Open a Chinese corporate Web site, and the chances are it will look a lot splashier than its English counterpart.
Photos appear, fade, flash or advance along a page filled with brightly colored graphics. Lines of Chinese characters swoop down or scroll into view, and videos play. The English version of the same Web site isn't quite so dressed up.
"Chinese Web designers are more likely than Americans to use animated content," said Grace Zhang, an associate professor of business and information technology at Augusta State University.
That might be making Chinese sites more difficult and more annoying to use, though, placing Chinese companies at a competitive disadvantage.
Zhang recently completed a study of the corporate Web sites of China's 500 largest companies. She compared her results with those of an Indiana University study on trends in America's Fortune 500 company Web sites and found that Chinese sites had "busier" content than American ones.
For example, Chinese corporate Web sites contain more links, on average 51 per page vs. 40 for American sites; fewer site maps, (Chinese) 57 percent vs. (American) 65 percent; and a higher use of splash screens, (Chinese) 13 percent vs. (American) virtually none.
"There are a lot of industry guidelines about what you should and shouldn't do. Pop-up windows and splash screens should never be used," Zhang said.
Some of the differences between Chinese and American sites reflect different cultural values, Zhang said. For example, Chinese Web sites often use the color red, a national favorite. They also emphasize social responsibility more, for example, through messages about the Green Movement and links to Communist Party officials.
It could be that Chinese sites contain more animation because the Chinese expect Web content to be fun, not just full of information, Zhang said, something a past study had theorized. Another study showed that both Chinese and German test subjects found animation bothersome, though the Chinese were bothered less, she said.
Pop-up windows and splash screens interrupt the viewer, and large graphics take a long time to load, she said. The Web site of HeBei Construction, one of China's largest companies, has a list of more than 100 links on its main page.
"It's better just to have a good menu, so you can just go to where you want. The home page is really valuable real estate, so only the most important information should be used," Zhang said.
She said she hoped her work would cause Chinese companies to reconsider their site designs.
"I think they should do more usability studies and think more about who their audience is." she said. "They should ask themselves, do people really like all that animated content, or is it just in the way?"