Innovating or Imitating? The Interplay of Western and Asian Digital Product Design

December 18, 2023

Today, the world of digital product design exists at the intersection of East and West, where the interplay between imitation and innovation has shaped the evolving digital landscape. As a UX designer experiencing various cultures, I want to explore how their intersections impact the user interface (UI), the user experience, and product strategy.

In this article, I’ll examine the historical trends of imitation and innovation between the West and Asia, explore how Asian user-driven approaches influence digital products in the West, and share how these insights have influenced my design choices.

However, before delving further into this topic, I must acknowledge that we sometimes overgeneralize in our discussion of cultural differences in UX design. To address this concern, I've gathered specific relevant case studies that provide holistic demonstrations of the points that I intend to explore.

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Differences Between Western and Asian User-Interface Design

When comparing differences in digital product design between the West and East, my first impression is that Western design emphasizes simplicity and minimalism, while vibrant visuals and content richness characterize Eastern design, as shown in Figure 1. However, it is important to note that, while this concept is generally applicable, it is not universally identical across the world. Therefore, it’s necessary to consider local context and cultural beliefs.

Figure 1—Comparison of Western and Eastern design
Comparison of Western and Eastern design

Later in this article, I’ll explain the key differences between Western and Asian design and the factors that contribute to this distinction.

How the Complexity of Written Languages Affects UI Design

The fundamental difference between West and East is language, which has a great impact on user interfaces. Western languages use alphabets in which the symbols represent individual sounds and closely reflect the spoken language—for example, English, Spanish, French, and German, as Figure 2 shows.

Figure 2—Western languages
Western languages

In Asian languages such as Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, each character represents a word and conveys its meaning directly, as shown in Figure 3. The nature of these languages gives their characters a distinctive appearance; however, it can also make these writing system somewhat complex.

Figure 3—Asian languages
Asian languages

In comparison to Western languages, Asian languages appear dense or even cluttered because of the complexity of their characters, as Figure 4 shows. Designing user interfaces in Western languages offers advantages such as predictable word length, uniform spacing, and typography that facilitates localization into another Western language.

However, designing for Asian languages, with their complex characters, poses challenges such as greater character density. This can make user interfaces in Chinese or Japanese seem cluttered to Western users. Therefore, ensuring legibility and visual balance becomes critical when incorporating the characters of an Asian language into a user interface.

Figure 4—Comparison of Asian and Western languages
Comparison of Asian and Western languages

How Communication Styles Influence the Use of Whitespace and Information Density

The most well-known Western digital products have more whitespace, while those from Asia tend to fill in the available space with their content and call-to-action elements. You can notice this distinction in communication styles in Figure 5, by comparing Amazon’s UK Web site and, the best-known ecommerce platform in China.

Figure 5—Comparing Amazon’s UK site to in China
Comparing Amazon's UK site to, a well-known Chinese ecommerce site

Low-context cultures such as the US and Germany favor direct communication. Their designs reflect this, typically displaying just a few large visuals with concise text and following them up with additional pages that provide supplementary information.

In contrast, most Asian countries such as China, Japan, and South Korea have high-context cultures. Their designs are sophisticated and nuanced communications often rely on implicit messages. This characteristic has influenced the development of their digital products, resulting in higher information density, numerous animations and graphics, and long menus on a single page. Asians don’t regard numerous features and densely packed information as clutter; instead, they believe that this abundance contributes to efficient communication.

All in all, Western design emphasizes spaciousness and directness, while Asians value rich content and implicit communication. It’s fascinating to observe how distinct cultural communication norms shape their different design approaches.

Everything in One Versus One Thing at a Time

In pursuit of the abundance that I mentioned earlier and aligning with their emphasis on efficiency, UX designers fill typical Asian user-interface designs with content and user-interface elements.

Coincidentally, more apps have started offering a variety of functions. The most well-known example is WeChat, which began as a chat-messaging app. Now, WeChat encompasses features ranging from banking services to filing for a divorce, as Figure 6 shows. WeChat even functions as an ecosystem in which users can install additional mini-apps from the marketplace to address a variety of user needs.

Figure 6—WeChat, a chat-messaging app in China
WeChat, a chat-messaging app in China

In contrast, Western apps tend to focus on one thing at a time and usually present a clean, simplified user interface that guides users through their tasks step by step. One example is Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade crafts that is shown in Figure 7. Users can browse the products without being overwhelmed by call-to-action elements or busy user interfaces, allowing them to explore and enjoy the handcrafted products.

