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Are Chinese Websites Too Complex?

Foreigners often say that Chinese websites are overly complex and busy in their design. However, since they usually can’t use the sites — not being able to read Chinese — such impressions, formed purely by looking instead of using, are not a valid user experience assessment. To understand whether Chinese web design is indeed too complicated and whether Chinese users are in some way specially equipped to deal with this complexity, we turned to a more appropriate usability methodology: emprical testing with the target audience. Our research had also a secondary motivation: in the current world of responsive design, we’ve seen a trend towards insufficient information density and simplifying sites so that they work well on small screens but suboptimally on big screens. We were curious whether this trend has reached China, and how it will play in with the purported local tradition of complexity.

As a twist, we tested with both native Chinese users and expatriate foreigners living in China. The expatriates worked with English versions of Chinese desktop sites, while the Chinese used the Chinese versions. The Chinese and English versions of the sites were generally equivalent in terms of design complexity. In total, 12 users participated in this research, 6 people in each of our two segments.

The sessions were conducted with the think-aloud method, with each user asked to complete two tasks on 8 websites from a list of 14 websites chosen to span a range of design complexity from simple, one-column responsive patterns to busy, high-density portal-like ones. The Chinese users verbalized their thoughts in Mandarin, whereas foreign users spoke English. All used desktop computers to perform their tasks.

Are Chinese Websites Too Complex?
China News was one of the sites we tested. Its crammed homepage is typical of the designs that many foreigners have characterized as busy and complex.

Are Chinese Websites Too Complex?
Teambition is another website that was part of our test; the site was responsive and used an information-sparse, minimalist design style (complete with flat buttons, menus, and icons).

Yes, Chinese Sites Are Often Complex

Even our modest study demonstrated that complexity is a reality of the Chinese web and that Chinese participants were tolerant of complicated sites. This design style was considered to be “common,” “normal,” and even “traditional.” An appreciation for information density was especially prevalent for portal sites and news sites.

The foreign participants also acknowledged that complex design was common in China and claimed that they mainly saw this design style on Chinese websites. Some foreigners appreciated the busy designs and thought that piling up information was a way to present it honestly and straightforwardly. Others thought that the Chinese sites were overly hard to use. Foreign users were generally less likely to be annoyed with usability issues experienced on simple websites than with problems encountered on complex sites.

On the other hand, the Chinese users were less accepting of the simple sites that we tested. As one Chinese user said about a low-complexity site, “From a pure design perspective, like icons, pictures, layout, the site is great and matches what people, at least young people, love. It’s simple, clean, with no ads, and no useless information. But the problem is, while it doesn’t have any useless information, it also has less useful information — I can find nothing useful in these simple links. All this introduction of the functionality is just playing with words, with no real meat, no real content at all.” (All quotes from Chinese participants were translated into English by one of this article’s authors.)

No, Chinese Sites Should Not Be Complicated

Even though the Chinese study participants were used to complexity and felt able to deal with it, the truth is that they did encounter many usability problems on complex sites and had difficulty interacting with them. They often commented unfavorably about specific designs that they found to be too complicated.

For example, one Chinese user commented about China News (shown above), “When I’m reading news, I only read through the pages at the top, within these pictures and the links that are highlighted here. I will definitely not scroll down to read anything else. There are so many things happening and I only care about the top news, at most 10 of them, especially with pictures and videos.” On many complex sites, advertising was interspersed with editorial, making the design more complex and harder to use and further aggravating users. To quote a Chinese participant, “All news sites are like this, and this one [China News] is even worse with ads at the top of it! I don’t like it.”

When testing the site of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China’s site, we got the following comment from a Chinese user: “I thought the whole site is not so cleanly designed. The information designed here is not related to us, the normal users. I will never use most of the information here, which makes it too much.” One foreign user said, “I feel like the banking websites, they are not user friendly at all. They are for banking people.” Another foreign user said, “They just make you be confused, so that they can get money from you.”

Are Chinese Websites Too Complex?
The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) is the biggest bank in the world. Chinese study participants found its site to be too complicated.

Usability Problems = Bad Site (In Any Language)

Overly complex design often caused people to miss features. For example, many users were unable to share an article by email on sites with the JiaThis’s social-sharing popup — partly because the popup was accessed through a “plus” icon (low icon usability for a sharing icon) and partly because it was too crammed with features.

Are Chinese Websites Too Complex?
Our study participants had difficulty locating the email-sharing option in JiaThis’s crowded popup.

A Chinese user said, “Where is the share via email button? I don’t know… there are too many options.” Echoing the point that complexity is widely spread on the Chinese web, a foreign user’s comment on the same site was, “I guess this is a Chinese website because they have so many options to share. Yeah, I found the Mail but it should be the first one.”

Many usability problems in this China study duplicated findings from our testing of Western sites with Western users. For example, users had trouble with the carousel on Tsinghua University’s website. As one Chinese user said, “On the page with different pictures from Tsinghua, I didn’t know this group of photos could move and thought there was only the one [photo] of the [university] library.”

In another example, the United Nations website violated the guidelines for universal navigation: We asked users to find information about the secretary-general, but after arriving at the subsite with information about this official, users could not find their way back to the main UN site. (We tested both the Chinese and English versions of the UN site, and found the same design flaw.)

Some other examples of well-known web usability problems that hurt Chinese users on the Chinese sites in our test:

  • “Related articles” links led to articles that users felt were not actually related to the current article.
  • Search box was not on the top of the page.
  • Search box was replaced by an icon — something we’ve long known to be highly detrimental to website usability.
  • Navigation changed as users moved through the site. (#8 on the well-established list of top-10 IA mistakes.)
  • Partially hidden navigation was made fully visible only after hovering.
  • The illusion of completeness in a shopping cart made users overlook shipping options placed below the fold.
  • Insufficiently user-centric content didn’t address users’ key concerns. For example, one Chinese user said about Tsinghua University: “If I’m here on this site, I must be looking for things related to admission or other useful information. However, there are too many ads and clichés about how great the school is. It’s hard to find the detailed information that is really useful. The site is for tourists, not for students.” (A virtual echo of what we heard when testing 57 other university sites outside China.)
  • Non-standard user interface elements were ignored, as shown in the following screenshot.

Are Chinese Websites Too Complex?
On the Chinese site for the Overwatch computer game, not a single one of the 5 Chinese users who tested the site used the nonstandard navigation area with a vertical list of buttons in the right margin of the page.

In many ways it’s comforting to see that so many of the usability problems documented through two decades of testing with Western users repeated in our new study in China. First, it shows that Chinese people are people and not some kind of superhumans who violate the laws of user interface psychology and easily master designs that stump users in the rest of the world.

Second, our research shows that web designers targeting a Chinese audience are well advised to pay more attention to usability and dial down their complexity setting a bit. Yes, Chinese users are more used to complexity and complain less about it, but our test participants spent more time finding things on the more complicated websites and exhibited more hesitation and anxiety when navigating.

Third, while simpler, responsive design is a raising trend in China, it does have to fight the expectations established by a solid high-complexity design tradition. Low information density on a page does not make for good usability, and Chinese users, maybe even more than Western users, are quick to reject too sparse designs. Simpler design, but not oversimplified or minimalist, will benefit Chinese users and likely increase revenue for businesses.