Why are We shopping more on ugly apps?

Chinese e-commerce apps look busy to keep customers busy buying

By Jordan Carroll

Thursday, 7th of September 2023

Picture this. You’re online shopping and see a silicone head-massager that looks like a torture device. Next, a rainbow of miniature Crocs attached to a keyring, closely followed by a plastic rocket launcher with 40 barrels that fire fairy liquid bubbles.

There’s also timers everywhere. Interruptive pop-ups. Reams of cramped text. Zero white space. Does this read like a description of the #1 app in the United States?

Well, that’s exactly what Temu is. It’s an online marketplace containing an endless raft of wacky products, set to hit $1bn monthly gross merchandise value in 2023. If sensory overload is your thing then you’re in luck. This app has one design principle and one design principle only: stay busy.

Temu is not alone with this ‘stay busy’ ethos. Whether it’s Ali Baba, Ali Express, JD.com, VIP.com, or SHEIN, Chinese e-commerce apps are consistently achieving success in the West, in spite of the formulaically eyesore app experience they strive for. It seems like the sole aim with each of these apps is to cram as much content into a single scroll as possible.

And culturally, there are a whole raft of reasons that explain why that might be precisely the case. Logographic languages like Chinese are visually more dense than English, with no spaces between words, and higher character complexity. This allows readers of Chinese to process more information, in more compact spaces, in a shorter period of time. Ultimately, it’s more efficient to cramp content.

The complexity of single Chinese characters also means that designers find no use for Westernised typographic rules. Large, practical and uniformed styles are favoured to make text as legible as possible, leading to the overwhelming of a Western eye that is used to clearly stylised headings, sub-headings and body copy.

The proliferation of mobile web in China predated smart phones, meaning flip phones were used to browse the web, with less processing power and less digital real estate to display content. Websites were resultantly designed with as much content in one page as possible to limit loading, a principle which still exists today.

And surely one look at Hong Kong, one of the world’s major cities of commerce, has some pointed influence. Rambunctious streetscapes of neon ads, busy crowds and sweeping traffic, vibrant streets of markets, bustling beneath towering modern skyscrapers. Commerce in Hong Kong is visual stimulation 101, and it’s also a real life manifestation of what the shopping experience is like on Chinese apps.

So, being busy makes good sense for Chinese customers, but why do these design principles make their way to the West?

Ultimately, this design works in line with the business objectives of Chinese e-commerce apps in the West, in spite of how this might affect its appearance. An app’s design and interface sits very closely with the brand, and Temu for instance, is inherently anti-brand. It’s a marketplace for white label, non-branded products to thrive. Goods are sold directly to customers from factories in China for the cheapest possible price. 

There is no brand image to build, no brand story to tell, no brand values to uphold, no brand love to harbour. Customers are paying purely for the product. And the same can be said for all the other aforementioned Chinese e-commerce brands.

Therefore, any design element to create brand-love is abandoned in favour of elements that are data-engineered to drive you to checkout. This data-led decision making is known as horse racing, where multiple teams are assigned to build the same feature with slight variations. All versions are tested at a huge scale, with businesses like Temu leveraging China’s one billion internet users through their sister companies in the East. 

They then optimise their apps before exporting the learnings overseas and scaling. Everything that appears within the app is incrementally engineered to drive more transactions, even if these developments are made to the detriment of how the app might look. We’re seeing marketing experts evangelise for experimenting with ugly ads because invariably they work

Clearly ugly apps are also a winning formula. 

With all that said, once you peel back the chaotic front-end, you will find that businesses like Temu are not solely feats of Eastern engineering. Rather, they are unsustainable business models, powered by great tech, backed with a bottomless pit of cash and driven by a sole objective: scale user adoption by any means possible.

How does that manifest itself in strategy? Whilst the exact fees that Temu take in transactions aren’t known holistically, its sister company Pinduoduo only charges a commission of 0.6% for each sale. With many products listed for less than $1, that’s an extremely small charge for what the platform offers in exchange to sellers: acquisition, payment, logistics, partnerships. 

Add to this the fact that the creator economy is also invited to join the Temu Affiliate Program and earn up to 20% commission on affiliate sales, with a $5 sweetener for each new download they drive, that’s an eye-watering expense on top of a paper thin margin.

Resultantly, it has been reported the average loss on each order on Temu is currently $30, and the expense doesn’t stop there. Changing shopping habits is a big traffic play, which is expensive from an advertising perspective. Temu know this and are not shying away: they reportedly plan on spending $1.4 billion on advertising campaigns in the US this year, and $4.3 billion next year. How is that bottom line going to look?

Being a loss-making enterprise in tech is no new and novel practice exclusive to Chinese e-commerce apps, but what happens when these apps feel they have achieved the minimum viable DAUs to change gears and start striving for profitability?

Heavily subsidising sellers and consumers can’t continue if Temu wants to be profitable, and as soon as the huge discounts are not found on Temu, purchases on those nice-to-have products will dry up. Pumping a bottomless pit of cash into sales-focused paid ads is not sustainable, as customers need something more when price isn’t the only driving factor.

That something more is called brand and customer experience, both of which are currencies that Temu do not value. Temu has already been subject to more than 30 complaints to the Better Business Bureau with a score of less than 1.5 stars, with concerns lodged about losing packages, sending incorrect orders and product quality issues.

By acting as a middle man between Chinese factories and Western customers, and having a proposition centred on sending non-branded products for as low cost as possible, it feels like this will be par for the course for Temu or any other e-commerce app that follows the same operational template.

Is this the tension which TikTok Shop can thrive within? TikTok Shop is inviting Western brands to house their shops within the platform’s e-commerce infrastructure, using the same app design principles that all successful Chinese e-commerce apps follow. But whilst Temu has no reason to visit beyond price, TikTok is where product discovery takes place, with conversion available within a few taps, on your favourite brands, as well as the zany products you might find on Temu.

TikTok has also already spent its billions hitting the sky-high daily active users needed to make this a sustainable play, and those users open the app to consume content from influential creators responsible for deciding which products are in vogue. Their own localised fulfilment centres will also deliver products within timeframes that align with Western competitors. With all of these factors priced in, you would assume that it will be TikTok Shop which is able to win the battle for Western wallets.

The jury is still out on that. Case studies are being released pointing towards singular examples of success, but TikTok will also go down the same path of subsidising creators, consumers and sellers in order to drive adoption and try to own every step of purchase decision-making. One thing’s for certain: e-commerce in the West is never going to stand still thanks to the influence of the East.