity and payments to tie them together, and allow for third parties to write small applications that can be pulled into that powerful context.
As their platforms essentially monopolize consumer attention across verticals, the companies owning them generally let new trends play out, invest in them, and later buy them out. Therefore, creating larger and larger kingdoms that lock in consumers. They are therefore a great distribution channel and are very open to partner with and enable new entrants. It also means that without them, you are facing a heavy up-hill battle.
Of course, there are trade-offs to be aware of. Where on Amazon you run the risk of the marketplace introducing their own brand of products to price you out, Alibaba essentially owns the consumer and their data, with a stark indifference to who wins the battle for their wallet. If you enter with a novel product, Chinese competitors will soon copy you and there is no one to protect you from it.
In terms of platforms, probably everyone is more or less familiar with WeChat and Alipay. Some of the key ecosystems that are open to a degree to integrate with. The way to get in there, except for acquisition, are mini-programs. This is a rising trend of apps-in-apps that are becoming very important for business.
Mini programs account for the majority of customer interaction already in all major consumers verticals. They have only really been launched in their current shape about over a year ago but are taking over quickly. They are becoming entry points into engagement with brands — from shared content, over quick entry to the official accounts. Mini programs are the new beachhead to customer interaction.
They are not great for retention. Usually, they underperform other owned touchpoints, such as native apps and web applications, in terms of retention. Tencent has invested a lot of effort to make them stickier and they are improving already. With high barriers to get people to install native apps though, Mini Programs are a great entry point to then lead people over to install native apps.
Mini programs are ideal for simple and low-frequency use cases. Entry is easy, retention is low. Yet they are powerful at mitigating media breaks and reducing friction. So, identifying the right use case is key. Like order to the table at a restaurant. The more complex or frequent a use case is, the stronger the need for an app or web app.
The Epitome Of VUCA
In China, customer preferences pivot quickly, and markets move fast.
Competition is happening at a breakneck pace, with today’s lauded innovation being the next spectacular failure tomorrow. To successfully launch into this environment, it is paramount to keep an explorer’s mindset, be aware of underlying foundational differences, and iterate quickly. And to keep iterating and adapting even after a successful launch, as the market and the customers will keep moving on, in a country where change has been the only constant for decades.