Web Design: China vs. the West

One of the most exciting opportunities as a marketer stems from the challenge of growing the pie. Everyone is always looking out past their current situation, trying to discover new lands where customers unknowingly want a product that hasn’t even been introduced to them yet. Today’s global hotspot for this kind of thinking is China, where a rush of companies from all over the globe has decided to enter the dragon. Unfortunately, many organizations don’t truly (or worse, don’t care to) understand the cultural sensitivities of this unique market. One of the areas where we see this most prominently is in web design and e-commerce.

Let’s look at hospitality chains as an example. In China, some of the largest chains are opening at least one property per week across the country. The growth rate is incredible. However, scope out their website and you’ll find something that is counterproductive to their brands’ growth; a website that has been built or launched from a “western” perspective, with little or no thought to how the local market manages their web experience. While the site looks beautiful in the eye of the beholder, a deep dive into analytics will show a lack of usability, click through, and ultimately low conversion.

I’m not saying it’s all bad. There are a lot of companies that are, today, starting to hire consultants, experts, or working with their teams in the field to reengineer their web experience. The organization must, however, be willing to meet in a happy medium if they really want to localize the user experience; somewhere in the middle where localized functionally and design meet a consistent brand experience.

When designing your website for another culture, there are several things that need to be taken into consideration. Here I list five of the key aspects of usability, focused on China but surely usable across other cultures and languages, as well.

1. Don’t become lost in translation: This is the most obvious of the list, but ensure you employ the services of a quality, highly skilled translator with experience in website or online translation work. I cannot count the number of translation mistakes I have found on even the most premium of branded websites. Google Translate most definitely does not count.

2. Get clicking: We are in the midst of a change; some of China’s largest portals (Sohu, for example) are changing the way they manage design. However the bulk of Chinese design still integrates a “Click more, type less) approach. Many sites include a lot of information (often in text or animation) on their homepage as a way to display loads of content to users who can quickly scroll through and click without typing for information. In Asian-kanji characters, it’s much easier to click through than to type a search query, so this “loaded homepage” layout works very well for these users.

3. Cultural values: I recently saw an online landing page for Pizza Hut in China. I couldn’t find any images or a description of food! However, the landing page utilized colorful red (Chinese New Year) backdrops and most importantly, iconic imaging of a family enjoying a meal. The promotion was in fact a Chinese New Year pizza campaign. However, at first glance it was more a warm and fuzzy ad that catered to the dining event, not the product. Being culturally relevant is important and should translate into design and creative across your site and campaigns.

Side note: for an interesting, English review of hot stories in China and translated texts of Chinese netizen reactions, checkout Chinasmack.com (http://chinasmack.com/) (Warning: due to sometimes graphic content, this site is for 18+ users only)

5. Localize your shopping cart: I will use a Chinese example here. Although changing, Chinese netizens are still often leery about the use of credit cards for online payment. At a property I previously worked for, we saw tremendous traffic to the booking engine, but a huge drop out when customers were asked to put in their credit card or personally identifiable information (PII). Consider changing the way customers purchase from you. This may be as drastic as offering a half online/half offline approach (payment occurs over the phone or offline). Many of China’s largest e-commerce portals integrate this method (Ctrip.com, as an example) and see amazing success.

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