With a population of 1.3 billion and an economic mindset partly carved out of the manufacturing assembly line era, there is a noticeable increase among companies in China putting design at the centre of their organisation’s thinking. In fact, the tag ‘made in China’ is fast becoming ‘created in China’. Some of the statistics coming out of China are also staggering. At the end of 2009 the state run China Internet Network Information reported that the number of internet users in China had hit 384 million – 29 percent of the population. Against figures like 74 percent of Americans and 77 percent of South Koreans using the internet, there were a staggering 86 million new Chinese web users in 2009 alone. Mobile activity is also thriving thanks to China’s expanding 3G networks. More than120 million people were using mobile internet applications in 2009. According to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the number of short messages sent by Chinese people in 2009 rose 8.4 percent to a daily average of 2.1 billion.
To find out more about user experience in China we speak to Daniel Szuc, principal of the Hong Kong-based UX company, Apogee, and an active UX advocate. Having previously worked in usability for Telstra, in 2000 Szuc teamed up with business partner Josephine Wong after spotting an increase in outside interest in Asia, together with more product design and development being undertaken within China. First of all we have to ask – what’s it like setting up a UX consultancy in China? “It helps to partner, and know and be friends with locals,” Szuc explains. “Most research we do now requires both local moderation and understanding of the nuances of the culture in places like mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. I have lived in Hong Kong for over 10 years, my wife is Chinese and most of my friends are Chinese – yet I still feel that I am only beginning to understand and appreciate Chinese culture. Sometimes we fall into the thinking that we must look at cultural differences as they pertain to UX, but I suggest that the bigger challenge is looking at what combines us all as humans and then knowing the cultural shades to apply at the right time and as needed.”
In order to take his experience from Australia and use it in China, Szuc did not have to culturally adapt his processes as such, but he did have to spend time with Asian users to better understand their thinking. “In China it’s important not to take first answers on face value; rather take the time to dig deeper about the meaning behind the answer and also value and respect the user’s time. Understanding how to behave and be in an Asian context, and finding the balance between behaving normally and respecting the culture also helps when running research in Asia.”
When it comes to defining noticeable differences between Eastern and Western cultures, Szuc advises that it’s safer not to assume anything. “We sometimes hear that, for example, mainland Chinese users like busier home pages or have a higher tolerance for poor design,” he says. “This is largely a myth, and in our research we have discovered that Chinese users appreciate simple, goal-driven design as much as Western users do. We have also noticed that mainland Chinese users are receptive to playing with or hacking technology to get to what they need. They may be willing to spend more time doing this to achieve their goal, but does it mean they are happy about it? Probably not, but they do seem to demonstrate more patience around poor product delivery. Hong Kong users on the other hand are very goal driven and technologically savvy, and they want to get to what they are looking for quickly. This is probably a result of Hong Kong being a very efficient city, with everything easily available and accessible.”
By the end of 2009, the number of Chinese online social media users got closer to the 124 million mark, with social networks like Tencent QQ leading the way. “Part of the success is the need for mainland Chinese users to have a channel to express themselves and open up both in and outside of mainland China,” Szuc says. “For some, it’s an opportunity to create a persona that they may not as easily be able to express in real life or among their circle of family and friends. For some mainland Chinese users, their PC acts not just as a place to message friends, but also as an entertainment hub that includes music, streaming TV, movies and social networks. It acts as the new TV and radio for the family. We have to remember that everything in mainland China deals with large numbers because the very nature of mainland China is large. You get this feeling when you travel to some of the larger cities in China like Shanghai or Beijing, or if you are lucky enough to see China prepare for a large national event like the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Republic of China in 2009. It’s all big and impressive.”
So what lessons can Australia learn from the Chinese mobile markets? “Living in Hong Kong we see an interesting mix of phone usage and manufacturers in the market. We are lucky to have access to a reasonably open market of providers with competitive data plans. When you provide data plans that are affordable and competitive, this changes how people use their mobile phones and the services they use. You see a large upswing in internet usage on phones. Facebook is very popular in Hong Kong, so it’s common to see people checking their Facebook feed or updating their status using their mobile phones. Services like Twitter are not as popular, but you do see people using Google Maps and services like OpenRice to search for places to eat. Eating out and shopping are both important hobbies in Hong Kong. People are gadget happy, with some people having more than one or two mobile phones with clear differentiation between personal and business use – for example, owning an iPhone for personal use and a BlackBerry for business use.
“We also see an interesting interplay of gaming devices and mobile phones, with people using both and switching between them, depending on their task,” Szuc continues. “Just across the border, we also have access to a copy mobile phone market that has its own life and ecosystem. Although not a fan or a supporter of copy mobile phones, it’s interesting to look at the innovation they can create. For example, it’s possible to see copy mobile phones that have two slots for SIM cards, allowing people to easily change SIM cards when moving between mobile service providers in mainland China and Hong Kong. This all provides a glimpse into the fascinating landscape of basic mobile phones right up to Smartphones against the range of operating systems now available – including Android, iPhone, Symbian and Mobile 7 from Windows.”
With its rapidly expanding economy, does China have a growing demand for UX consultancies? “Absolutely, and it’s great to see!” says Szuc. “We are actively involved in both the Usability Professionals Association (UPA) and UPA China with the view to growing the understanding, buzz and interest in both usability and UX in China and the region. Also, as interest grows in selling products and services into the Asian region, there will be increased motivation to better understand local needs. We have already seen an upswing in interest in the term ‘user experience’ from Hong Kong business in 2010, which is a good sign. People will always look for local service providers to help them navigate the waters in helpful, kind and trusting ways.”
From Desktop magazine, April 2010 issue.