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Cross-Cultural HCI and UX Design: A Comparison of Chinese and Western User Interfaces

Authors:
Cross-Cultural HCI and UX Design: A Comparison of
Chinese and Western User Interfaces
Investigating cultural factors behind WeChat and its Western counterparts
Joyce Karreman
University of Twente
Enschede, The Netherlands
J.Karreman@utwente.nl
Pietro Romeo
Human Media Interaction
University of Twente
Enschede, The Netherlands
p.romeo@student.utwente.nl
Qian Li
University of Twente
Enschede, The Netherlands
q.li@utwente.nl
ABSTRACT
How do cultural factors relate to the ways we design and in-
teract with technology? This research provides an overview
of the state-of-the-art in the fields of cross-cultural HCI
and UX design practices, with a focus on comparison be-
tween Chinese and Western mobile user interfaces. A study
on WeChat was carried out to identify the main elements
of Chinese UX and findings were then mapped to Hofst-
ede’s and Hall’s cultural dimensions. Results suggest that
both the design and user experience of WeChat may be
specifically tailored for a target user group whose think-
ing and behavioural patterns are holistic, polychronic and
high-context, as well as being heavily influenced by tra-
ditional Chinese values such as the Guanxi. By contrast,
Western apps such as WhatsApp better accommodate the
needs of users who are characterised by analytic thinking,
a monochronic attitude and a propensity for direct, low-
context communication.
Keywords
Human-Computer Interaction, User Experience Design, Cul-
tural Factors, Ethnography, China, Interfaces
1. INTRODUCTION
That of user-centred design (UCD) is a core concept of
Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and a well-established
framework for designing user interfaces that focus on usabil-
ity, accessibility and inclusion, with the aim of delivering a
smooth and seamless user interaction. User experience (UX)
and user interface (UI) designers are mostly concerned with
the collection, analysis and evaluation of cognitive, physical,
affective and behavioural characteristics of their expected
target users, although Western-oriented methodologies and
paradigms seem to dominate the study of usability and user
requirements [4].
In recent years, enthusiasm towards culture in relation to
HCI and UCD practices has grown significantly amongst re-
searchers [4], and an interest towards cross-cultural compari-
son of user experience designs has also emerged, particularly
in relation to the dichotomy between “Western”(e.g. North-
ern Europe, USA) and “Eastern” (e.g. Chinese, Japanese)
design practices [12, 13]. Moreover, the spread and popular-
ity of WeChat as an alternative to well-established Western
mobile applications suggests that a Chinese UX is emerging
and that currently accepted international HCI practices and
standards for usability may not be as efficient when applied
to design interfaces for a non-Western target user base [3,
13].
1.1 Motivation
Despite this growing interest, research addressing cultural
factors in HCI is still somewhat limited, as it mostly fo-
cuses on comparative studies that emphasise cultural differ-
ences rather than informing design decisions [10], and of-
ten concerns web design specifically [4]. A more contextual
approach to cross-cultural research in HCI can be partic-
ularly beneficial for the globalisation of UIs, which usually
involves an essential adaptation of an existing interface (usu-
ally Western) for a different market [10, 17]. China, for in-
stance, is currently one of the largest economies worldwide
and IT companies interested in offering their products and
services to the Chinese market may particularly benefit from
incorporating aspects of Chinese culture into their designs
[13].
The following research questions are worth addressing:
What are the main differences and similarities between
Chinese and Western UX?
Can the implementation of cultural factors specific to
the target user group (i.e. the Chinese) in a user inter-
face improve perceived usability for that user group?
How can one design successful user interfaces for the
Chinese market?
2. CULTURE AND HCI
For software designers, the issue of globalisation directly
relates to the principle of “Design for All” [19]. Globalisa-
tion is the process of making a product or service available
for worldwide production and consumption, it comprises two
different stages: internationalisation, i.e. the separation of
data and resources that need to be localised from the pri-
mary functionality of a software; and localisation, i.e. the
adaptation of the data and resources for a new target mar-
ket. The addressing of cultural factors during the localisa-
tion process can provide designers a better insight on how to
adjust several elements of UI in order to to enhance usability
for a specific user group [17].
2.1 Cultural Models
Cultural models may be used for identifying global in-
formation, detecting cultural bias, making effective use of
cultural metaphors, assessing the degree of necessary locali-
sation, avoiding cultural mistakes, and evaluating the effec-
tiveness of international user interfaces [5].
