Beijing Startup Goes Full Crazy on Web Design... By Keeping It Simple
There is a place in the world where crass pop-ups, bouncing gifs, and sparkling banners prevail. It's called China. For whatever reason, Internet users here seem to prefer pages that are crowded, loud, garish, and potentially cancer-inducing. Which is why Wandoujia – a media management tool for Android that prioritizes clean, crisp design – is remarkable.
One theory holds that Chinese Web site designs mirror the cluttered urban streets of the netizens' home environments, where massive neon-lit signs compete against scores of other massive neon-lit signs for the attention of passers-by. Subtlety is for chumps. Here, flashy is always better. The impulse is so ingrained in the culture that, apparently, even Google tested an over-stuffed, Sina-like portal design before ultimately entering the market with its trademark minimalist homepage.
“It has to be in your face in China," Tudou's co-founder Marc van der Chijs told me a couple of weeks ago. "It has to be moving, it has to be ugly. It’s different.”
Today, I met with Jason Tian, CEO of Baihe, one of China's leading matchmaking sites, which claims 39 million registered users. His company is constantly testing and updating its website, and it has found that users always respond best to busy pages. He said there have been more than 20 versions of Baihe's homepage. "Most of the entrepreneurs from overseas tend to design very simple websites, but Chinese users like very complex websites," he said.
But Wandoujia co-founder Junyu Wang isn't listening. Or, rather, he is actively disobeying the conventional wisdom. When he and his three co-founders started the company, people told him he couldn't take the simple, minimalist design route he chose. It has to be crowded and busy, they said. He had other ideas.
"As designers, we thought that we could try it another way," said Wang, who used to work on Google China's user-experience team. (That's him in the photo above.) "It's hard to pretend that we like busy websites."
Wandoujia's site is beautiful. There is ample white space. There are no animations. The top third of the page has only about 15 clickable items, which is a long way from Google.com's five, but it's still tantamount to digital treason in China.
Kai Lukoff (the white dude in the photo above), a Stanford-educated American who founded the blog TechRice and works at the Beijing startup as a product manager, told me Wandoujia's clean design was one of the things he liked so much about the company when he first joined. "It's unusual for a Chinese startup to have a design founder and to emphasize design in the way Wandoujia does," he said.
Wandoujia (pronounced, kind of, "won-doh-jya") is a slightly complicated product for anyone from outside of China to understand. Here, everyone calls it a "mobile phone assistant." Its main function is to serve as a media management tool for Android smartphones. People can connect their phones to their computers, load Wandoujia, and then sync their music, photos, and videos – just like Apple's iTunes. In China's underdeveloped and data-restricted Android ecosystem, where the platform holds nearly 70 percent of the smartphone market, that's an essential function.
But Wandoujia also offers aggregated search for apps. China has dozens of Android app marketplaces, which can be frustrating for users when it comes time to searching for and adding apps to their phones. In that way, Wandoujia serves as a one-stop shop for app downloaders. Wang claims it has 45 million downloads.
Wandoujia's clean-design philosophy has so far paid off. When three weeks ago Flipboard made its first move into China, it partnered with the startup for the launch. “Flipboard and Wandoujia both aspire for a design concept of simplicity and elegance," Wang said at the time. "We hope the partnership could promote the value of design among Chinese Android developers.”
Wandoujia is one of the first graduates from InnovationWorks, an incubator started by Kai Fu Lee, formerly an executive with both Google and Microsoft, and a Chinese Internet rockstar. (Lee has 14.5 million fans on Sina Weibo. Suck on that, Charlie Sheen.) It was founded in July, 2010. Its CEO, Limin Zhou, was formerly Baidu's chief architect, while another co-founder, Jack Feng, previously worked at Nokia Siemens. He's the lead engineer. The fourth co-founder, Cui Jin, was spokeswoman for Google China is now head of business development at the startup.
A week and a half ago, the company very quietly launched an English-language version of its product called SnapPea, which carries the tagline "Android's Best Friend." That's the product for which Lukoff is responsible. He was reluctant to make a big fuss about the launch, however, because the product is still evolving. As it stands, SnapPea is a slightly stripped-back version of Wandoujia. Lukoff is hoping Android fanboys will put it through its paces before a full launch later down the track.
Until then, Internet, pretend you didn't hear about it.