Chinese Web Design From A Western Perspective

April 28, 2011 — This article attempts to clarify why Chinese web design is the way is its. Why is there so much unrelated content on one page? Why are there so many moving items? Why do all the links open in new windows? How do Chinese users handle the disorganization?

web design in China

Our web design company employs a number of Americans  who have lived and worked in China for several years, working in design, web design and IT here, and some even proficient in Chinese and still one of our favorite  things to complain about is Chinese websites. This article attempts to clarify why Chinese websites are the way they are. Please note that there do exist quality Chinese website designs, and popular websites with more user-friendly designs than normal. They are merely hard to find, and still manage to retain the influence of those websites which turn Westerners away.

the anomaly of the common web interface in China

To understand why anything is the way it is in China, like Chinese web design, you must first place the subject in the proper context and remember that there is a reason for everything. Chinese web design is not bad—it is just difficult to find designs that appear to Westerners. Let us consider Chinese web interfaces an anomaly to be explained.

Chinese Website Examples

Below is a random sampling from the top 100 Chinese websites, each chosen based on the results of an online vote. These websites are common examples of what Westerner's cannot stand about browsing a Chinese website. Feel free to open a few (they will open in a new window):

As you can see, large blocks of text compete with each other for space, and advertisements force their way into the matrix of information, each tall enough to require a lot of scrolling to view it all. Such a design is the opposite of accepted principles of quality web design. There are several reasons for why Chinese websites do not follow these guidelines—the following sections are just a few.

give the boss what he wants

To understand a website design, it may help to view it not from a designer's perspective, nor even a user's perspective, but the perspective of the boss who paid for the website be built. The workplace in China is focused around doing just enough, and avoiding conflict. Websites are built just as programmers are told to build them. Certain business perspectives here commonly assume a website should achieve the following goals:

  • Keep customers on the website
  • Catch a customer's attention
  • Offer the customer all the information in the simplest way
  • Supply plenty of content and appealing images

When the following goals are set, the result is a great deal of content on one page with occasional images as text scenery, and enough links to keep the customer occupied. Occasional moving text, or flashing images keep the users eyes moving, which will hopefully lead them to something else they might like. The more opportunity to interest a user, the better. Though a Westerner would view the result as a maze of unnecessary fluff to get lost in, the business behind the website would view the result as having met its goals and looking as though it has more content than its competitors.

browsing speed in China

China is about the size of the United States, but with at least three times the number of internet users. Several internet users here are using an internet connection shared from an already shared internet connection. And many users are browsing on old or slow computers, browsers, and operating systems. Our article about the prevalence of Windows XP and Internet Explorer 6 will explain that further. A website built for this country needs to take this into account, which is a major reason for:

  • Text-heavy content
  • Low-resolution images
  • Pages full of links (that each open in a new window)

The first two items are apparent, but wouldn't a long page full of links take longer to load? Yes, but the goal is to only load it once, and the user will be able to navigate all content the website has to offer without clicking through new pages or even moving the mouse at all. And when a link is clicked, it loads in a new window—this has two benefits: 1) multiple pages can be loading simultaneously (just like tabbed browsing), and 2) a user does not need to press the back button and wait for the previous page to reload.

More About Links Opening in New Windows

There is more to links opening in new windows than just internet bandwidth. Certain big-name web companies gather advertisers interest by measuring the length of time a visitor is on their website (regardless if it is a window the user may have neglected to close). And just as useful for businesses, more new windows belonging to one website that are open above, prevent users from easily finding other websites' windows below. Many Chinese users getting on the internet now are also getting on the computer for the first time, and it is easier to scroll and click than it is to type into a search box, or to become familiar with navigation concepts like drop-down menus or flash creativity.

The information in this paragraph accredited to Mr. Denlinger from his reply to a post at Quora.com.

not a lack of design talent, but a lack of IT talent

Please know that there do exist well-designed Chinese websites (albeit some are Flash). Below are a few examples (they will open in a new window):

In a response to an article elsewhere about a Westrner's view on Chinese websites, one Chinese user replied:

个人觉得什么国人审美、汉字在网页上的效果、一群不懂设计的人在掌控设计都不是根本原因。根本就是因为一部分国内IT人不要强,同时还拿以上那些理由当说辞让自己永远吃老本混饭碗,不上进无追求。而且这些人直接影响十几亿网民和无数同行的价值观和审美。

Everyone, regardless of country, appreciates beauty. Regarding the appearance of Chinese characters on the internet, the blame does not fall on a group of un-skilled designers attempting to design. The primary reason [Chinese websites may lack that beauty] is because a great deal of Chinese programmers are not skilled enough [to realize designers' visions], and at the same time come up with excuses that keep them eating the dirty bowl their boss feeds them from, and not striving to improve.


Though rather harsh, the poster is not far from the truth. Programmers learn just enough to take their salary. Learning to build designs that go beyond blocks of text would please a designer, but the designer doesn't pay your salary. And if the designer is in charge, the website is built with Flash, because it is one of the only modern web technologies that Chinese developers are proficient in and that is capable of designing beyond blocks of text.

other theories about web design in China

With More Information, Comes More "Face"

The concept of "face" in China is vaguely available in English in the term "loosing face". In china, "having face" is important to affect several decisions made every day that in effect define part of Chinese culture, and difficult to explain to Western audiences. One such effect is the great amount of content placed tightly into a page of a typical Chinese website. The more content there is on a webpage, the more information that website has to offer; the more information a website has to offer, the better it is. The ability to offer a great deal of content on each page is a way to show how grand a website, and thus it's parent company, is.

Skimming over Characters Versus Letters

Even with the reasons listed above, any Westerner would think it tiring to sift through all the content. And it is, but the Chinese market is also accustomed to it. And it may be the way their language is built that allows them to scan large blocks of text more easily.

Eastern languages in general are built to display concepts in a more compact manner than do languages using alphabets. Commonly, each Chinese character, or pair of characters, represents a meaning and a context on its own. While Westerners recognize a word as quickly as the Chinese would a pair of characters, context is commonly inherent in the characters themselves, whereas alphabet-based languages rely on the sentence as a whole for context.

This is not to say that a long page of 12-point Chinese text is easy on the eyes, but it may be quicker to scan than the same text written with an alphabet language.

Have A Question or an Insight About Web Design in China?

As a Western Web design company in Shenzhen, China we don't have much time on our hands, but we are always happy to engage the developer community in anyway. So if you have a question or helpful insight leave us a comment below and we will get back to you.

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Comments

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September 14, 2011
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July 23, 2011
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Jy
June 17, 2011
Thanks for this post. Really helpful.
David Arch
May 04, 2011
Very Insightful Thank you this is a very insightful article about web design in China. I have always questioned why web design in China compared to Europe or the United States is so different.