What Chinese Copycatting Means for User Interface Designers

We’ve been huffing and puffing about this for years, guys. We’ve been flipping out over Chinese tech firms and all the international copyright violations. Most of the articles covering the topic point with outrage to blatant and large-scale duplication by Chinese companies – take everything from the Guardian’s 2006 “Got an Idea? The Pirates of the Far East Will Steal It” to Christina Warren’s August 2014 piece for Mashable, “China’s MIUI 6 is the Most Blatant iOS7 Ripoff Ever“.

A lot of those articles point to China’s lack of legal infrastructure to punish copyright offenders and yes, that infrastructure is weak at best, but I don’t think that’s really where the core issue lies.

Yawn: Individualism vs. Collectivism

You’ve probably heard this before, but I gotta lead with it: copy-catting just isn’t a dirty word in China. It’s not an indictment of anyone’s business prowess or intellect. It’s not an insult. Call someone a copycat here, it’s kind of like putting on a sour face and calling someone a banana. I guess that’s bad? Bananas are bad, right?

Elaine Ann, China UX guru and head of Kaizor Innovation, a usability consultancy out of Hong Kong, was kind enough to share some of her writing on the major differences between Chinese user psychology and western user psychology. Among those was the differentiation between China as a culture that values collectivism rather than individualism.

I think her insights extend farther still, well into the intellectual property arena. An individualist society values the exceptional standout, the lone creative. On the other end of that spectrum, the scoffed-at end, is the copy-catter, unimaginative, a bit pathetic, even mean-spirited, not only incapable of brilliance but shameless in their unwillingness to achieve it in their own right. A leech. A greasy parasite.

But that is not a Chinese perception, not yet. A collectivist society views sameness as a virtue. You don’t lose consumer respect if you copy someone else’s product, localize it, then sell it for less – here, that’s just good business. The moment a product enters the market is, in my experience, seen as the start of an Olympic sprint: the guy in front at the gun isn’t necessarily going to be the guy in front at the end, and if you can’t innovate fast enough and keep enough cards up your sleeve, if you were the first to market but failed to monetize in a way that appeals to your market, that’s your problem.

I’m not saying it’s fair. I’m just saying it’s fact.

The anger is understandable, but I also think it’s also culturally naive. If you’re clever and savvy, if you’ve got the right team and you gather the right data, these aren’t insurmountable hurdles, even if you’re not a local. Take a look, for example, at Movile, a Brazilian firm that’s managed to stay ahead of domestic China curve.

I asked Henrique what he would recommend other app developers interested in China do if they want to enter the market. “My advice first is to understand the local differences,” he said. “So hire a Chinese country manager that will help you to plan how to localize the product. That’s mandatory.”

“The other advice is that you have to move fast,” Henrique continued. “In China, competitors are extremely agile […] You have to adapt fast and innovate fast because your competitors will copy you, and if they are more adapted to the local market you will lose the competition. So launch, iterate fast, launch new versions, listen to your users, and innovate fast.”

Successful Platforms Enable Downloading

If you’ve ever been determined to download a video off of Youtube, you’ve probably used a ripper, a piece of semi-legal software that allows users to grab videos off of sites that don’t natively allow downloading. Westerners are so accustomed to the restrictions of intellectual property law that they can hardly imagine a world without it. In efforts to appease the WTO and other international bodies, China’s spent much of the last decade making noises about respecting global IP, and along some outward-facing channels, those improvements are happening, albeit haphazardly.

But internally, the bottom line is that China’s major media platforms both facilitate and encourage the downloading of content. Youku, Tudou and Aiqiyi, together perhaps the “Big Three” of streaming video, include a download button in their video detail pages. “Like”, “favorite” and “download”, big ol’ buttons. Baidu Music, another major player in streaming media, allows anyone to download any song, pretty much any time – it’s built right into the interface, a front-and-center feature.

China UX Insights: China User Interface Consultant

Chinese UI Insights: China User Interface Consulting

China UI Insights: China User Interface Analysis

This is the parallel universe in which the RIAA collapsed, the alternate reality where monetization was never based on the song-as-product model.

If you’re business model revolves around digital products, localizing for China will mean deep consideration in terms of how users expect to gain access to that data.

Copycatting as Design Pattern Standardization

Copycatting isn’t just Chinese firms ripping off Western brands – it’s a rampant national practice amongst local competitors. To copy the visual style of a competitor’s successful brand is to eliminate the possibility that design might be one of the success factors; businesses can then focus on tweaking the remaining parts of the sales formula.

I’ve been on the back end of this process before. If I had to estimate, say that 85% of my first-time design meetings with local firms begin with the client asking me to wholesale duplicate another website or app, down to colors, fonts and layout. When Windows 8 came out, everyone wanted colored rainbow blocks, regardless of whether or not the style suited the content.

Large national brands, like Taobao or Yihaodian, often set the visual tone and riff off each other, and smaller agencies copy them (often at the demand of their clients), until some visual styles are so ubiquitous that they almost become standardized by repetition. Designs deviating from those styles feel “unofficial”, “unreal”, or “not right somehow”.

I collected a few examples of this from the ecommerce world in a recent Tuts+ article, particularly in the category layout on portal-style landing pages.

“Almost one-for-one, China’s largest ecommerce sites feature home pages that display product categories in a block to the left and above the fold, over or next to a central banner:

Chinese User Interface Consultant: Chinese Visual Design Consultant

Chinese User Interface Differences

China User Interface Differences

Know the rules before you break them

You know what this means? If you’re building a product for China, you may need to do a little copying yourself. At the very least, as an outsider, you’ll need to know what the expected patterns are and why they exist before you break them.