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What We Can Learn from the Digital Platypus
What We Can Learn from the Digital Platypus
Far from being UX laggards, Chinese platforms hold many valuable lessons for UX designers all over the world.
The platypus is an animal that lives in Australia, it inhabits little ponds and basins and probably it’s the most extraordinary animal that you can ever meet.
If you happen to stumble upon this furry thing you’ll notice that it lives a very peaceful life. It uses its beak equipped with electromagnetic receptors to find prey, it lays eggs like a bird, but it breastfeeds its offspring, like a mammal.
This cute animal is not a prank of Mother Nature, it perfectly represents the theory of evolution. In his own pond, the platypus is the king.
The Chinese digital ecosystem, is a huge, huge pond in which many different kind of platypus swim freely and undisturbed every day. One of these platypus evolved into what we call Chinese UX.
Digital in China evolved in an enclosed environment, separated from the influence of Google, Facebook and other tech companies that in one way or another have influenced the way the user interacts with a digital product.
Like the platypus, Chinese UX is often baffling for outside observers and non-Chinese speakers. Too often these particularities are simply blamed on some sort of Chinese UX ‘backwardness’ with the implicit assumption that China will converge towards the western UX approach as time goes. This however is very far from the truth. On the contrary, Chinese approaches to UX are in many areas highly advanced, offering a fresh take on certain conventions that the western world can learn from. In this article we offer an overview of the key specificities of Chinese UX design along with what brands outside of China can learn from them.
The Chinese language is unique because of its characters. Chinese characters typically allow for more information density but also offer less flexibility in terms of design. Put simply: tricks such as bold, uppercase or italics simply do not work in Chinese. The question then becomes: how do designers get around this limitation to create a clear content hierarchy and avoid the feeling of text overload?
Many westerners assume font to be a main source of attention for Chinese UX, due to the well-known cultural significance of calligraphy. Actually the majority of Chinese fonts cannot be embedded into a website. Most Chinese websites use a similar variant of SimSum so font cannot be a solution.
Colors represent one solution that designers do use to overcome this issue. Different textual elements are grouped through the use of font or background colors to structure pages and clearly separate different items.
Going one step further designers can substitute visual elements in place of text, especially when segmenting the user journey by branded options. This allows for total variation in font, color, and size of text, creating more engaging UI by showcasing the brand signature.
One of the main differences between the western and the Chinese UX system is that the latter evolved very recently, in a world dominated by mobile phones and plagued by selfies. A natural consequence of this condition is that the user expects to experience the UI in a vertical layout. The information is stacked one on top of the other and, free from the obsession of what happens “below the fold”, the UX designer doesn’t have to worry much about the length of the copy, as long as the viewport is always filled with the right amount of information organized in a hierarchical way.
The visual elements on the pages, like video and images are now in a vertical format, reflecting the orientation of the device where they are usually generated.
When we talk about UX in China we can’t forget the propensity of the Chinese user to experience shopping mostly on mobile, compared to the Western habit of using the mobile website only for product exploration. The consequences are that mobile websites are fitted with all the elements to maturate the purchase decision, like testimonial quotes, WeChat/Alipay integrated payment methods and detailed imagery.
Another different practice is that because of the different typing experience on mobile and on Chinese keyboards, and because of a cultural preference towards clicking rather than searching, the information tends to be displayed in crowded textual menus, which appear long and busy to the western eye.
The conversational UI, driven by WeChat’s official accounts, is an established practice in China, while in the Western Countries it’s emerging only in recent times, with Facebook Messenger and Kik (funded by Tencent).
If you are a brand that wants to talk to your users on WeChat, you make an official account, which allows you to send out news blasts and promotions to users, and also gives the users a channel to talk back. Questions can be handled via simple chatbots. Kik has replicated this method for the United States.
Experiencing an app or SaaS in a conversational environment helped developing new chatbot technologies for the Chinese market, like Microsoft’s Xiaobing, created exclusively for China. Xiaobing is an advanced AI chatbot that uses machine learning to have full conversations on WeChat.
Besides simple and advanced chatbots, there are other methods. Brands often forget that conversational interface is simply an interface, and there is always someone behind it. Whether it is a computer program girlfriend like Xiaobing or a live feed with a Laoban on Taobao is dependent on a brand’s communication goals.
The Chinese digital ecosystem developed an icon language based on the main user’s needs:
- DISCOVERY: a “Discovery” option is used to group all the elements that can’t be placed in first level of navigation. Under the Discovery button we have personalization options and complementary features of the application.
- SAFETY: a “Shield” icon is often used to mark a security feature like secure payments or refund guarantee.
- ACCESSIBILITY: a floating round button is used to quickly access core features. The button invokes the iPhone’s “assistive touch” function that is very popular amongst the Chinese users.
- ICON MENU: a list of circular menu icons at the top of a page is common practice recently, to give the user an overall site layout from the main page.
Observing the extremely particular pond in which the Chinese UX has been generated can be not only a source of inspiration for the Western companies, but also a privileged opportunity for peeking in which direction the future of digital products is evolving. Looking thorough the correct lens we can see that the morphology of the Chinese digital platypus could be applied in more cases then expected, now and in the future.