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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.
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!