Figure 7—Etsy, a Western online marketplace for handmade crafts
Etsy, a Western online marketplace for handmade crafts

Both approaches—Everything in One and One Thing at a Time—offer their own advantages that can benefit users. However, I have observed that the distinct line between these two approaches has started to blur, as I’ll discuss in the following section.

The Influence of Individualism and Collectivism on User-Interface Design

The Western cultural emphasis on individualism and the value of personal space in real-life spaces has extended to the digital realm, ensuring that users can engage with a user interface without being distracted and that sufficient visual space makes users feel that their needs are being respected. This has translated into designs that prioritize clarity and minimalism in aiming to offer users an uncluttered, straightforward user experience.

Collectivism and the community-driven mindset in Asia emphasize inclusivity and catering to a wide range of user preferences and needs. Therefore, UX designers try to do their best in accommodating various user expectations and needs, which has led to denser, feature-rich designs that are bursting with content and call-to-action elements. This coincides with a saying from Chinese culture: “The more, the merrier.” Thus, the user interfaces of Asian products reflect this approach.

While you might think that Asian designs tend to be intricate and Western designs lean toward simplicity, the reality is more complex. Western and Asian design have continually intersected, evolving and reshaping themselves over time.

I’ll delve into this further in the upcoming sections, exploring how Western and Asian UX designers have influenced and learned from each other in terms of product strategy and user-interface design.

Going Beyond Imitating the West to Adopting a User-Driven Mindset

Although, historically, Asia has imitated or adapted Western user-interface designs, Asian businesses have now adopted a user-driven mindset that is leading to greater innovation.

Copying from the West, Then Adapting Designs in Asia

It’s no secret that Western businesses often accuse Asian countries of copying and following their design trends. China has notably been the primary target of this accusation and has faced allegations of their producing low-quality, copycat designs. The range of things that China has replicated is diverse, including electronics, software, architecture, and even entire towns. The most well-known example is Hallstatt, on which BBC News has reported, as shown in Figure 8. China created a fake version of this World Heritage site in Guangdong, southern China, which both surprised and upset locals.

Figure 8BBC News reported on the Chinese replication of Hallstatt
BBC News reported on the Chinese replica of Hallstatt

In the digital space, numerous Asian companies have drawn inspiration from the West. Baidu, the Chinese tech giant shown in Figure 9, has developed its own search engine and is often referred to as the Google of China. Baidu dominates the Chinese search-engine market and has become the primary search portal. This was probably inevitable because many people can’t access Google because of the restrictions that the Great Firewall imposes.

Figure 9—Many refer to Baidu’s search engine as the Google of China
Many refer to Baidu's search engine as the Google of China

Another example is Flipkart, shown in Figure 10, which many regard as the Amazon equivalent in India. Although Flipkart hasn’t directly copied Amazon, it has replicated certain aspects of the Amazon US model. For instance, to attract more customers with exclusive discounts and offers, Flipkart hosts events such as Big Billion Days, which is similar to Amazon’s Prime Day. Flipkart has also extended its services to digital payments and fashion, following a path similar to Amazon.

Figure 10—Flipkart, the Amazon equivalent in India
Flipkart, the Amazon equivalent in India

While Baidu and Flipkart began by imitating Western approaches, they have embraced a think global, act local mindset to better align with their local markets and users. Thus, innovation is addressing unmet local user needs. Baidu strongly focuses on catering to the Chinese language and culture and have tailored their search algorithms, rankings, and search results to interpret the nuances and intricacies of the Chinese language. Flipkart has introduced Cash on Delivery because they understand that people in India prefer cash transactions.

An Emerging, User-Driven Approach to Innovation in Asia

Unlike the mission-driven approach of Silicon Valley, which aims to innovate transformative technology that is capable of changing the world, Asia is adopting a user-driven approach to spark innovation. They usually start by creating platforms that empower users to share their feedback, enabling them to identify unmet user needs and, thus, driving innovation.

The widespread adoption of QR code mobile payments in China, shown in Figure 11, is the best example to illustrate this point. Although QR code technology was no longer new, it gained prominence when Alibaba and Tencent incorporated it into the payment landscape. They had discovered that the use of QR codes could fulfill the needs of Chinese consumers, who lacked alternative payment methods such as credit cards and had concerns about counterfeit currencies.

