User Interface (UI) pertains to how something looks aesthetically, while User Experience (UX) pertains to how a user interacts with either a digital platform or even a non-digital object. The easiest way I have found to understand the difference between the two is by reading this quote:

Something that looks great but is difficult to use is exemplary of great UI and poor UX. While Something very usable that looks terrible is exemplary of great UX and poor UI. — Helga Moreno,

To the Western eye, Chinese-style UI/UXs are typically perceived to be mind-bogglingly over-engineered and all over the place (note: “Western” in this article shall hereby pertain to North American and Western European context, as the author is unsure about user preferences in e.g. East European countries). In summary, Westerners typically find Chinese apps and websites both visually unappealing (i.e. bad UI) and hard to use (i.e. bad UX). This can be explained as due to present day Western aesthetic standards which trend towards clean and minimalist, “elegant” designs. Let’s take a look at a paired example to illustrate this point.

Tencent vs Google News:

TenCent's User Experience is different from Google
TenCent’s main page with mostly news
 TenCent's User Experience is different from Google
Google News’ main page

One of the main comparisons that can be made between Tencent news and Google news is that Chinese websites tend to have more words/information and call-to-actions than Western ones; Western websites tend to be cleaner and have more pictures.

In the book “6 Billion Shoppers” by Porter Erisman, Erisman recounts a talk given to the rest of Google by ex-head of Google China, Kai-fu Lee (back in the day when Google was still in China). In the talk, Kai-fu had said that in various lab studies done for tracking user eye movement on, American Google customers typically went straight for the search box, whereas Chinese users’ eyes typically skipped around the entire website as if looking for little surprises and visual stimulation. These findings from the lab study above are not conclusive, but cursorily affirm the Chinese preference for a more complicated UI/UX.

The questions that should then follow with reference to the Southeast Asian context are —

  1. Why do the Chinese prefer a more complicated UI/UX?
  2. Is a complicated UI/UX necessarily bad UI/UX?
  3. What do Southeast Asians prefer given that we see apps here with both Western and Chinese UI/UXs?

1.Why do the Chinese prefer a more complicated UI/UX?

There have been some theories that have been put out there by avid observers of both Western and Chinese cultures on Quora and other blogs, that perhaps this is due to the fact that Chinese language, or Chinese characters to be precise, are far more complicated than Roman alphabets. Without further proper user research, I have a similar hypothesis that this complicated “diagram” that already exists in their language and culture is a microcosm of how Chinese design looks like today. To illustrate this complexity, the most complicated (and already simplified) Chinese character has 43 strokes in it. Don’t fret though, the average number of strokes is supposedly (from a Quora user) about 10.6.

“Biang” or Biang biang mian, is a type of noodle dish in Shaanxi province, China. The traditional character has 57 strokes instead of 43 strokes for the simplified character.

2. Is a complicated UI/UX necessarily bad UI/UX?

Given the cultural context, my take on the Chinese vs Western UI/UX debate is that it would be culturally insensitive and dismissive to impose Western-centric standards of UI/UX on these Chinese Internet companies, especially given the fact that consumer is king after all and will inform how you should go about designing and creating your products. To illustrate how enthusiastic Chinese online consumerism is in spite of the Western-labelled “bad UI/UX”, Taobao/Alibaba’s Singles Day has raked in a whopping USD25.3 billion in 2017 in one day alone, which is roughly twice the total US sales from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday in 2016 (USD12.8 billion). Seriously, how can such a behemoth of an e-commerce company be so wrong in their UI/UX if they can generate twice the amount of sales of Amazon in a somewhat comparable holiday season?

To put it slightly differently, let’s try to see this from a single consumer perspective to take away the impact of population scale as China has about 4x the population of the US. There are roughly 500 million middle-class Chinese consumers in China, so if you very crudely assume that this is the predominant type of population bracket that would consume most of Taobao’s goods online, that would equate to an average spend of USD50/person on Single’s Day 2017; Comparatively, given an American middle class of 150 million people, this would equate to a higher average spend of c.USD87/person during the holiday period. 87 is still higher than 50, but this achievement is no small feat for the Chinese, given that the GDP per capita of the US is roughly 7x that of China’s (whereas 87/50 = 1.7x).

Some other theories given by my colleagues/friends (who also work in tech in SEA) behind the mystery of the more complex Chinese UI/UX would include:

  • Malls are an integral part of Chinese (and most other Asian) consumerist culture, thus Taobao is by extension merely a digital version of a physical mall, where one goes to browse through many shops in order to figure out what to buy. Contrast this with the more American use case where one would usually go on Amazon to actively look for something they know they already want to buy.
  • Chinese are financially diligent and are always looking for the bang for their buck in everything they consume. Hence, this can extend to the digital real estate space where “more” equates to “better”, and that blank space is merely a waste of space.

3. What about the Southeast Asian preference for UI/UX?

Bringing this back to the SEA tech space, what do Southeast Asians prefer in terms of UI/UX? Being in the e-commerce space here, it seems that we have observed both the Western and Chinese style of design being commercially successful in most markets (e.g. Lazada vs Shopee). Lazada (formerly German-owned by Rocket Internet) represents the Western school of UI/UX thought whereas Shopee (primarily Chinese investment and human capital) represents the Chinese school of UI/UX thought. So what gives? Do Southeast Asians even have a preference?

This question has been the top of my mind ever since joining the e-commerce scene in SEA. However, I have not been able to find any public articles or surveys done to inquire about this difference between two philosophically different, but still commercially successful products. Thus, one of my hypotheses thus far (to be proven or disproven one day hopefully, with actual data) would be that SEA just happens to be a place that is largely influenced by much more dominant economies/cultures around it. SEA is and has always been too small to stand its own ground and not be swayed by the torrential forces from opposing ends. Since the beginning of SEA history, the region has been colonized (with exception of Thailand) and accepted influence from both the East, the West and even the Middle East.

My other simpler hypothesis is that Southeast Asians are very price sensitive — this is an emerging market after all — so perhaps they are just looking for the best bang for their buck. In summary, maybe this just means whichever player offers them the cheapest products, the best discounts, and free shipping wins their hearts for now. Ironically though, this “last man standing” strategy to outspend and outgrow your competition is quite a common Chinese business strategy (especially seen in the Chinese manufacturing industry). What is for sure though, is that the SEA tech story has only just begun.

Sources include:

Contributed by Caroline Kay


About Caroline

One of those darn job-hopping millennials who is passionately curious about the business and technological undercurrents that change and shape Southeast Asia. I’ve worked in finance, consulting, and am currently a payments product manager, so you know I have a serious case of FOMO/constant soul searching. The thread that links them all together – an appreciation of how money and finance make the world go round and round. Throw in the speed of tech and you get a hurricane. Needless to say, I like fintech.


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