Clemmensen et al [4] performed meta-analysis on a collec-
tion of journal articles published over a decade in the field
of HCI that were related to culture. The review highlighted
how the most popular cultural model adopted in the anal-
ysed studies was Hofstede’s, although a worryingly large
number of studies did not use a model at all. Hofstede
developed a pyramid model for culture and identified five
cultural dimensions, he defined culture as “the collective
programming of the mind that distinguishes the members
of one category of people from those of another” [8]. Cri-
tiques on his studies pointed out the limitations of his view
of culture as static and the issues of equating culture with
nation [1, 18]. Furthermore, alternative cultural models fo-
cus on different aspects of culture [5, p. 49, table 3.1] and
may be better suited to certain fields of HCI research, whilst
the popularity of Hofstede’s dimensions is mostly limited to
comparative studies [10].
2.1.1 Objective and Subjective Culture
Stewart and Bennet [20] distinguished between objective
culture - which comprises observable, tangible characteris-
tics of a cultural group such as customs, arts and crafts,
social and economic systems - and subjective culture, which
regards the “psychological features of culture, including as-
sumptions, values, and patterns of thinking”. Their claim
is that while objective culture is extensively studied in the
field of social sciences, knowledge of subjective culture is of-
ten regarded as inaccessible and only studied in the field of
cultural anthropology [5]. Hofstede’s definition of culture as
mental programming can be associated with that of anthro-
pology and subjective culture [8].
2.1.2 Hofstede’s Pyramid Model and Cultural Di-
mensions
Figure 1: Hofstede’s Pyramid Model of Culture [8]
Hofstede placed culture on a pyramid model in a central
position between the two other layers of personality (top)
and human nature (bottom). According to Hofstede, hu-
man nature is only inherited and proper of all humankind,
whereas personality is both inherited and learned, and spe-
cific to each individual. Culture, on the other hand, is
something that is not passed through genes but collectively
learned and shared by a specific category of people [8].
Hofstede recognised the existence of different layers of cul-
ture, for instance a national level, an ethnic level, a gender
level, and a social class level. He also identified different
dimensions of national culture, i.e. aspects of a culture that
can be measured in relation to another culture: power dis-
tance, collectivism versus individualism, femininity versus
masculinity, and uncertainty avoidance [8]. In addition, the
fifth dimension of short-term versus long-term orientation
was identified by Michael Bond’s studies through a ”Chi-
nese Value Survey” [2] and later adopted by Hofstede in an
attempt to better integrate Eastern values into his model
[14]. Reinecke et al [16] mapped these five dimensions of
culture to specific UI aspects of websites such as navigation,
text-to-image ratio, use of colours and information density
(tables 1 to 5).
Power Distance measures how subordinates acknowledge
and respond to authority and the distribution of power -
i.e. how inequality is perceived.
Low Power Distance High Power Distance
Different access and navi-
gation possibilites; nonlin-
ear navigation
Linear navigation, few
links, minimize navigation
possibilities
Data does not have to be
structured
Structured data
Most information at inter-
face level, hierarchy of in-
formation less deep
Little information at first
level
Friendly error messages
suggesting how to proceed
Strict error messages
Support is only rarely
needed
Provide strong support
with the help of wizards
Websites often contain im-
ages showing the country’s
leader or the whole nation
Images show people in
their daily activities
Table 1: Relationship between Power Distance and UI de-
sign aspects, adapted from [16]
Collectivism versus Individualism refers to the degree
of interdependence maintained among the members of a
society.
Collectivism Individualism
Traditional colours and im-
ages Use colour to encode infor-
mation
High image-to-text ratio High text-to-image ratio
High multimodality Low multimodality
Colourful interface Monotonously coloured in-
terface
Table 2: Relationship between Individualism and UI design
aspects, adapted from [16]
Femininity versus Masculinity measures whether a
society stresses “masculine” work goals, such as striving
for job achievements and better earnings opportunities, or
“feminine” work goals, such as a desire for stability and
closeness to family.
Femininity Masculinity
Little saturation, pastel
colours Highly contrasting, bright
colours
Allow for exploration and
different paths to navigate Restrict navigation possi-
bilities
Personal presentation of
content and friendly com-
munication with the user
Use encouraging words to
communicate
Table 3: Relationship between Masculinity and UI design
aspects, adapted from [16]
Uncertainty Avoidance is the extent to which people
feel threatened by uncertain or unknown circumstances.
Cultures with low uncertainty avoidance level are more
comfortable with change and ambiguity compared to
cultures that score high in uncertainty avoidance.
Low Uncertainty Avoid. High Uncertainty Avoid.
