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Localizing Your Website or App for the Chinese Market

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Localization, the process of optimizing a site or app across differing languages and cultures, goes far beyond basic translation. Actually, translation’s perhaps the easiest part.

Sure, sometimes there are so many cultural similarities between the environment that spawned the original product and the target location that only minor tweaking is needed; but western designers and developers aiming to launch in China are facing a minefield of potential localization missteps.

In this article, I’ll browse through a few of the major considerations that should be tackled when approaching the East.

Localizing Visual Design Patterns

Though it’s silly to use the word “users” as a blanket term, considering how differently individuals interact with the web, there are some commonly accepted semi-standards that can feel jarring if altered. You’ve seen them: the scroll bar’s usually on the right, contact information is often found in the footer, and links change visual state on hover. In similar fashion, the Chinese web has a few design patterns that are fairly ubiquitous. I’m not saying these rules can’t be broken, but you should know what they are and why they’re there before you go too far off center. Let’s take a look at a few:

Mobile Site Access or App Download at Top of Page

With China’s high level of mobile-centric behavior, desktop experiences frequently get treated like takeout: users drop in on the desktop experience and then transfer that experience to their phone for extended browsing. That transfer usually happens via a link, often placed near the top of the page, which either pops open a QR code on hover, or sends the user to a landing page where they can scan a QR code to download an app or visit the mobile version of the site. The proof is in the pudding:

VIP Shop places theirs in the upper-right hand corner:

Douban’s (an event listings portal) is one of the biggest I’ve seen on a home page; the green button links to an app landing screen, while hovering on the QR icon gives you a scannable pop-up code.

Yahoo-esque portal Sina places two links at the top left: one for their mobile site, the other for app downloads: doesn’t mess around–it places a scannable link to its mobile site top right:

Ecommerce Home Pages: Product Categories at Left

Almost one-for-one, China’s largest ecommerce sites feature home pages that display product categories in a block to the left and above the fold, over or next to a central banner., for example:

And Sunning:

And YiHaoDian:

And Vancl:

I could do this all day.

Stickied Left or Right User Menus

Vertical user menus containing links to customer service or account-specific functions are common, and they also often include the ever-present QR code. This one (left side) from travel site Qunar links to user accounts, order history, and a contact/suggestions form:

And one (right side) from popular shopping site Tmall, includes a cart, “my credit”, “brands I follow”, favorites, “things I’ve looked at”, reports, QR code link, and a back-to-top page scroller:

This one, from online pharmacy 360kad, includes a link to the cart, favorites, recent views and recent purchases, a QR code pop-up icon and also a back-to-top button:

Back-to-Top Scroller

Speaking of back-to-top scrollers, you’ll notice these buttons often appear not only in stickied user menus, but also in the bottom right-hand corner of longer pages, including this one from the home page of popular shopping portal Meilishuo:

And from creative site Topys:

Onboarding Styles

Onboarding, the process of smoothly easing users into the snuggly comfort of your product, is the gateway to adoption, so naturally it’s become the subject of endless analytical frenzy. But China takes a very specific visual approach: in both web and mobile apps, there are typically two classic onboarding design patterns. One, done in walkthrough format, is typified by a dark semi-transparent overlay with callouts that point to relevant features, a style so ubiquitous that it feels almost standardized. The other is a 2-5 panel introductory slider, drawn in Flat UI-style animation, introducing the starter features.

As soon as you load the VIP Store app, you’re rewarded with free store credit and a walkthrough:

And a couple of examples of animated introductory style:

Color Palettes: Avoid Low Saturation

I’d heard quite a bit of anecdotal evidence suggesting that the Chinese market tends to prefer their mobile games in vivid technicolor, so much so that games designed primarily in heavier shades don’t do as well in the app rankings, prompting local experts to urge game developers to put some pop in the color scheme when porting to China.

Wondering if the same logic applied to all apps, I made a quick (and very imperfect) study of the color differentials on app icons in the top twenty apps (games and other) in both the Google Play store and in 360 Zhushou, currently China’s leading app marketplace. 

Comparative Color Saturation in Chinese vs. Western App Interfaces

Guess what? While the saturation levels were similar across the two sets, the brightness levels in the Chinese icons were measurably higher. Again, that study was conducted on a small sampling of data, but combined with on-the-ground industry knowledge, it’s interesting to note.

