Chinese vs. Western: Cultural Differences in Web Design

Chinese vs. Western: Cultural Differences in Web Design

Most business owners want global recognition for their brand, and going online is a very effective way of bridging between countries. However, there’s one thing that web developers and company execs need to understand in terms of global marketing: cultural differences in web design.

In the U.S., the current web design standards include responsive (or mobile-friendly) site layouts, flat design, one-page templates, infinite scrolling, and lots of white space to allow the eyes to breathe. While these design elements sound pretty good for the Western part of the world, that’s not necessarily the case for China.

Many businesses around the world are aiming to capture the huge market potential of China, which is still surprisingly untapped in some fields at this point in time. This probably stems from the fact that the Chinese government has strict measures on web protocols and Internet browsing. As a result, your business might not get a good reception in China as you would expect it, no matter how amazing or trendsetting your products or services are.

Cultural Differences in Web Design

Do you think your website is ready for Chinese users?

On top of that, web design in China is totally different from the U.S. Web design experts here in the West have graduated from putting too much content on the homepage (remember the old, content-heavy Yahoo! homepage in the 90s?), but it seems that China hasn’t. Does this mean that Chinese web design is running obsolete already?

The truth is in the language

The Chinese language uses characters that represent entire words. That’s a stark contrast from English, where each character represents just a single letter and doesn’t mean anything by itself.

Western websites have moved away from content-heavy homepages and started to rely on built-in search to lead site visitors to the content that they need. That’s easy to do for the English language. After all, standard search functionality can weed out suffixes and plural forms to focus on the root term, much like how Google can extract the root word “play” from search terms like “playing” and “played”.

That’s not the case with the Chinese language, though. As a result, search is fairly limited and the right results may be difficult to produce.

The Chinese workaround: lots of links on web pages

Because of search limitation, Chinese websites tend to have everything on the homepage, including several links. Many of their websites don’t have a search box, except for Baidu, the most visited website in China and their version of Google.

Many of China’s portal and gateway pages are designed to have a ton of links pointed to internal pages and other areas of the site that their followers might need. In a way, Chinese web design follows the style reminiscent of the old portal sites in the U.S. Check out these screencaps from the old Yahoo! website and the current version of Chinese online media website QQ.com.

Cultural Differences in Web Design

Yahoo! version 2001

Cultural Differences in Web Design

Chinese website QQ.com (March 2016)

Is Chinese web design falling behind?

This cultural and linguistic fondness for link-heavy pages makes Chinese websites appear as if their web developers have been living under a rock, while the world stood witness to web design upgrades (infinite scrolling, one-page templates, and the like). However, there may be a few potential reasons why a lot of Chinese websites still follow this kind of design:

  • Content over aesthetics. People in China may not be too particular when it comes to design. As long as online users get the content that they want, the look of the site doesn’t matter.
  • Affinity for a one-stop shop. Much like how convenience stores are all the rage in Asia, a site homepage with a lot of links might gain more success in China than websites with lots of white space.

The issue: use of white space

Cultural Differences in Web Design

All of the things we’ve discussed this far somehow point to one fundamental observation: Chinese web design maximizes page space, while Western web design wastes it. In the same way that Americans may wonder why Chinese websites look too crowded, we should also ask ourselves why U.S. websites look so empty.

So now that we know the difference of Chinese and Western web design in terms of using page space, aren’t you wondering why American web designers have reached this point of having too much white space? There a simple and logical explanation for that.

Mobile friendliness has become a standard

Web pages with too much textual content might look alright on large desktop screens, but your site’s mobile visitors may probably be squinting just to read your content. The world’s fascination for mobile devices – particularly in Western countries – has led to mobile friendliness as a Google search ranking signal. Western site designers had to adjust the site layout to make things look better on mobile gadgets. It’s because of this that website visitors are now seeing more space on a desktop view.

So which one is the correct web design?

This article got me into thinking about which kind of web design is correct and which one isn’t. My answer? It depends on the cultural perspective of your target market. If you have China as your main target audience, you need to follow their web design preference for a one-stop website.