Most information at inter-
face level, complex inter-
faces
Organise information hier-
archically
Nonlinear navigation Linear navigation paths /
show the position of the
user
Code colors, typography &
sound to maximize infor-
mation
Use redundant cues to re-
duce ambiguity
Table 4: Relationship between Uncertainty Avoidance and
UI design aspects, adapted from [16]
Short-term versus Long-term Orientation is an indi-
cation of whether views about life are more concerned about
the present or the future. Short-term orientation values
tradition and immediate gratification while long-term orien-
tation values persistence, thrift and preparing for the future.
Short-term Orientation Long-term Orientation
Reduced information den-
sity
Most information at inter-
face level
Content highly structured
into small units Content can be arranged
around a focal area
Table 5: Relationship between Long-term Orientation and
UI design aspects, adapted from [16]
2.1.3 Trompenaars’s Onion Model, Norms and Val-
ues
Fons Trompenaars studied under Hofstede and developed
an alternative model of culture represented as three con-
centric layers. On the outermost layer he placed the most
explicit aspects of culture - e.g. languages, arts and litera-
ture, followed in the central layer by the norms and values
that define a group of people and influence their behaviour
as well as those artifacts and products in the outer layer.
Trompenaar defines norms as the mutual sense of “right”
and “wrong” that is shared by a group, while values deter-
mine what is defined as “good and bad” and hence the ideals
shared by the group. In other words, norms determine how
one feels they should behave, while values serve as criteria
of making a choice between existing alternatives [23]. At
the core of the model lay the basic assumptions of human
existence, the implicit culture of how people adapt to their
environment. Trompeenars’s cultural model focuses on the
way people solve problems [5].
Figure 2: Trompenaars’s Onion Model of Culture [23, p 22]
2.1.4 Hall’s Time, Space and Context
Another set of well-established international variables of
culture was developed by Edward T. Hall in his books, re-
garding the concepts of time, space and the distinction be-
tween low-context and high-context cultures.
Time. In its simple form, time can be distinguished between
polychronic time and monochronic time - where monochronic
cultures are characterised by a “one-thing-at-a-time” atti-
tude as opposite to polychronic cultures who prefer to focus
on “many-things-at-once” [5]. This difference also regards
to whether people have a tendency towards promptness,
strict adherence to plans, and accustomisation to short-term
human relationships (monochronic culture) or towards dis-
tractability, changing plans often, and building long-term
human relationships (polychronic culture) [6].
Space. How people perceive space can also be influenced
by cultural factors. Hall defines space in terms of “invis-
ible boundaries”, such as those of territoriality, personal
space and multi-sensory space, which are culture-dependent:
different populations hold different expectations regarding
ownership and whether it is socially acceptable to touch an-
other person or their belongings, for example, or to talk
loudly when in public [6].
Context. Context refers to different styles of communica-
tion and information flow. In low-context communication,
information needs to be explicitly stated, monochronic cul-
tures have a tendency for this. High-context cultures, on the
other hand, rely heavily on the context to convey meaning
along with a message, while the information does not need
to be explicitly stated [7].
Low-Context High-Context
Monochronic, do one thing
at a time
Polychronic, do many
things at once
Concentrate on the job Are highly distractible and
subject to interruptions
View time commitments as
critical View time commitments as
objectives
Are committed to the job Are committed to people
and human relationships
Adhere strictly to plans Change plans often and
easily
Emphasise promptness Base promptness on the
importance of and signifi-
cance of the relationship
Are accustomed to short-
term relationships Have a strong tendency to
build lifetime relationships
Table 6: Characteristics of Low- and High- context cultures,
adapted from [5]
2.1.5 Holistic vs Analytic Thinking
Studies in cognitive psychology support the idea that con-
text influences the way cultures think and behave, partic-
ularly, East Asian cultures were shown to follow a holis-
tic thinking pattern, which focuses on context as a whole
and makes little use of categories and formal logic, whereas
Western cultures are more analytic, focusing on decontex-
tualised objects and relying heavily on categories, rules and
formal logic for understanding [15].
2.2 Key Components of a User Interface
Five universal components of user interfaces that may be
influenced by cultural factors were identified by Marcus [13,
12]:
Metaphors are essential concepts conveyed through visual,
auditory or haptic cues that can be used to characterise in-
terface elements as well as aspects of interaction - i.e. the
metaphor of a “desktop” for an system interface, that of a
“trash can” for “deletion”.
