This is the first part of the translation series aimed to elucidate the Chinese internet industry to foreigners what topics are trending, what people are discussing, what thought leaders are saying in China.

The original post (Chinese-language) was written in May 9th 2012 by Allen Zhang (张小龙), the Quora of China, sent to me from avid reader Biaowei Zhang. The English translation and all errors therein are my own.

About the author:

Allen Zhang is the product director for the highly successful Chinese unified communicator app “Weixin” or “Wechat” from Tencent. By end of March 2012, Weixin surpassed 100 million active users in 433 days and still growing strong today.  Allen is also the chief designer and architect for 2 other products that exceeded 100 million users namely Foxmail and QQmail.


What is usability and user center design (UCD)? How do you determine whether user experience is good or bad? Can you use one sentence to describe the essence of UCD?


—- User center design’s goal is to be “natural and intuitive” —-

                            Allen Zhang, Chief Architect and Designer of Wechat

  1. I’ve observed how quickly it is for a 3 year-old learning to use the iPhone.  In the case of unlocking the iPhone – there is practically no learning curve for the child because it is completely natural – first done by touch followed by a swipe in the direction of the arrow.  Whereas in adults, the learning curve is slightly steeper due to years of unnatural behavioral formation such as reading text instructions before acting.
  1. Apple Inc. focuses its efforts in building natural and intuitive interfaces.  For example, it claims document and directory concept in PC (Windows) is an invented behavioral and unnatural concept.  Rather than conforming to the mainstream directory structure, iOS employs an app centered structure where each app has its own manageable objects but stores files and documents under the hood.  Another example is Macbook’s touchpad’s setting where there is an option for “natural” scrolling that enables users to scroll in the direction of the content – opposite to what PC users are familiar with.  Apple, known for thinking differently, more accurately, is thinking naturally.
  1. Natural and intuitive is related to human primal instinct. Weixin Shake is a feature that leverages this instinct.  In Weixin, users can grab and shake to swap contact info with nearby individuals, groups of friends, or even strangers in the vicinity.  When Weixin Shake first went live, it recorded 100 million average shakes per day because it is something easy and intuitive that everyone and anyone can do regardless of their education and cultural background.  Another thing that Weixin Shake taught and validated for us is that physical interaction is the optimal design interaction.  This non-mouse, non-touch action is powerfully instinctive and without boundaries.  I give credit to Bump for being the pioneer here.

Pony Ma, my boss, and the CEO of Tencent, gave many of us a book titled “Don’t Make Me Think” which advocates exactly what the title suggests – that natural interaction does not require users to think.  Tencent’s business nowadays is in platform and application development.  At its core, any and every developer and product managers solve and simplify life tasks by building frameworks and logical structures around them.  We model multi-step and complex behavioral patterns by analyzing and breaking them down to manageable chunks while choosing the most natural way to establish the relationship between each interaction, each navigation, and each page.  No matter what the role is in product development, we all play a part in defining “natural” and “intuitive” and that’s exactly the message from the book “Don’t Make Me Think”.

A little more on app development, we encourage every screen or every page to have one conspicuous button that would lead the user to the next action. But, what is not obvious is, we also think very hard about what not to include on each screen.  For example, in our contact list, do we tally the number of contacts in the contact lists? Would our user care about this number?  How about the progress bar?  Should the percent completion be shown to the user?  Are numbers and percentages a natural propensity for our target users and customers?

These are not simple questions to answer.  To design naturally is a result of long-term rational thinking and conscious observation; it is not obtained or discovered through sudden revelation or random event.  I remember someone once asked on the question “How did Steve Jobs intuitively known what to do? What to design for and how to design it?” For that, my answer is, I do not believe anyone is born with design intuition but rather this kind of intuition is obtained through >10,000 hours of rational thinking and awareness in a particular subject.  This is especially apparent in minimalist design style when most of Chinese have not been exposed to the beauty and aesthetics in simplicity – it’s simply not in the Chinese user’s DNA, yet.

So what is the relationship between simplicity and beauty? Why is something more beautiful when it’s simpler?  Well, this is for you to think about.

Author of Web Behind The Wall and Sr. Technology Development Manager. Came to Shanghai from Silicon Valley in 2010, focused on entrepreneurship, startup China, O2O, Retail Technology. Further Inquiries,...

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  1. Thanks for the translation Kevin. Curious about longer-term trends, do you feel the direction of the Chinese internet moving towards more simplistic (or “elegant” as it’d be called in SV) design? Could this be accelerated in the mobile space vs. the desktop?

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