Observations on Chinese design - how worst practices create competitive advantage

Joren Bredman

I recently joined Mirabeau after living in China for six years. When comparing cultures, it is an easy mistake to think in terms of ‘better’ and worse’; I have learned this is invalid – cultures are ‘different’, and provide an opportunity to see our own processes in another perspective.

In this blog I write about observations on “the Chinese approach”, which can create competitive advantage in China. While considered bad practice in the West, I hope it inspires critical thinking on our assumptions in design, and how culture specific these assumptions are.

These are personal thoughts and opinions; China is large, and there are generalizations.

The Chinese digital market is maturing rapidly and tapping the possibilities of a huge, homogeneous internal market. Digital solutions “with Chinese characteristics” are catching up and in ways surpassing the West, e.g. the fast, comprehensive service provided by e-commerce platform Taobao.

Where giants like Tencent and Baidu were operating with government protectionism (e.g. the Great Firewall blocking international competitors), they’ve matured to a unique offer tailored to the Chinese user base.

Taobao-Boeing Want to buy a Boeing? You can find it on Taobao.

Assumption 1: Think Responsive

The Chinese digital market is extremely young. In 2000, only 1.8% (22M) of the Chinese population had internet access; it reached 52.2% (720M) in 2016. Just 8 years ago, main access to internet was a “wangba”, or Internet Café; desktop-based and low internet speeds. Currently mobile adoption is higher in China than in the West, with 60% using mobile as main internet device.

Internet Cafe Internet cafes used to be an affordable source of internet access, until mobile made them obsolete.

While the West adopted responsive design during the rise of mobile, this was largely skipped in China, where native apps became preferred. A practical problem with mobile web is that fonts can’t be embedded, as they can be more than 12MB. As designers are stuck with pre-installed fonts, this made it hard to craft lovable online experiences, resorting to flash and images to display custom text.

The rise of mobile gave designers full creative control, embedding fonts in app downloads. As a result, many businesses use native apps as the core digital touchpoint. While sites can support responsiveness, functionality is often limited, with aggressive prompts to install their app.

In restaurants, it’s not uncommon to get a discount for installing their app; you show your phone to the waiter as prove. Many of my friends actively looked for these opportunities, when out for dinner with a group. A colleague UX researcher commented “Chinese are more sensitive to the feeling of a good deal – and are willing to try a lot of new things to get these incentives”. The barrier to download an app is smaller in China than here in de West.

CBC China Merchants Bank’s website is not responsive. Two QR codes invite users to the app.

Without custom typography, brand expression in web is limited. Companies use native apps rather than websites to differentiate; deviating from visual as well as platform guidelines. Combine this with mobile phone manufacturers creating their own Android flavor, and Chinese got used to a mishmash of patterns and ‘figuring out’ an app.

Assumption 2: Design needs focus and simplicity

An example of breaking design patterns is the most popular social app in China – Tencent’s WeChat. From Western design point of view, there are many problems – unclear entry points or categorizations, iOS design on Android and deep, hidden functionality. Huge contrast with WhatsApp’s simple, focused design.

However, Chinese are often amazed why anyone would prefer WhatsApp. To them, it’s too simple. Besides chat functionality, WeChat has:

  • Facebook-like timeline/statuses

  • Direct payments

  • Business accounts

  • Browser

  • Gifs

  • Instant recharging of water, phone & electricity bills

  • “Log in with”

  • Uber like cab hailing

  • Etc, etc..

It had voice messages and video calling long before WhatsApp had these options.

During dinner with a friend, we decided to go see a movie. Using WeChat, he found the cinema closest to us, reserved seats, completed payment and received a QR receipt. We could walk directly into the cinema. He was very impressed this was possible in WeChat.

However, he got stuck in the interaction and had to ask a waiter to explain the process. While the interaction was unintuitive, once established he was happy to adopt. It’s common for friends to recommend and introduce new features and explain them. Similarly, it’s common to see advertisements with step-by-step instructions to “help” the user navigate.

Ad-example *Advertisement with 5-step “how to” instructions *

To Chinese, “what can be done” is critical. The career site 51job is the place to visit for HR. While it’s design is confusing, no website with better UX has come close to its market position; to Chinese, it’s the functionality that matters over the form.