Mental models correspond to the way data, functions,
tasks, roles and members of a group are organised, in a way
that is expected to reflect the content that needs to be con-
veyed and that can be easily understood by the user.
Navigation refers to the movement between mental mod-
els, i.e. the potential sequence of windows, menus, panels
etc. that a user may encounter.
Interaction is the means by which a user communicates
with a system, providing input and receiving feedback based
on it.
Appearance of a UI comprises all verbal, visual, acous-
tic, and tactile perceptual characteristics of a display, such
as the layout, orientation, aesthetics, icons, colours, sounds,
language and verbal style.
3. WECHAT AND CHINESE UX
Marcus [13] noticed how, over the past decade, hints of
a specifically Chinese UX have emerged in juxtaposition to
the paradigms imposed by Western HCI practices and stan-
dards. This Chinese UX is characterised by new metaphors,
mental models, navigation schemas, interaction paradigms
and appearance elements that are fundamental to Chinese
history and culture. Evidence of these can be found in
WeChat, whose design clearly follows a “everything-in-one”
pattern, but also in the frequency of usage of voice messag-
ing, and the popularity of “cute” mascots, icons and anima-
tions.
3.1 Traditional Chinese Values
Holmes et al [9] claim that the evolution of WeChat in-
dicates a trend towards traditional Chinese values rather
than towards Western-style standards, as one may wrongly
assume. For Wang et al [24], many of the functionalities
of WeChat allow for the reinforcement, reconfiguration and
enhancement of social practices based on these values. The
concept of Guanxi refers to the way people establish
and maintain social relationships by developing personal,
particularistic ties between individuals [9]. With the excep-
tion of instrumental ties (which are temporary and goal-
oriented, such as those between salesmen and customers)
[24], the Guanxi relationship between two individuals usu-
ally begins with the identification of common grounds and
can be reinforced through the reciprocation of favours [9].
The moral obligation to reciprocate such favours and the
observance of social norms is referred to as Renqing.
Both concept are finally related to the Chinese social concept
of “face” or Mianzi, the social “prestige” or “honour”
that an individual can accumulate by following the norms
of society. Failure to meet such obligations may cause one
to “lose” the face, whereas the development of Guanzi rela-
tionships allows to “save” or even “give” face to others [9].
3.2 WeChat
Chinese mobile application WeChat (Weixin ) was
launched on the market as an Instant Messaging (IM) appli-
cation in 2011 and has now reached over 700 million users
[3], extending itself to include functionalities comparable to
- and beyond - those of popular Western applications such as
WhatsApp, Facebook, Tinder, Skype, Amazon, Uber, while
also being established as a popular online payment service
[11]. Cheng and Nielsen [3] argue that the main strength of
WeChat lies in its “integrated user experience”, rather than
in the quality and usability of each service as a standalone.
3.2.1 Moments, Public Accounts and Wallet
Apart from the chat service, WeChat offers a Facebook-
like feature called “Moments” which allows a user to share
different types of media content (text, pictures, audio, video,
documents) with their contact list; the option to follow“Pub-
lic Accounts”which consist of official mini-websites of a com-
pany or business that are effectively built and integrated
within the app; and a digital Wallet service which allows
for fast and reliable payments to either online or real-world
businesses such as shops and restaurants, or for money trans-
fers between individuals. When asked to draw their mental
models of WeChat during a research study, many partici-
pants regarded the payment service and public accounts as
more central than the IM service [3].
3.2.2 Red Envelopes and Lucky Money
The Red Packet function of WeChat is a digital version
of the Chinese Lunar New Year tradition of hong bao,
the exchange of monetary gifts between friends and family
members based on the Guanxi. The application allows users
to send small amounts of money from their WeChat Wallet
to anyone on their contact list either directly or through
“Lucky Money”, which consists in allocating a number of
packets between several members of a group who need to be
fast enough to “grab” it by tapping on the screen [9].
Figure 3: The two ways of sending WeChat red packets
3.2.3 People Nearby, Shake and Message in a Bottle
WeChat offers three functionalities which may be used to
communicate with random users: the People Nearby func-
tion shows the user a list of people based on geographical
distance, the Shake matches two users who are shaking their
phones at the same time, and the Message in a bottle allows
a user to send a message which will reach a random user
world-wide, who may also reply and initiate a conversation
with the sender.
Figure 4: Display of the Shake (left) and Message in a Bottle
(right) functionalities of WeChat.