Style and Conflicting Cultural Themes


Gives you the happies, right? Even if you’ve never played, don’t the graphics toss you a little blissful nostalgia? I spent an entire summer sleeping all day and playing Monkey Island all night. The game came on seven floppies, man. Seven. I can still remember the install screen, and it makes me smile.

The thing is, Chinese users of a similar age don’t have a mental scrapbook of those same memories, because China never went through that Zork-to-Gameboy thing; socio-economics hadn’t reached one-desktop-per-household level when that technology was released, and so that visual style is one of many that tends to fall flat in the consumer consciousness.

The same is true of other cultural artefacts, and if you’re not deeply familiar with the target market, you may need to get help from a local usability testing firm to see how well your concept, brand or imagery translates. Themes like King Arthur and knights, the American Civil War, and pixelated graphics a la 80’s DOS don’t elicit any particular fond feelings.

Getting in Touch: Point of Contact Methodologies

How do you expect your users to get in touch with you? Email and landline phone? Did you know that email is not a particularly favored contact method in China? This quote is a bit old (2010), but the message still holds true:

“One of the most distinctive online habits among Chinese consumers is the tendency to prefer instant messaging (IM) over e-mail. For instance, 87 percent of Chinese digital consumers use the Internet for IM, compared with only 53 percent for e-mail.” – BCG report “China’s Digital Generations 2.0

Local Chinese landline numbers are OK as a customer service channel, but other common Chinese contact methods are IM (via QQ), live chat, and more recently, WeChat, with companies relying heavily on their corporate WeChat accounts to provide customer service via text messaging.

Yetang, an Urban-Outfitters-type store for trendy young Chinese, clearly paid a lot of attention to the structure of their live chat window: they feature the service hours front and center, and they show an alternate contact telephone number and email address just in case.

CTrip, a popular Expedia-type flights and hotel booking service, uses text messaging via WeChat as one of its central touchpoints. Send them a quick greeting from your mobile device, just as you would to any other contact, and a representative will text you back when your message reaches the top of the queue.

If you’re not providing expected contact channels, you won’t just lose potential customers and frustrate users, you’ll also lose brand credibility locally, as everyone wonders what kind of fly-by-night operation doesn’t have a WeChat account.

Monetization & Payment

You know what else isn’t commonly used in China? Visa, Mastercard and Paypal. China has its own Paypal equivalent in the form of Zhifubao (English name: Alipay), and the most common interbank payment processor is Unionpay. If your site or app accepts payment, you’ll need to plug into the payment channels that your target market actually uses, or ain’t no one gunna buy nuffink.

As a rule, freemium apps do much better in China than paid. In this recent (and very good) article from Vungle, the author lays down some serious China wisdom:

Think twice before releasing a paid app. “In China, it can be just as difficult to release a paid app as it is in the US,” ..."There are some genres that users are willing to spend more on. Card battle, turn-based RPG, and MMORPG games account for more than 70% of total mobile games’ earnings. But overall, a f2p approach is going to set you up for success.”
Use the right billing partners to boost IAP [in-app purchases]. In a F2P game, IAP is going to be an important piece of monetization. To make sure people can easily pay for these items, a smooth payment process is essential for Chinese users – if it’s not, they’ll quickly abandon the game. Alipay and Union Pay are currently leading the pack, so working with these companies to integrate payment into your app will put you in good shape.”

App Stores and Distribution Channels

While it’s usually China that’s characterized by megalithic digital monopolies, the Chinese app store landscape is extremely fragmented, with a couple of hundred feral download centers roaming around the market. In other words, the launch of your Android app in China won’t have the all-in-one benefits of a centralized Google Play launch (Google’s blocked, remember?)

While app store market dominance changes fairly often, the current Top 5 ranks look something like this:

  1. 360
  2. Myapp
  3. Baidu
  4. MIUI App Store
  5. HiMarket (Anzhi)

You don’t have to hit every app store on the list, but it’s vital that you release your apps in the top few stores, and those releases will need to be managed.

Go Into the Light

So, how to proceed?

If you’re a mobile app developer, companies like Yodo1 (games) or Smartions (games and other apps) can oversee the launch of your product across China’s many app stores, manage updates and upgrades, plus they can plug in their own SDKs that connect your product to relevant Chinese social networks and payment platforms, replacing western social media and payment.

For interface designers, it’s crucial that you place functionality where users expect it, and test not only for bugs and other basics, but for visual cultural communication issues.

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