Localising your English-language website or app for another Western market takes time and know-how. You need to know your target market intimately. With the related history of most European countries, that can be relatively straightforward. But designing websites and apps for the Asian markets is a different level of challenge altogether:
Because localisation doesn’t just mean directly translating words into your target language. It means adapting the whole concept of your design so that it aligns perfectly with your target user’s expectations. It’s not only the language you use, although of course, this is vital. It’s also the User Interface, User Experience, images, icons, fonts…
When localising between markets which use Latin scripts, this can mean relatively small though important changes. The jump to meet any given Asian markets’ cultural and historical allusions, on the other hand, can be a whole lot bigger.
In this article, we’ll look at how to design for the Asian markets. From generalisations (and they have to be given the sheer size and cultural vibrancy of Asia in general and many of the countries in this part of the world in particular) about East meeting West to specific examples from China, Japan, Korea and emerging markets in Asia.Reach your target audience with our web localisation services. Click and read more.
How to design for the Asian markets – a note on generalisations
When it comes to general themes in Asian website design and app design, there is a lot of ground to cover.
Before we get started: it’s important to note that these ideas are generally applicable but not universally identical across the whole of Asia. The critical nature of local, native-level knowledge of your target market, in particular, cannot be stressed enough.
With that clear, let’s get started:
1) Image symbolism and the importance of the visual
Let’s begin with something fairly basic and then build on it.
Gestures, signs and images are not universal. An image of someone patting a child on the head might be one denoting approbation in some cultures. In others, one would never touch a person, especially a child, on the head or shoulders.
Likewise, the level of importance attached to the verbal or visual rather than the textual varies from place to place. In some parts of Asia, verbal contracts in business are very much the norm. In these business spheres, your word is your bond.
This preference translates to digital design too. A great deal of emphasis is placed on the visual – plenty of images showing people enjoying using your products rather than text stating how great those products are – and what is implied by context.
2) Colour symbolism
Especially in China, but also throughout most parts of East Asia, the colours you use have clear significance and meaning. You can read this article on colour symbolism in China for a more complete view, but by way of example:
- Red – generally denotes happiness or prosperity and is often used for celebrations such as weddings or the Lunar New Year. It is also symbolic of the People’s Republic of China as a whole. Red has historically been used by revolutionaries to represent “the people” as far back as the French Revolution and beyond.
- Purple – in China, purple has similar overtones to “imperial purple” in the West. It also has links to the Taoist concept of reaching immortality.
- White – rather than black is the colour of death and mourning in China.
- Yellow – is a risky colour to use as it can symbolise adult content as well as being the unique colour of several dynasties of Chinese emperors. Yet, it can also represent nourishment.
This means you need to be well aware of the importance of the colours you have chosen for your UI. You might even need to consider re-branding entirely for your target Asian market.
Colour symbolism in China
3) The role of icons, emoticons and playfulness
If you take a look at a number of Chinese or Japanese apps in a row, one of your main takeaways will probably be the preponderance of characters or mascots. Some of which appear pretty cutesy to the Western eye. You are not imagining it. Most brands will have mascots which are comical and cartoon-like, especially in Japan.
Regarding icons, bear in mind that much like the subjects of images, these are not universal either. Localising websites for the Asian markets involves a deep awareness of the connotations relating to individual icons in different regions.
For example, many Western apps would use an arrow to denote a map direction or link. In many East Asian apps, an arrow may mean “explore” or “discover”. As might the gear symbol usually used to denote “settings” in the West.
Choosing the right icons is all the more important when you consider…
4) The high complexity level of design
This is a major point to consider in Asian website design. It’s a little bit of a generalisation to explain it this way, but broadly:
- Western websites – lower information density: very few larger images, smartly targeted advertising text, a single clear menu, several pages of supplementary information.
- Asian websites – higher information density: plenty of images of people with the product, lengthy menus, plenty of sounds, auto-playing videos, animations and graphics. Most information provided via a single page where everything should be included.
This is most likely a function of most Asian cultures being what can be thought of as “High Context” as opposed to “Low Context”. This is an anthropological theory proposed by an American scientist named Edward T. Hall, whereby:
- Low Context cultures such as the US or UK favour direct communication.
- High Context cultures such as China or Japan prefer implied or indirect communication. They also do not see more features and densely packed information as clutter necessarily. Instead, they are more likely to perceive this as an indication of quality and that a site is properly catering to its audience.
Take a look at the differences between the websites of major brands in European, American and Asian regions. You’ll soon see where and how brands like Coca-Cola or Pepsi have adapted their branding and website design for Asian markets.
That’s not to say that all your Asian app design needs to aim for maximum complexity. Some Asian brands and apps have had huge success with comparatively minimalist designs. Check out Mercari, a Japanese e-commerce site, for instance. Some Western brands like Apple have also successfully entered the Asian markets without altering their approach. That said, Amazon tried to do the same and failed.
