To what extent are design aesthetics influenced by culture? A comment from an industry mentor prompted me to explore the question. In this article (my first Medium article, yay!), I will evaluate popular designs from China and North America, highlight key differences, and offer my opinion on the field of UX in China. If you have users from China or East Asia, read on! You just might understand them a bit better.
Before I begin, I wanted to mention that my solid understanding of both cultures should provide a fair commentary on the topic. I grew up in Shanghai, China and emigrated to Canada when I was eleven years old. Initially, I barely spoke English — jokes on the Simpsons made no sense. But soon I mastered English while staying updated with the lifestyle and cultural trends of both China and North America.
I didn’t know this bicultural mindset would be reflected in my designs. When I first started in UX and showed my visual designs to a industry mentors for feedback, comments I got were:
- “It’s too much.”
- “You need more white space.”
- “I think your design aesthetic might be influenced by your background.”
He meant it in the nicest way and he was right! I started to think about the designs I’m used to seeing and how they differ from the UX principles I learned in school. Most of the Chinese websites and apps I used looked like this:
This landing page is one of the most popular ones across China. To North Americans, it probably looks cluttered, overwhelming, and busy. But I was used to this type of look. I could scan over the headlines quickly and still find whatever information I needed. A few language-specific reasons might explain why Chinese websites simply look visually busier than similar websites in English.
- Chinese characters, with complicated and endless combinations of “strokes” (example below), look more dense than English alphabets by default. Typically, knowledge of 3000 different characters are needed to read a newspaper! They are difficult to write, trust me.
- NospacesareneededbetweenwordsinChinese. As a result, lines of Chinese text lack breathing space by default.
- No Capitalization in Chinese (see how I purposely capitalized there?). Capitalization visually separates sentences in English, but it’s not feasible in Chinese, which just has one case for the characters.
Side Note: Japanese and Korean also share the characteristics I mentioned, but they have their own unique attributes which I can’t comment on.
In addition to the reasons above, I found some more differences that seem to underlie Chinese and Western designs.
- Font Size
In design school we are taught the value of hierarchy defined by typography, especially for text-rich content. Medium.com does a great job — clearly differentiating between article titles and subtitles. But as you saw earlier in the Chinese website example, every word seems to be the same font size, even the headings, except they have a different colour. Since users have shorter attention spans these days (8 seconds to be exact), clearer hierarchies defined by font size and colour can make it easier for users to scan content, regardless of the language.
2. White Space
White space is highly emphasized in Western designs, some even calling it more important than the content it surrounds. The example website we saw has nowhere near as much white space as Medium.com, I would argue in the range of 40% less.
The lack of white space aesthetic might stem from the underlying cultural notion that space is limited and precious. It’s better to show that a business has a ton of information and products to offer rather than risk not showing enough and appearing inferior.
Having lived in Shanghai with 24 million residents, I can tell you that lack of space is a true concern that somehow found its way to designs. It’s probably why I struggled with the idea of white space when I first started UX — I wanted users to see everything in one place.
Another reason to explain the lack of white space might be the smaller screen sizes when smartphones first proliferated in Asia. However, with growing smartphone screen sizes — as supported by Apple’s latest XS Max with a whopping 6.5 inch screen, it should be easier to apply white space.
3. Information Architecture
When I analyzed popular Chinese apps, I found that they all have many categories of choices in no particular order. Take a look below:
On these home screens, you can do everything from looking at exchange rates, to confirming a restaurant reservation and paying for it before arrival. It may be the nature of these conglomerate app companies, but many other popular Chinese apps do the same.
There does not seem to be clear logic behind the ordering of certain icons, categories, and links. My guess is that they are ordered solely by click rates or ad revenue. The result is that the learning curve for a new user is steeper, having to explore more and memorize the locations of useful icons and links.