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Inside China’s Wild World Of App Design

What makes an app great is very, very different on the other side of the planet.

Inside China’s Wild World Of App Design
[All images: Dan Rover]

Most of us never think about the apps people use on the other side of the planet, but Dan Rover does. The Vermont native recently moved to Guangzhou, China, after getting hired as a product manager by WeChat, a popular Chinese messaging app, as a product manager. As part of his move, Rover decided to go native, replacing the apps on his iPhone with equivalent Chinese ones. And as he details on his blog, it’s an entirely different universe of user interface and user experience design over there.

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Here are just a few of the many, many differences between Chinese apps and American ones that Rover has noted so far:

• Here in the United States, we hate voicemail. In China, sending voice messages is one of the most popular ways to get in touch with friends. There are a number of different ways to enter text on a smartphone in China, from typing in Latin characters and having them phonetically translated into Mandarin to tracing characters with your fingertips. But given the number of dialects and text entry methods at play here, it’s understandable that voice control, not text, is much more popular in China than it is in the West.

• QR codes rule. In the West, QR codes—while potentially useful as a way to easily track products, identify items, or load up websites on smartphones—are sort of a red-headed stepchild of tech, and most people don’t even know what they do. In China, QR codes are everywhere, and most apps have their own QR code readers built-in.

• Feature bloat reigns supreme. While services in the U.S. have tended to split off their functionality into families of single-serving apps (Facebook and Google readily come to mind), things go the other way in China. The average Chinese app has a bewildering number of functions: in addition to doing mapping, for example, Baidu Maps comes with weather, travel guides, a digital wallet, and a “Find My Friends” function.


• The only thing as popular as adorable in-app mascots is less adorable in-app pollution meters.

• Everyone uses Assistive Touch, but no one knows why. On the iPhone, there’s an obscure feature called Assistive Touch that allows users with broken physical home buttons to use a virtual on-screen home button instead. In China, roughly half of all iPhone owners have this functionality turned on, but no one has a good answer why, although some apparently believe that it saves their physical home buttons from wear and tear.

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Here’s the main takeaway: what might be bad user interface design here (bloated apps that use QR codes and depend on voice control for everything) is actually great UI design in the context of another culture. Read Rover’s entire post here.