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Digital Divide:
Korean web design

I spent a year in South Korea teaching English, and a year in South Korea cursing Internet Explorer. It’s not the best browser around, sure. But in Korea, it’s essentialy the only browser. Period.

Seoul is known as one of the centers of design in the world, showcasing breath-taking architecture, enviable industrial design, and awe-inspiring art. Seoul is also one of the up-and-coming technological bases in the world, creating state-of-the-art electronics, manufacturing cheap, but well made cars, and incorporating technology into everyday life. Great design aesthetics plus great advances in technology should equal amazing website design. Right? Guess again.

Korean websites seem to be a hermit kingdom unto itself, walled gardens of secrets and hidden information, veiled in cute Flash animations and seizure-inducing layouts.

Flash

Flash is used for just about everything in Korean websites, much of the time to great success. Cute critters, and clever characterizations make for some absolutely brilliant designs. These brilliant designs are not held under the constraints of HTML, making each site truly unique, yes. However, these Korean sites tend to sacrifice web design standards for visual appeal, effectively alienating any user who is not Korean.

Layout

Korean websites are designed to make an “efficient” use of space (read: crowded). Though many of the sites are designed in geometric grids, which seems lovely and functional in theory, most of these grids feature dozens of tiny pictures, most making use of flash or animated GIFs.

Usability

I’m barely literate in Korean, so obviously my input here is a bit biased. Some of the most lovely websites I’ve ever seen are done by Korean designers – filled with inspiring art or formatted with aesthetic awesomeness and lots of clean, white space. The problem is, that no matter how good the website looks, it’s usually a huge pain to navigate around.

First off, one must navigate in Internet Explorer. Only Internet Explorer. Korean websites are only optimized to use IE. Google Chrome seems to work for a majority of Korean sites I visited. Firefox often failed. And Safari? I’m not sure Korean web designers have even heard of Safari.

Secondly, when using IE for a Korean website, every time a new link is clicked, a new tab is opened. To be fair, I suppose some people do enjoy having 44 tabs open at once.

Last, but not least, Korean websites have a lot of scrolling. A lot. Many of my middle school students enjoyed reading online web comics. To get to the latest episode, they would happily scroll down miles of pages. The same goes for online shopping. To find that cute product I clicked on three windows ago, I’d have to scroll down pages and pages. Thankfully many sites come equipped with a tool to “bookmark” interesting things you may see on your way down.

SEO

Koreans for the most part, do not use Google. Though there is a Korean version of Google (which works just fine), the majority of Koreans use Korean search engines, Naver or Daum. Interestingly enough, most Korean search portals do not crawl web pages automatically. Instead, the search databases are based on registration and payment from websites. Because of this, most Korean websites don’t seem to be too concerned with search engine optimization, much less Google at all.

Korean websites are an interesting mix of art and creativity, clutter and spasms. It’s interesting to see how culture influences design and style choices. One of the things I noticed while in Korea, is that if something works well, it doesn’t get changed. Koreans don’t seem so eager to reinvent the wheel. If it works for Korea, why change it? 


Lindsay McComb's avatar

Lindsay McComb

Writer and Content Specialist at Q Digital Studio

Lindsay McComb is a writer and content specialist at Q Digital Studio. She's a wordsmith with a wicked sense of style and a serious case of Wanderlust. Lindsay can be found tweeting at @themetaq and off-the-clock (and at all hours) at @lindsaymccomb.

Posted

1.13.2011

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Design

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8 comments >

What others are saying

Alex

It would be pretttty cool if you added some examples to this article. I feel weird being forced to use my imagination.

Brandon

One comment about opening up a new tab when clicking on a link. This also happens with lots of sites from China, and from a conversation with startup based in China, it’s something they have to do even if they don’t want to. People are used to have new tabs opening when clicking on links, and they are used to closing the tab when they are done reading it. So if you don’t open links in new tabs, you end up losing these people even if they didn’t mean to leave your site. They simple have to design accordingly to adjust to people’s behavior.

Lindsay McComb

@Alex - Check out the bolded words in the article - they’re all links to Korean websites.

You’re right. It is a bit hard to just imagine it.

Jon

Some of the things you wrote here do make sense, but you got most of it wrong and your generalization is a little hasty .
I don’t think a year is enough for you to understand the hole issue and this post seems more biased than you think.
You have to understand the reasons why this happened (Google SEED) and also the characteristics and culture of Koreans.

First of all, IE is the most used browser but it’s not the only one.
I don’t know who you’ve been around but, most of the Koreans I know use Chrome or Firefox. Also macs are used by many people, that means they probably know about Safari.
Second, I’m not sure if you’ve met Koreans that actually use the Internet a lot. But Koreans do use Google. Naver (which you have probably not used a lot to know about it enough) is still the main search engine, but Google is used to search for more information.

User experience is an important part of design and even though the rest of the world might not like, it’s what it’s like in Korea for Koreans. You might not be used to it, but the website was not designed for you, but for Koreans. If the Koreans didn’t like the design then it would have been changed.

Lindsay McComb

@Jon You’re right, this is a generalization/ over-simplification. It’s certainly not meant as scientific proof, but simply based off of my experience.  And obviously IE is not the only browser used - I was exaggerating for literary effect. I had several Korean friends who used Macs (and Firefox, Chrome or Safari), and there were definitely some instances where some Korean sites would not load properly if not opened in Internet Explorer.

Anywho, I wouldn’t ask Koreans to change a thing.

The intent of the article was merely to share what I observed, and how I understood it from my perspective.

Ingrid

A lot of this is true for Japan too. Not so much the IE issue, but the design stuff and what people seem to like. The classic example is: everyone loves Yahoo. Compare the frontpage for yahoo.co.jp and google.com.

Hi, I’m a Zimbabwean, Computer Science, student in Korea.
Thank you for the great article
I am currently interning for a Korean Web Dev company (flash web design would be the more appropriate word). i have to say, the design methods they use are very archaic. Their focus is mainly leaning towards aesthetics and total disregard for web standards. As a Comp science student i find this totally frustrating, maybe it has something to do with the fact that they have the fastest internet in the world, so they can afford to have heavy flash sites But flash is dead, and i think they should move with the times.

@Jon i have met a lot of Koreans and they all use IE, my uni uses IE, my company uses IE, they don’t test on other browsers. I don’t agree that the sites are not designed for foreigners. The web has no borders or boundaries, and in the end it is Korea that will loose out. They are trying to attract international students and business but > 3/4 of their sites cannot be found on a search engine.

The Korea way of wed dev is a bit too arrogant and not user-friendly for my liking.

Jonathan

Hi Lindsay,

Great article and you’re spot on with most of your “generalizations.”  Historically, Korea was essentially locked into IE and they are paying for it today.  It is pretty amazing when you look at the largest 150 companies in the world and see that probably 40% of them all have “English” pages, yet do not load properly in anything but IE. 

I actually have a small consulting company that helps companies globalize their business and marketing and we see this all day long.  We obviously work with only Koreans and nearly 90% of them use IE and Koreans are nearly falling over their chairs we show them how their sites don’t work in Chrome or Firefox.  Because of the lack of SEO standards, we also see a common trend to simply load image files with their text. 

Of course, we aren’t telling Korean companies to not be Korean.  We are asking them to consider different strategies when they are trying to reach a global audience and that their ‘hermit kingdom’ interactive standards aren’t very affective outside of Korea. 

@Jon “I’m not sure if you’ve met Koreans that actually use the Internet a lot.”

- I’m not sure that YOU have met Koreans that actually use the Internet a lot.


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