4. RESEARCH
4.1 Methodology
Two focus groups were carried out between four Chinese
(all female) and three Dutch (two male, one female) mas-
ter’s students of Human-Media Interaction at the University
of Twente in the Netherlands. The participants were asked
to fill in a Cultural Value Scale (CSVscale) questionnaire
based on Hofstede’s five dimensions of culture prior to the
begin of the study. Each focus group was audio-recorded and
lasted approximately 30 minutes, during which each group
was asked to discuss about their own experiences with mo-
bile applications and to compare and contrast UX and UI
elements of WeChat with those of its Western counterparts
such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Tinder. While
participants in the Chinese group were already familiar with
all of these apps, the Dutch were only briefly introduced to
the different functionalities of WeChat for the purpose of this
study. Both groups were also shown screenshots of typical
conversations that were carried out via WeChat and What-
sApp by their respective common users.
The four main topics that were addressed were: (i) Commu-
nication and messaging styles, (ii) Red envelopes and Lucky
Money; (iii) People nearby, Shake, Message in a bottle func-
tions and online encounters; (iv) User interfaces, comparison
between WeChat and Western apps with the aid of screen-
shots. The answers collected from each group were then
analysed to identify significant differences between Chinese
and Western UX, Hofstede’s and Hall’s cultural dimensions
as well as Chinese traditional values were then used as a
reference to further evaluate these differences.
4.2 Findings
4.2.1 Services and functionalities
Several differences emerged regarding both preference and
usage of mobile applications between the two groups. The
Chinese, who were well-acquainted with both WeChat and
Western apps, expressed their preference for the former,
thanks to the presence of several unrelated functionalities
embedded within a single app (“I think the design of WeChat
is really usable. . . when I started to use Facebook Messenger
I thought it was really hard.. . WeChat has more functions
than messaging. . . I don’t know why I can’t open messag-
ing (directly) on Facebook, when I click the icon it takes
me from Facebook to Messenger and it’s annoying”), listing
Public Accounts, Moments and the Online Wallet function-
ality as the most important to them. The Dutch partic-
ipants acknowledged that similar services are accessed by
them through separate, task-specific applications, such as
WhatsApp or Facebook for IM, the Facebook app for so-
cial networking, their own bank’s mobile app for online pay-
ments.
4.2.2 Communication and Messaging Style
Both groups agreed that the Chinese make more extensive
use of voicemails, emoticons and stickers during IM conver-
sations. The Chinese participants stated liking sending vocal
messages but not receiving them, and one of them said she
was annoyed by all the voicemails her mother sends her, and
they also admitted extensively sharing and collecting large
numbers of stickers; while the Dutch said that using those in
IM conversations can be annoying, and that there were too
many “useless” emoticons on WhatsApp. They also noted
how each of the Western IM app may be more suitable for
a specific type of conversation (e.g. formal vs informal) - “I
guess Facebook Messenger has more ‘stuff ’, like emoticons
and stickers, and iMessage has ‘effects’, like balloons flying
over your screen, so it’s more funny... and whatsapp is more
‘official’ ”; “I sometimes use Facebook Messenger in a more
‘official’ way when I talk to people I don’t know really well,
but then if I know them I send lots of stickers and I don’t
really mind (spelling) mistakes. SMS it’s more. . . i wouldn’t
say formal, but “business-like” - very short and to the point”.
Figure 5: Comparison of typical group conversation carried
out in WeChat (left) and WhatsApp (right)
4.2.3 Red Envelopes and Lucky Money
The Chinese participants confirmed that the exchange of
red envelopes through WeChat is popular for several pur-
poses - packets are sent as a reward (“Sometimes when I
do something right my mom will send me WeChat money”)
or incentive (“If people want to do a questionnaire and they
need participants.. . they say ‘come and do a questionnaire
for me and you can get Lucky Money’ ”), for fun or leisure
(“sometimes I send it in a group where we don’t have any-
thing to talk about.. . so we send it to see who is lucky and
who is unlucky, and we make fun of the unlucky ones”), or
to convey a certain message embedded in the meaning of the
amount of money transferred (“sometimes the numbers have
meaning: 520 or 5.2 represents ‘I love you’... 888 is a lucky
number... 6 is also a lucky number... 1314 means ‘forever’
).
The gamification of the Lucky Money feature, which allows
to split a certain amount of packets amongst those that are
quick enough to “grab” it in a group chat, was also used
by the Chinese participants as a way to maintain social re-
lationships without having to find a topic of conversation.