Yahoo Hong Kong
Yahoo United Kingdom
5) All-in-one pages and menus
As briefly mentioned above, the general preference when domestic companies are designing websites for Asian markets is for everything to be on a single page. Even if this makes the page look over-stuffed and confusing to someone used to a more Western style of design.
There seems to be a subtle attitude that if it’s not on the page, it’s not on the site. Thus, Asian app designs are more likely to include a menu where everything can be seen at once. Again, the focus is on using visual cues, icons and images as opposed to relying on text to guide you or place emphasis.
This might be partly because…
6) Asian fonts are challenging
There are many challenges involved with Asian fonts. Not least the facts that:
- Some Asian languages contain thousands of different characters, resulting in fonts which cannot be embedded because of their size
- There is generally no bold or italics to use for emphasis
- The compact nature of the characters in many Asian languages lends itself to writing in a densely packed way
You can read this article about Chinese web fonts to give you more of an idea of how the land lies.
7) Group decisions, respect and family
Another feature of “High Context” cultures as described by Hall is that they tend to value groups, where “Low Context” cultures might value individualism.
When applied to how to design a website for the Asian markets, this has several important inferences:
- Communities are more likely to evolve around products in many Asian countries – even more so than elsewhere. Just check out the Koprol app, designed to allow people to rate businesses and attractions nearby – much like the Western Foursquare – and its popularity and community-forming power in Indonesia.
- Respecting seniority is a key tenet across most East Asian cultures. Products designed or marketed towards elders are more likely to gain respect. Elders and senior figures, as well as youngsters sometimes, may also have unique additional prefixes or salutations added to their name.
- Catering to the family is pretty much a certain way to improve sales or the way your brand is viewed.
- Group decision-making is much more prevalent across most of East Asia and something which is highly desirable to build into your UX if at all possible.
This group decision-making also extends to the actual process of website and app design in many East Asian companies, particularly in China and Japan. The senior figure will make the final call. But the group will have their say about what the most effective strategy is. When it comes to design, this doesn’t necessarily lend itself to an easy following of the latest trends. Designers most often, don’t want to stick their necks out.
On the surface, this is at odds with the fact that in most Asian apps and websites…
8) Personalisation options are considered a plus
We’re back to dealing with generalisations here, but it’s not completely unreasonable to say that East Asian cultures tend to be more communal. Deviation from the norm is not generally desirable or rewarded – especially in person or in public.
In the virtual space, however, things change. Individualism and personalisation are highly prized here. Cosmetic choices – both inside an app and in the gadgets which are the gateways to the virtual world themselves (think mobile phone covers, for instance) – are generally highly sought-after.
9) The slow sell
One final “High Context” culture point here, relating to how the preference for implied and indirect communication relates to sales tactics. Whereas it’s generally poor marketing practice in Western web design to talk in broad terms about your brand or products on your homepage without making a point, this indirect sales pitch is favoured on many East Asian websites.
It could perhaps be viewed as the business equivalent of making polite conversation with someone before you move on to talking about the real ins and outs of the deal.
10) Cultural knowledge
Many East Asian cultures are truly ancient. China has 5000 years of history behind it. Its borders have changed relatively little, at least for any protracted period, in over two millennia. That’s a whole lot of history – one that’s dramatically different to that of Europe or America, for instance.
In addition, much like many Western countries, many Asian cultures have values which derive from religious ones. Again, these will appear slightly different to those familiar with other parts of the world. They can be seen in things like the respect for seniority and elders mentioned above. The generally patriarchal nature of most East Asian cultures. As well as what is perceived as right and wrong from a moral standpoint.
For example, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter might not necessarily be automatically approved of. Brand names which work perfectly well in other places might be horribly offensive locally. Even if the direct translation actually appears innocuous to outside eyes.
As always in website and app localisation, there is no substitute for in-depth local knowledge.
The example of China in website design
Because of its size, China is perhaps the archetypal Asian market. It is also a “closed” market, where many Western apps and websites are either outright blocked or simply aren’t used. This has allowed smart Chinese web developers to jump in and create their own localised versions of apps famous elsewhere, specifically adapted to suit their own market.
This has led to some major differences between how Chinese website design works and how it works in the rest of the world:
i) One app for all and all for one
Have you heard of WeChat? If you’re investigating Chinese apps, you can’t miss it. WeChat is the one Chinese platform to rule them all. It’s almost a tenet of Chinese app design that one application should do many things – if not everything. WeChat is the closest anyone has come to realising that dream. On it, you can:
- Send messages and stickers
- Complete cashless payments in stores (like Google Pay)
- Split the bill at dinner (ever heard of Splitwise? Just like that)
- Book a taxi (like Uber)
- Order food and drinks (like Just Eat, through Ele.me, a Chinese equivalent)
But then things start getting a little stranger. On WeChat, you can also:
- Pay your utility bills
- Find and read e-books
- Give money to charity
- Order a brand new luxury car personalised to you (though you will need to pay in person)
This is by no means an exhaustive list. So why this preference for single-app platforms with such a dynamic range of features?
