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Resources: UPA 2006 Idea Markets

How Can We Work with China?

Activators: Gerry Gaffney, Information & Design and Daniel Szuc, Apogee – Usability in Asia

The Activator's Initial Questions

  1. How do we deal with language issues & cultural issues?
  2. How should we engage with local practitioners?
  3. Do we need to consider IP issues?
  4. What impacts will the Chinese Government regulation have on conducting business in China?
  5. What is the state of usability and product development in China?
  6. What effects will China have on the development of User Interfaces & products

We did not have the opportunity to address all of these questions, nor did we address them in sequence.

Executive Summary

China is something of a mystery. Some participants had very little knowledge of China (for example, this was evidenced by questions such as whether Hong Kong was in any way different to the mainland, and whether testing in Japan would be sufficient for testing “in Asia”).

There’s an awareness that Chinese sensibilities are different to western ones, and that cultural sensitivity is needed when dealing with China. There are big opportunities.

Discussion Details

It was suggested by a participant that we begin with a brief discussion on perceptions of China, and this we did. Note that these perceptions are presented here with a minimum of filtering or interpretation.

Perceptions of China

Levels of knowledge about China varied widely.

  • A question was posed as to whether Hong Kong is essentially the same as China? It was agreed that Hong Kong is not the same, and that usability testing in Hong Kong would not be the same as usability testing in mainland China.
  • There was discussion as to whether there were differences between cities in mainland China. One division was Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, although some felt that the mainland Chinese cites would be similar to each other (for example, having similar penetration of broadband internet services).
  • There was a perception that logistical issues make it difficult to do work in China.
  • Recruiting may be different in China. There was a comment that there might be too many “professional” participants, and that at least some companies had databases of users that were too small. One participant quoted a Japanese company which had only 600 people on its database, when 50,000 would be considered acceptable in the west.
  • China is growing.
  • Chinese people are independent and ambitious.
  • There is a potential for offending when dealing with Chinese people, and a need to be culturally cautious.
  • Respect and politeness are needed.
  • It can be difficult to deal with Chinese people if you are impulsive.
  • There’s a need to be subtle, for example in connection with finances.
  • Respect and face are important.
  • In particular, respect for older people and officials is expected.
  • There is a need for patience.
  • There is a need to use a go-between.
  • If you are drinking with them, Chinese people are more relaxed.
  • You may feel that you are being abrasive.
  • It can be hard to achieve responsiveness.
  • Chinese people tend to be passive. Asian people with western experience are different.
  • Do users have higher tolerance for complexity and density (specifically, in website design)? Is that true, or has it been forced upon them?
  • Chinese users seem to be able to focus on required content on busy web pages.
  • There was a need for more information on demographics with regard to internet usage.
  • Complex gadgets (such as some mobile phones) may be seen as cool, for example.
  • Visible status is important.
  • There is a very different design ethic in China when compared with Europe. It’s not minimalist, and has a different visual aesthetic.
  • Chinese products are maturing.
  • Super-brands will emerge.

Current State of Usability in China

  • References were made to the articles in UX Magazine (on Usability in the Pacific rim) by Szuc/Wong, Liu, and Lu.
  • Immature, but very high interest.
  • Chinese firms may be looking for a “formula”
  • Parallels Western usability development. Starts with professors, then trickles down through industry. (There was some discussion here about differences in usability between China and UK, France and Germany).
  • Chinas has a different view of the corporation – that will determine usability developments
  • Immature in that it’s new, but look at the numbers at User Friendly conferences. Expecting 300-500 this year (2006).
  • Only a small number of trained people.
  • Experience and depth of knowledge to make recommendations is not available
  • State-owned (government) companies tend to be old generation, and usability may not have buy-in there.
  • A lot of meetings might not mean anything.
  • Cell phone usage for data access is very high.

Test participants

  • Will participants give honest opinions in usability tests? There may be gender issues. For example it may be better for a female to facilitate, particularly d if the participant is female.
  • There may be issues if a Western male is facilitating and the participant is a Chinese male. There may be some game-playing and power issues. On the one hand, the Chinese person may show respect; on the other hand, he may want to “overcompensate” based on historical relationship between China and the west.

Language and Culture

  • Chinese people tend to have negative attitudes towards Japan (although there was some disagreement about this)
  • In formal settings, people will have a different attitude.
  • When USA bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade there were protests which were supported by the government, similarly there have been anti-Japan demonstrations.
  • There has been a history of western invasions.
  • Attitudes can be overcome.
  • One must know how to introduce oneself and what one is doing. You must say what you will be doing with the data you collect.
  • An interpreter is not enough – you need to go deeper.
  • It’s necessary to be patient.
  • Your manner will gain trust; that’s not just about language.
  • Fakes show. Be modest and humble.
  • China is better than Japan in terms of people being more naturalistic.
  • In China, one can get contradictory messages, with people saying one thing but meaning something else.
  • If you’re conducting contextual enquiry to people’s homes, you need to plan your strategy for various circumstances you may encounter (see Josephine Wong’s article on the Apogee website).

Other Items Discussed

  • Will Google minimalism have an effect? Search engines like Baidu, Sina, Yahoo and NetEase are bigger in China than Google is.

What’s next?

  • Participants would like to understand the difficulties of communicating with end users in China. What are the pitfalls?
  • What information is sensitive? For example, there was a report that some of the data requested during a study in China was not filled in by users.

Some Resources, Links and People

  • Apogee
  • ISAR
  • User Centric (Beijing)
  • Liu Zhengjie
  • UIGarden.net
  • HFI (Shanghai)
  • Idean
  • Ideo (Shanghai)
  • LOE (industrial design)


In the amount of time we had, we barely scratched the surface. However, it’s clear that people are both excited and somewhat daunted by the concept of working within China, or with Chinese people and companies.


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