When asked about their feelings upon receiving a red enve-
lope, the Chinese expressed that they felt that reciprocating
by offering some of their time (i.e. by leaving a “like” on the
sender’s wall) is sufficient for them, whereas the Dutch said
that in a similar case they would feel the need to send the
same amount of money they received back to the sender, and
that receiving money from anyone without a specific reason
would make them uncomfortable (“I don’t see the value of
sending money to people for fun”).
4.2.4 New connections
The People-Nearby, Shake and Message-in-a-bottle fea-
tures which allow to meet new people through WeChat were
not as well-received according to the Chinese participants
of this study, because they are linked to a “bad image” of
someone who is lonely or explicitly looking for sexual en-
counters. The Dutch participants, on the other hand, gave
their opinions on the Western dating app Tinder stating that
they would seek meeting people online for romantic purposes
only (“I wouldn’t really use an application to meet new peo-
ple non-romantically, because I would just meet people in the
city, like when I go out and stuff).
4.2.5 Interface Comparison
Participants from both groups found the user interfaces
of IM applications to be quite similar to each other. On
WeChat, navigation and functionality buttons make use of
both icons and labels, while both WhatsApp and Facebook
Messenger rely on either icons only or text only, which caused
confusion in the Chinese who were not accustomed to West-
ern apps (“I think there should be some words (labels) to
explain them (icons on WhatsApp) so that we can under-
stand. On WeChat we have them”). They also wished that
WhatsApp would show more information about a contact
other than their name and phone number, since WeChat
allows to click on a user’s photo to access their social me-
dia profile (“In WeChat when I am talking to someone and
perhaps I forget what they recently did. . . like maybe if they
moved somewhere and I want to know their position. . . I can
click on her face and it shows me the location so that I don’t
say something wrong and I know more. . . On WhatsApp
you cannot do that and know directly information about peo-
ple. . . I just received this message and I have to remember
what should I say to this contact”). Western IM applications
also allow a user to know when the receiver has read their
message through Read Receipts (“blue ticks”on WhatsApp),
which are not present in WeChat. The Chinese participants
were particularly bothered by this (“If they see I have read
the message, should I reply now or should I wait for some
time? I would prefer they did not show it”), while the Dutch
showed to be more lenient about replying to messages (“I
often just read the thing and then two hours later I respond,
and then the other people sees that I have read it but. . . you
know. . . you shouldn’t empathise too much on these things”).
4.3 Discussion
Figure 6 illustrates the scores of Chinese and Dutch cul-
tures in relation to Hofstede’s cultural dimensions. The
most significant differences regard the Individualism and
Masculinity dimensions: while Chinese society is highly col-
lectivistic and characterised by the building of particular-
istic ties between individuals, the Dutch social framework
is loosely-knit and individuals are expected to take care of
themselves only. The high Masculinity score of China indi-
cate that society values competition and striving for success,
whereas in the Netherlands there is a focus on inclusion and
standing out from the crowd is not highly regarded. China
Figure 6: Comparison between Chinese and Dutch cultural
dimension scores, from [22]
also holds one of the highest scores for Power Distance, in-
dicating that individuals are highly influenced by authority
and inequalities amongst people are commonly accepted. By
contrast, in the Netherlands communication with one’s su-
perior is informal, direct and participative. The Chinese
also score relatively low for uncertainty avoidance, indicat-
ing that they are comfortable with ambiguity and their ad-
herence to laws and rules may be flexible according to each
situation, whereas the Dutch exhibit a slight preference for
avoiding uncertainty. Finally, the two cultures both have
a strong Long-term Orientation, that is, they both have a
pragmatic nature and a propensity for thriftiness and per-
severance in achieving results [22].
According to Hall’s model of culture, most Asian cultures
such as the Chinese are high-context and polychronic [5, 12],
whereas Northern European cultures - including the Dutch
- are low-context and monochronic [5]. In addition to this,
research suggests that while European thinking is analytic
and based on Cartesian logic, Eastern cultures have devel-
oped holistic thinking and a capability to consider logical
opposites simultaneously without conflict [13, 15].
4.3.1 Low- vs High-Context Communication
Visuals. The main difference that emerged regarding com-
munication style was the use of almost plain text, favoured
by the Dutch, versus the extensive use of images, emoti-
cons, stickers and animations, which the Chinese favoured
instead. According to Reinecke’s study of UI elements in re-
lation to cultural dimensions [16], a high text-to-image ratio
and low multimodality is preferred by highly individualistic
cultures such as the Dutch, while a high image-to-text ratio
and high multimodality is preferred by highly collectivistic
cultures such as the Chinese (table 2).
Speech. Participants also noted that receiving an audio
message can be inconvenient depending on the situation.