This proves to me Chinese are more accepting of “non-logic”. Adding more and more functionality without a UX strategy is a recipe for disaster in the West, but can work in China; users might see the worse design, but don’t turn to a compititor because they get done what they set out to do.

51job 51jobs landing page for the last 8 years. Note that it recently had a redesign.  

I believe this is not just habituation – there’s a cultural factor. Psychologist Richard Nisbett argues that in China, evolution of thought placed less importance on logic and more on harmony. To maintain harmony in relationships, Chinese would hold different views depending their interactions. Thus, they learned to holding mutually exclusive views, that logically couldn’t be unified. As a result, I believe Chinese users are more lenient towards logic (e.g. interaction) flaws than Western users.

Assumption 3: Less is more

Chinese websites often remind me of 1995 design. For example, popular news service sina.com looks like the original MSN homepage. It’s easy to write this off as China lagging behind.

Sina Popular website Sina.com vs 1995 MSN design  

This is not lagging, but an active design choice, based on their users. In contrary to Latin, Mandarin is an iconographic language. While Chinese might not read faster, Mandarin has higher information density, and some reading processes make it easier to take this in; e.g. Chinese don’t rely on subvocalization and simplified grammar makes it easier to filter out critical information.

Nisbett argues Asians have a more holistic (focus on surrounding and background) rather than atomistic (focus on target) cognitive approach. Indeed, a Chinese colleague in Holland commented she felt these layouts convenient, as it was easy to derive categories and orient quickly. There’s a saying “一目十行”, which means “Reading ten lines at the same time”.

Subway sign English translation in Chinese subway with unnecessary information density.  

This information density also surfaces elsewhere: information posters or Powerpoint presentations are often cramped. While many non-portal sites are not as cluttered as Sina.com, there’s still often dense. While creating cognitive overload in Latin, to Chinese it’s convenient; all options and navigation easily accessible, reducing the need for more minimalist design.

Taobao Taobao.com second level menu is cluttered  

It should be noted many businesses use focused design, such as the Tencent website or HydrogenOS, OnePlus’s Chinese UI.

OnePlus OS Many OEMs have a custom China ROM. OnePlus uses a focused, Material-based approach.  

Assumption 4: QR is dead

QR codes never caught on in the West; in 2013, 80% of Americans never scanned a QR code. Mobile devices don’t come with a pre-installed QR scanner.

In China, QR is omnipresent, because they solved a specific issue; it’s impossible to find a friend by name, due to common characters and huge urban centers. Searching for my wife’s name in Beijing will get over 100K results. In early 2008, users connected through QQ. This social service used numbers longer than phone numbers for accounts; terrible to share or remember. WeChat introduced QR codes in 2010; scan someone, instantly get their info and add them. QR was welcomed and adopted.

As QR entered daily use, extra functionality integrated easily. WeChat serving as main QR entrance created low barrier for adoption. Recently, QR is used everywhere for money transfer. Most of my friends don’t bring a wallet, as they can pay everywhere by phone. Even without a phone, a print-out of QR code allows payments, as many small vendors use.

Fruit vendor A friend paying a local fruit vendor. Note the printed out QR code in her basket to easily receive money.

QR Beggar Even beggars use QR codes to receive donation  

Assumption 5: Creativity will lead innovation

“Made in China” used to mean bad quality copy, although that reputation is rapidly improving. There’s a culturally different take on originality due to Confucian society and education, reinforcing conformity over creativity. While lecturing, I often sit with students and explain they couldn’t plagiarize – they couldn’t grasp why it was immoral. Copyright laws are rarely enforced and copied design and/or products are not seen as inherently bad.

We might think copying can’t create industry leaders. However, Xiaomi started out by copying iPhone:

iOS vs Xiaomi 1


iOs vs Xiaomi 2 Xiaomi’s OS and apps were “influenced” by iOS


They created a unique KSP: an “iPhone system” for a fraction of the cost, making them extremely popular, seen as smart business and value-for-money. While their corporate culture lacks creativity, market share allowed them to invest in promising start-ups with creative ideas, driving innovation externally. Being responsive to customers allowed them to expand into other product markets. Now a leading brand in China, they have limited sales abroad due to copyright restrictions. Many of my friends have a Xiaomi phone and are ravid advocates of the brand.