Figure 11—A QR code that customers can scan to pay via WeChat
A local shop displays a QR code that customers can scan to pay via WeChat

Image source: SANA Haoma 211 on Wikimedia Commons

Going Beyond Core Functionality to Provide a Comprehensive Digital Lifestyle

By extending more services to better cater to user needs, this user-driven approach has also led to the trend of aggregating multiple services into a single system. This practice has become increasingly common among Asian-based apps such as those shown in Figure 12. WeChat in China, Gojek in Indonesia, and Paytm in India have all embraced this Everything in One approach.

These platforms started from different origins: WeChat as a chat-messaging tool; Gojeck, a ride-hailing app; and Paytm, a payment app. They have now expanded their offerings to cover a wide range of relevant services, creating a multifaceted digital ecosystem. This approach keeps users engaged, making these apps integral parts of their daily lives and enhancing the overall lifetime value of their users.

Figure 12—Aggregating services is common in Asian apps
Aggregating services into one system is common among Asian apps

Inspired by Asian Super Apps, the West Is Imitating Asian Success

The success of a few Asian products that dominate their respective markets has shaped the concept of the super app, which has now emerged globally. A super app is a mobile ecosystem that offers a variety of services that cater to a wide range of user needs. Asia introduced the concept of the super app with WeChat more than a decade ago. In China, WeChat is a necessity and provides features for chatting, gaming, ride-hailing, bill payment, and even buying movie tickets—all within the same app. According to data, its monthly active users in Q2 2023 reached 1.3 billion, with 88% of Chinese mobile users using the app daily.

Today, there are more than 60 super apps worldwide. Figure 13 shows just a few examples. Among them, you can identify some apps that used to focus on a single service. Now they’ve transitioned to embrace the Everything in One approach. For example, Uber has expanded its scope beyond ride-hailing to adopt this strategy.

Figure 13—Some of the super apps that are available worldwide
Some of the super apps that are available worldwide

Going Beyond Ride-hailing

Uber is following in the footsteps of the Asian super apps Grab and Gojek. The success of Gojek and Grab, Southeast Asian super apps, has influenced Uber, which now offers not only ride-hailing, but has expanded its services to include financial offerings, delivery, and travel options, as you can see in Figures 14 and 15. Uber’s new strategic approach mirrors that taken by Gojek and Grab in their own market, where they leveraged their large user bases to establish well-rounded ecosystems.

Figure 14—Uber emulating Gojek and Grab by offering various services
Emulating the success of Gojek and Grab, Uber now offers a variety of services
Figure 15—Uber’s diversified service offerings
Uber's diversified service offerings

Super apps typically provide a popular service at their core, facilitating the integration of multiple apps on a single platform and, with a single account, allowing users to easily access all the services. This model lowers customer-acquisition costs for other services and increases the lifetime value of existing users. The diversification of these businesses has made them more profitable and stable.

The super app is now emerging and evolving on a global scale. Organizations have observed its success in Asian markets and are now seeking to adopt it as part of their business strategy. Super apps present a good opportunity to explore different cultures and consider how to adopt such multifunctional services in our own markets, adapting them to better align with local user needs.

Adapting to Change: Implications for Designing Digital Products

In this age of globalization, opportunities to understand diverse cultures are now expanding. Cultures are blending. We must not fixate on a single perspective because cultures meld and transform into something novel that aligns better with user needs.

The interplay between Western and Asian design is dynamic and has shaped the ever-evolving landscape of digital products. From the spacious minimalism of the West to the rich intricacies of Asia, it’s evident that the contrast between the West and East is not an absolute division. We’re now seeing user-driven approaches to innovation. The emerging trend of the super app reflects an intricate fusion of user preferences, cultural contexts, and technological developments.

As we navigate the ever-changing digital-product landscape, it is becoming clear that the convergence of Western and Asian design principles is enriching digital-product design, leading to innovative solutions that bridge culture gaps and opening up new possibilities for us to push the boundaries of what is achievable in the field of digital-product design. 

Senior Designer at Mews

Bristol, UK

Jo ChangJo is a product designer who has experience in various markets. She has worked in countries such as Taiwan, China, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. Jo has a keen interest in exploring how different cultures intersect and influence the software user interface (UI), user experience, and product strategy. Over the years, Jo has gained valuable insights from these diverse cultures and their transitions. As a result, she aims to share these insights with a broader audience that is interested in the cultural aspects of digital product design.  Read More

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