Based on Hall’s concept of multisensory space [6], one may
hypothesise that it could more acceptable to send vocal mes-
sages in higher context cultures like China compared to low
context cultures like the Netherlands, although in this case
the difference in frequency of speech messages is likely due
to accessibility factors rather than cultural factors, as speech
input reduces interaction cost compared to typing especially
for Mandarin language speakers [3]; one of the Chinese par-
ticipants stated, referring to voice messages: “I hate to re-
ceive it, but I *like* to send it, because I always have a full
schedule.. . I prefer to send voice messages when I am walk-
ing on the road and it’s very hard typing”.
Payments. The Chinese group also mentioned the online
payment service as one of the main strengths of WeChat
and criticised Western people’s reluctance to trust, while
the Dutch participants said that, despite liking the idea of
faster payments while“on the go”, they would not trust such
a service from a mobile application like WeChat - this dif-
ference in trust may be related to Hall’s theory that infor-
mation flows faster and more freely in high-context coun-
tries like China compared to low-context countries like the
Netherlands, which value highly bureaucracy and following
procedures [5]
4.3.2 Chinese Collectivism & Gift-giving
While red envelopes themselves are based on the hong
bao tradition, the way WeChat users exploit this feature in
order to establish or reinforce social connections based on
the Guanxi is somewhat comparable to the use that West-
ern teenagers make of text messages, which may also convey
meaning beyond those explicitly contained in them and can
be used to generate a need to reciprocate in the receiver.
Specifically, Taylor and Harper [21] investigated how teenage
mobile phone users rely on text messaging as a form of “rit-
ualised gift-giving” for establishing and maintaining social
relationships such as friendships, alliances and rivalries. In-
terestingly, the Chinese participants had a positive view of
the WeChat Red Packet and Lucky Money features, which
they found “fun” and “convenient”, but they found the ex-
change of messages through WhatsApp frustrating due to
the presence of Read Receipts. The Dutch participants, on
the other hand, were not as bothered by Read Receipts but
found the idea of receiving monetary gifts unsettling. Also
worth noting the fact that, unlike traditional hong bao, on
WeChat one may send red packets to people outside the cir-
cle of family and friends, but sending money to a stranger is
only accepted in order to establish opportunistic encounters
(e.g. as an incentive to give out for recruiting someone for
a questionnaire) in accordance with the Guanxi [24].
4.3.3 Relationships, time and values
The bad image that the Chinese associate with those ser-
vices that allow for online encounters is likely linked to the
concept of keeping one’s face: given that Chinese culture is
collectivistic and high-context - that is, it values taking one’s
time to build life-long relationships [13] - the idea of “find-
ing potential dates quickly” promoted by Western apps like
Tinder may be seen as going against the Guanxi, while it is
certainly more suitable to cultures such as the Dutch who
are regarded as individualistic, low-context and more accus-
tomed to short-term relationships. The study conducted by
Wang et al [24] on WeChat suggests that among those three
features that “challenge” the Guanxi by connecting random
users, the most successful are those that still allow to seek
for some type of common ground, such as the People Nearby
which can be used to locate people who work in the same of-
fice, for example. In the same study it was highlighted how
some people may use functionalities such as the Message in a
bottle and Shake in an attempt to establish non-romantic re-
lationships with strangers, but they would often be matched
with someone whose intentions were different. On the con-
trary, from the focus group with the Dutch participants it
emerged that they would seek online encounters specifically
for romantic purposes and were less interested in making
new friends through an app.
4.3.4 Mianzi and Uncertainty Avoidance
When commenting on Read Receipts, one of the Chinese
participants admitted sometimes not directly opening a mes-
sage (but instead reading it from the notification bar on top
of the screen, so that the read receipt is not activated) in
order to pretend she did not see it and avoid having to reply
to the sender: “I think that’s because usually we don’t want
to directly say “I don’t want to do that”, we’ll just pretend
we didn’t see that (message)... I think it’s in our culture, I
guess...”. This could be due to the fact that failing to re-
ciprocate a message may be perceived as going against the
Guanxi, hence pretending not to have seen the message is
a way to maintain the face or Mianzi. The same reason
could explain the need to know more about the person one
is talking to (by accessing information through their profile
on WeChat) in order to“know more” and “not say something
wrong”, despite the fact that Chinese culture is commonly
regarded as having low Uncertainty Avoidance (figure 6).
