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We recently did a brief analysis about why Chinese websites look 'busy' to people who are used to Western design.

What was originally intended as a light-hearted post to point out the difference between Chinese and Western sites inspired debate both on our site and off.

One place a link to the post appeared was on Hacker News. Within a couple of days there were dozens of insightful comments which both enhanced and critiqued the original post. 

The topics discussed in the comments were quite vast, but here are three main points which add insight to the original post.

Chinese language is different (but not in the way suggested)

The original post suggested that one reason Chinese websites might look busy is because their web pages are full of links.  

And this is so, we suggested, because typing Chinese characters is difficult, so surfers prefer a screen full of links as opposed to a text box.

Commenters universally disagreed.  According to many people more familiar with the topic, typing in Chinese characters is not slower than typing with Latin-based letters. 

Okay, so if that theory is out, then why are there so many links on Chinese websites?

Well, one commenter made a very interesting point about searching in Chinese.

Because of the way the Chinese language is structured, [search] is surprisingly harder than with Western languages to get right. A simple Porter stemmer gets you pretty far with English. It is an order of magnitude harder to match this level with the Chinese language.  

This forged behaviors among Internet users, who expect to browse and explore rather than search.

The Porter stemmer is an algorithm which takes a word we type in and reduces it to a core set of characters, or 'stem', so that a search engine can easily match many pages against our search term.

For example, you can type in 'fishing', 'fished', or 'fish' and Google will easily know they are in the same category, 'fish'.

But stemming is not as easy in Chinese as it is in English, apparently, so high-quality search results are more difficult to deliver. And because of this, pages full of links has become the preferred way to surf.

Chinese companies are 'behind' in design

Another point from the comments was that Chinese websites look 'busy' because they are not up-to-date with modern, simpler web design.

According to a commenter called 'masterkrang':

Chinese sites are simply modeled after 90s and 2000s web sites. Go and look at way back machine and see the resemblance.

So, having a look in the Wayback machine, here is Yahoo, then and now.

And here is the New York Times.  

Things have indeed changed in 15+ years and it seems masterkrang is quite right. Western sites did look a lot more busy back in the day.

So why haven't Chinese websites become more like those in the West? 

Well there were a couple of suggestions which answer this question. First off it seems that there might just be a different approach to design in China and companies may not care about being 'behind'.

According to 'nicolax':

Most people in China are not design-minded. People are much more likely to live with poor web designs, and companies are not incentivized to redesign.

And 'LiweiZ' suggested that Chinese design may be heading in a different direction:

In China, one-stop-shop is the mainstream mind among participants. App style is not the leading force there.

Though it's hard to verify either of these statements, it does seem possible that East and West simply have different ideas of what web design should be. 

Chinese design is correct, Western sites waste space

And finally, other commenters suggested that Chinese sites are 'busy' because 'busy' might be a better way to utilize a web page.

Here are two other ideas on this topic, first from 'VeejayRampay':

Why are western websites so empty?

And also from 'userbinator':

When I come across a sparse page with one or two huge images and almost no text, I think to myself 'where's all the content?'

Perhaps what Latin-script designers feel is 'good' design simply doesn't translate to every culture.

But why are Western websites so sparse?

Some commenters suggested that the sparse pages meant that the company had very little to say about the product, at least before they get your email address.

Others, like 'pcurve', said that it was our current design mode which caused the difference.

I think dearth of content, and overuse of blank space has a lot to do with responsive web design run amok.

 And this could be true. Making sure our content looks good on mobile can leave a desktop website looking pretty empty.

But, if we compare Uber's site to a Chinese equivalent, Didi Dache, we see that Western 'emptiness' is now part of Chinese design as well.  

Sparse, responsive design may be on its way to becoming universal.

So...

This debate is very interesting. At the heart is something key to development of a global internet culture. That is, how can brands design their ads, apps, and website for different cultures?

It seems that to appeal to a different, local market like China it's necessary to have someone with a local sense of design review your offering.

But as we found out with these posts and subsequent comments, don't expect that everyone you ask will agree on the 'right' design for your target market!

Jeff Rajeck

Published 17 February, 2016 by Jeff Rajeck

Jeff Rajeck is the APAC Research Analyst for Econsultancy . You can follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.  

133 more posts from this author

Comments (5)

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Jonathan Austin, Consumer Insight Best Practice Manager at Belron International LtdEnterprise

What about the difference between monochronic and polychronic cultures?

China is polychronic. Among other things this means that they are much more used to doing many things at once. Most western cultures are monochronic and prefer to do one thing at a time.

I'm not sure that Chinese design is "behind" in any way, it's just a different perspective on what constitutes good design.

10 months ago

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Grahame Palmer, Marketing Director at All Things Ecommerce Ltd

I get extremely frustrated when looking on certain Chinese websites - particularly manufacturers' websites - where they have a tendency to try to showcase everything up-front. They seem to want you to see every product they manufacture on the site's home page. There is scant attention to categorisation or organising the site into a hierarchy, where a visitor can then logically drill-down into a specific category of goods, and within a few clicks, get to a focus on what one is really looking for. No matter where you navigate to, the resulting page is still a mish-mash of everything.

This is what I call the "Bazzaar" approach, where a retailer's shop window is also their store-room. Everything is on show in a sort of "boot-in-the-face" promotion - suggesting that the seller thinks that you (the potential customer) don't really have any idea of what you want, and need to be shown everything.

Alibaba is a good case in point. Now while the overall site works well, the companies that use it cannot seem to introduce a structured, organised categorisation of their products or services.

It can take ages (some hours some times) to find what you are really after - and that's usually by chance than by intent.

There may be good business to be had by someone who goes into this and offers Chinese Alibaba Members advice and help in getting their Alibaba presence better organised and categorised.

Maybe I should offer... ?

10 months ago

John Sinke

John Sinke, Assistant Vice President Digital Marketing & e-Commerce at Resorts World Sentosa

Jeff, great follow-up article and very relevant for my team and I here, as we're trying to manage English and Chinese language websites here in Singapore.

10 months ago

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Gracy Liur, SEO Contributor at SEO

Why not bro brands even in india are creating their own web desings to reflect our culture and more over they are making different ads for promotion.
http://www.couponmachine.in/stores/indiatimesshopping-coupons

10 months ago

Robert Stam

Robert Stam, Owner at SEO Mandarin

One big reason why Chinese design is behind is I think because of the CMS systems they use. There's beautifully pre-designed CMS systems that we use in the West without having to design much you can create something beautiful.

When I use the Wordpress CMS to make a Chinese website for a client I always have to remove some Java/Ajax coded plugins so the Chinese search engines can read the plain html. Also have to pay more attention to mobile design, although that's a topic for another day.

8 months ago

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