Well, it could be linked to the preference for feature-rich menus we discussed above. It could also be linked to the fact there are no real local Google Play Store or App Store equivalents. This can make it harder to find individual apps for specific purposes.
Finally, it’s worth noting that rather being an East vs West approach to web design which is unlikely to change, some designers have suggested that Western design trends will start to emulate the Chinese approach in the not too distant future.
ii) Different norms
If you’re a Western app developer starting to work in China, you will likely need to re-learn a whole lot of your trade – even beyond that linked to local preferences. Chinese web designers have developed their own norms and practices quite distinct to those used outside of their “closed” system.
iii) Chinese language character entry and voice search
There are somewhere in the region of 80,000 Chinese characters in total. You need to understand around 2,000-3,000 to read a fairly standard newspaper. Obviously, that’s just a few too many for a keyboard or phone touchpad.
There are two ways Chinese designers and users get around this:
- Voice input: voice messaging and voice search are big in China and only going to get bigger.
- Pinyin: Pinyin is the romanised version of the Chinese script. Some apps have latched onto it as an alternative. Those that do tend to return results in Chinese.
The example of Japan
Japan is into technology in a big way. It tends to prefer a billboard-esque web design approach, where fitting as much information as possible into the space available – preferably featuring plenty of bright colours as you do so – is the desired outcome.
There are some important factors to consider when it comes to designing for the Japanese market:
i) Reading by area rather than top to bottom
The sensible way to read Japanese is by area of the screen or page rather than from top to bottom. This is probably because Japanese writing can be read both horizontally and vertically when in print.
Despite this, you will only ever see it horizontally on the screen because that’s the way the technology currently works. Don’t forget this when planning the localised version of your app or website.
ii) Crowding the space
The big cities of both China and Japan are very crowded indeed. It’s been suggested that this closely-packed real-life setting has its equivalent in the virtual space crowding evident on Chinese and Japanese websites.
Because you sure won’t see much empty space on most Japanese or Chinese web pages. The goal is generally to get all of the information on there, rather than to worry too much about the style in which some of it is presented.
There’s also the fact that ideographic languages like Japanese and Chinese (where a character can represent a whole word or idea) can get a lot more information into a far smaller space. Plus, they can do so without it being as busy as it might appear. The lack of emphasis, capitalisation and spacing simply aren’t issues. To a native reader, it’s all perfectly logical.
iii) More than one alphabet makes things simpler?
Japanese has three scripts – kanji are traditional Chinese characters (and there are likewise thousands of them, though not as many as Chinese) and you also have hiragana and katakana, with 46 and 48 characters apiece.
On top of this, you have romaji. This is much like Chinese Pinyin in the sense that it allows you to use Latin letters to write Japanese words.
Both kana (hiragana and katakana) and romaji are standard input options for many Japanese apps.
Emerging markets in Asia
As well as those larger Asian markets which present various challenges and opportunities when it comes to how to design your website or app, there are many smaller and emerging markets which present their own unique situations to overcome:
i) Language variety
Because of the size, economies and global cultural contributions of China and Japan, it’s sometimes easy to imagine that they are the only Asian markets which matter.
Yet there are a truly stunning number of languages in Asia – more than 2000 are documented – with different cultures, styles and characters attached to them. This can make localising your website a serious chore without local knowledge. How else will you know the expected UI layout, image composition and so on to give your audience what they want?
Do not generalise when it comes to Asia.
ii) Developing and emerging infrastructure
Not all regions of Asia use the most advanced modern technologies. This is either because of unavailability, preference or occasionally for religious reasons. For instance:
- The infrastructure for online payment may not be present. In most East Asian countries which aren’t Japan, South Korea or Singapore, the most popular transaction is always physical cash.
- In some Muslim countries, offering or accepting credit is traditionally frowned upon. Thus, some forms of banking which are accepted elsewhere, such as credit cards, will struggle.
In all cases, it’s best to know how your average user shops and then design your system to handle it. The alternative is to lose out to competitors who do understand how a particular region works and have set up their system to work with and for local people and communities.
iii) Economic factors
Finally, do bear in mind that emerging markets in East Asia are exactly that. Emerging. Consumers in Japan or Singapore might have a great deal of purchasing power. Consumers in, say, Vietnam might not.
In many places, in addition to infrastructure problems or religious / moral objections relating to their use, credit cards still aren’t popular. This is because they imply that a person might have a certain amount of money tomorrow. When, in fact, they might not. Which sounds worryingly like common sense.Reach your target audience with our web localisation services. Click and read more.
Designing websites and apps for the Asian market If there is one clear message that this article should heavily highlight, it’s the critical nature of knowing everything there is to know about the region you’re targeting.
Adapting and designing websites and apps for the Asian markets is a great way to dramatically expand your reach. As long as you do it with smart localisation practices at the forefront of your mind.
About to adapt your website for an Asian market? Or have you already done this successfully?
Comment below and join the discussion.