The need to use redundant cues to reduce ambiguity (i.e.
by having both labels and icons to describe the function-
ality of a UI element) is also not proper of cultures with
low uncertainty avoidance (table 4), but in the case of this
study the issues encountered could be due to the use of men-
tal models and metaphors in the design of Western UIs that
the Chinese are not familiar with.
Chinese UX Western UX
Holistic, “everything in
one” Analytic, modular and
task-oriented
Polychronic, “many things
at once”
Monochronic, “on thing at
a time”
High-context, slow-paced,
implicit communication Low-Context, quick, direct
communication
High multimodality Low multimodality
Extensive use of images
and animations
Mostly text-based
Promotes taking time to
build relationships Promotes building rela-
tionships quickly
Allows explicit exchange of
favours (red packets)
Messaging as a form of gift-
giving
Need to say right thing at
the right time Lenient attitude towards
communication
Trusts quick online pay-
ments Values bureaucracy and
following procedures
Table 7: Summary of research findings
4.4 Limitations
The data collected through the CVScale from both sets of
participants poorly fitted that expected based on Hofstede’s
study of Chinese and Dutch cultures (fig. 6), as the average
scores for the Chinese group were considerably lower for the
Power Distance and Masculinity dimensions and consider-
ably higher for the Individualism and Uncertainty Avoid-
ance dimensions, whereas the Dutch scored lower than ex-
pected for Individualism and higher than expected for Mas-
culinity. This was likely due to most of the participants
having an international background. On top of that, the
Dutch participants were unfamiliar with WeChat and only
introduced to its functionalities as part of the focus group,
hence their responses were based on first impressions rather
than experience. Finally, one should always be cautious
when making any assumptions about culture of a large and
complex country like China, as significant differences were
observed between Chinese users coming from different geo-
graphic areas within the country [12].
5. CONCLUSIONS
The popularity of WeChat suggests that a successful Chi-
nese UX can only derive from a specifically Chinese UCD
process. The design of WeChat attempts to accommodate
the needs of users who are characterised by a holistic think-
ing pattern, a polychronic attitude and a propensity for
high-context communication. It also strives for the incor-
poration of traditional Chinese values such as the Renqing
and the Guanxi, by allowing users to build and maintain
particularistic social ties through the exchange of red pack-
ets, and to seek common grounds when new connections are
established between two individuals. By contrast, apps such
as WhatsApp are the result of a Western UCD which is char-
actherised by an analytical thinking pattern, a monochronic
attitude and a propensity for low-context communication.
These apps provide a UX which is task-oriented rather than
relationship-oriented and focuses on fast, direct communi-
cation more suitable for individualistic, low-context cultures
such as the Dutch.
5.1 Suggestions
This study, as well as previous research [3], indicates that
Chinese users prefer a holistic user experience design over
a task-oriented design which “merely” focuses on usability,
overlooking convenience. In order to build convenience, it is
suggested that different services and functionalities are inte-
grated in the design, offering a seamless interaction that does
not require the user to switch between interfaces. To im-
prove usability, one should consider that Chinese users have
their own metaphors and mental models, and may not be
familiar with those typical of Western UX. The use of redu-
dant cues to reduce ambiguity (e.g. including labels as well
as icons) could be especially useful in the case of localisation
of Western interfaces for a Chinese market. Furthermore,
Chinese users were shown to favour a high image-to-text ra-
tio in UIs and to make extensive use of “cute” emoticons,
stickers, and animations, as well as relying on speech input
for sending messages.
It is also suggested that user experience can be enhanced
by incorporating aspects of traditional Chinese values, par-
ticularly the Guanxi: services that involve communication
between users should promote slow-paced development of
meaningful relationships, which can be reinforced through
the mutual exchange of “favours” - in WeChat, this is made
explicit through the sending of red packets, but also oc-
curs implicitly through the exchange of likes, text messages,
stickers and media. When it comes to online encounters, it
is speculated that a service will have more chances of being
well-received by the Chinese if it allows users to be matched
based on common grounds and gives then time to develop
a Guanxi relationship, rather than if it were goal-oriented
and explicitly promoting quick meetings, as in the case of
Western-style dating and hookup apps like Tinder. Finally,
one should take into consideration that while Western users
may have a more lenient attitude towards communication, a
Chinese user may be more cautious about “saying the right
thing at the same time” in order to avoid losing face. Be-
cause of this, they may seek contextual information (e.g.
through user profiles, messaging history) and react nega-
tively to elements that may generate time pressure (such as
read receipts).
6. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
The author gratefully acknowledges his supervisors for
their precious support and all the research participants for
their contribution and interest.
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