China’s huge market means market share is a critical factor. Originality is good, but if you can “steal” an idea and execute faster and better, you’re successful while the inventor fails. This creates situations like the many bike-sharing services, all offering the same deal.

Bike mess Bike sharing ‘mess’ of competitors offering the same deal, vying for market share.


Assumption 6: Add value, but don’t harass the user

The battle for market share also creates much more aggressive marketing. Western design should be there when needed, but not intrude, creating long term user loyalty. In China, advertisement methods are much, much more aggressive.

For example, apps commonly have persistent notifications with dubious relevancy or spam users with notifications by default. News aggregator Toutiao’s KSP is content recommendation; they push so hard that when installed, you’ll receive multiple notifications per hour.

Ad spam Notification spam: Chinese phone manufacturers often add blocking functionality to their phones to protect users.


Toutiao also injects html through Beijing’s 4G network ISP provider, showing a hovering, expandable button above many websites – impossible to opt out. Many users accept this, even though many are not subscribers. The huge 4G user base makes it worthwhile to be aggressive, even with a small conversion rate. Similar aggressive marketing strategies are used in design and development, using dark patterns and flirting with privacy violation boundaries.

While in the West these tactics wouldn’t lead to sustainable user loyalty, many Chinese businesses became successful because of them – driving the initial growth that gave them the market share. With both small as well as large companies using aggressive and intrusive incentives, users got used to them.

To outcompete, aggression can help – even in the long run.

Assumption 7: “Professional” visual design

What is considered professional is influenced by culture. For example, crafting friendships, giving and receiving personal gifts and business dinners are an essential part of professional relationships in China. Especially in smaller companies, it’s common to see prospects appear at a job interview in full casual. I remember once seeing a girl arrive for an interview in all-pink (but she didn’t get the position).

Pink suit This outfit was too unprofessional even for the CEO of my start-up.  

There are also differences in what is considered in visual design. In the West cartoons are seen as specifically for kids, while in China, it’s common to see this aimed at adults. For example, government campaigns often use a “cartoon” style for official dissemination of public information.  

Warning David & Xiaoli “David and Xiaoli”, an official ad published around Beijing. It’s common to see official announcements and regulations ‘explained’ in cartoons.


Subway Elderly An advertisement from the subway transit company


Similarly, cute panda’s, cartoony adaptation of movie characters like Baymax or the Avengers are commonplace both in advertisements as well as interface design. Onboarding flows, error statuses and other information points often contain very informal cartoons. While in the West we have some freedom in 404's, there is a difference in the amount of cartoony that's acceptable.

Working for corporate, I often had to adjust the professionalism of the visual designers I worked with – especially for the commercial segment. Finally, I made a joke as rule of thumb – if they thought the design was boring, it’s professional enough for the West.  

404 this kind of cartoon is very common during onboarding, splash screens and advertisements as well as 404.

While in Western design there’s a level of informality as well – depending on the user base – there is still a difference. Here, we create emotional bonds using imagery and photography. There’s a tendency towards more minimalistic and clean design, giving focus to the content. While the user guides us, we need to be careful of professional bias; if it’s the default approach to take, we’ll guide the user as a base for adjustment, where something even more informal might resonate better. Indeed, some brands like Simpel (“double double” campaign) explicitly use more comical and cartoonish elements – creating a different emotional impact from the clean and slick one we designers are grown to love.  

An afterthought

Note that the examples above are generalizations. For every point, there are many examples that prove the opposite. A new movement of (online and offline) brand design creates beautiful, minimalistic concepts. Many (larger) businesses are moving more towards a design thinking and design centers similar to that in the West. However, in the rat race to tap this emerging market, companies applying both types of design have proven to be successful.

InWeCha “YinWeiCha”, a minimalistic designed tea brand in Beijing, China.  

It might be that China indeed ‘catches up’, and will use more global design concepts. However, the Chinese government has recently tightened control on the Chinese digital market, explaining that they are trying to “protect the Chinese culture”. In its own way, the Chinese market will evolve, and I’m very interested to see what new design patterns will emerge that we as the West can learn from.