1. The App: Eleme Restaurant Delivery

The feature: Disturbingly specific GPS tracking
The lesson: Waiting turns us into testy, petulant maniacs.

Impatience, says Psychology Today, is not actually a lack of patience.

“Impatience, it turns out, is a very particular mental and physical process that gets triggered under specific circumstances, and which motivates specific kinds of decisive action. ‘Patience’ is really the shadow term, signifying a lack of impatience.”

Well then. That makes me feel better about myself.

What would also make me feel better about myself, though, is knowing exactly which black hole my chaomian fell into, because it’s been 47 minutes, the noodle place is only like, six blocks from here, and at this point it would’ve taken me less time to walk over there myself, and if I had, I would already be eating by now.

I assume I am not alone in this sentiment, since Chinese restaurant delivery app Eleme sunk mad development hours into allowing users to pinpoint precisely where their lunch is at any given second. Unlike Uber eats, which only tracks part of the delivery process, you can see your assigned Eleme delivery driver on a city map as soon as you place your order, and watch as he starts hauling ass towards the restaurant. You get a sense of how comfortable or uncomfortable he is via animated 3D renderings of current weather conditions. There’s a notification when the driver gets there and another one when he leaves, you can see how far he is from your location along with estimated delivery times, and if your meal is more than 10 minutes late, you get a discount on your next purchase.

My baked sweet potato is 1.1 kilometers away from my mouth, with an expected arrival time of 4:05pm. Also, it’s raining.

It kind of works. I no longer feel antsy waiting for my food to arrive. Now I just sit there with a top-down view of the world in miniature, giant eye fixed on my driver’s tiny avatar like a malevolent god, judging him. Yes, he just took Second Ring Road during rush hour. Yes, he is either stuck at that intersection or taking a cigarette break, and if that isometric bike does not move in the next thirty seconds, I’m giving a one-star review.

2. The App: TanTan

The feature: Crossed paths count
The lesson: Everyone wants a romcom love story.

Chinese dating app Tantan is an exact duplicate of Tinder in almost every respect. There’s the left-right swipe thing, the “It’s a match!” thing, the endless parade of bad game peppered with the occasional well-crafted “How YOU doin’?”

Tantan profile screen: not at all exactly like Tinder.

Unlike Tinder, though, Tantan also shows you every time that you and another user crossed paths in the real world. Like, you didn’t know each other, but you were both at Dongzhimen subway station at 7:30 last Friday. And creepily, also both at the same 7-11 this morning.

“Rubbed shoulders in passing” indicator: Same place, same time, 6 different occasions.

Honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about this one. On the one hand, I don’t like that Tantan is equipped with the kind of processing power it must take to make those calculations. Plus, the whole thing makes me kind of paranoid. Apparently, I’m surrounded by potential dates at all times, I’m just too obtuse to make anything click IRL. On the other hand, I met my boyfriend on Tantan, and we still sometimes talk about how cuh-ray-zee it is that we’d passed each other a million times and never met zomg eskimo kisses.

3. The App: Wechat

The feature: Message in a bottle
The lesson: We can’t help but gaze into the abyss.

With 1 billion active users as of March 2018, Wechat may be the largest social platform you’ve never heard of. What is it, you ask? Good question. Attempts to define it tend to fall flat, and that’s probably because the app is a little bit of everything for everyone, combining standard features from western apps into one megalith platform that’s become China’s most popular social network. It’s got a friend feed like Twitter, it’s got a messenger like Facebook, it’s got video and voice calls like Skype, it’s got its own wallet and ecommerce platform similar to… well, similar to nothing, actually, that’s kind of what’s driving its success.

But we’re not here to talk about WeChat’s family-friendly side. We’re here to talk about the dark, sucking pit that is the Discover screen.

Wechat discover screen: 8 portals to the netherverse.

As Dan Grover pointed out in his now-famous article on Chinese UI trends, the Discover screen is where designers dump the features that don’t quite fit anywhere else. Perhaps strangest of these is “Message in a Bottle”, which was present in early versions of the app but seems like something that would have quietly disappeared as the platform’s identity took shape. But no. No, it’s still there, a quick-access link to existential angst.

“Message in a Bottle”: on the horizon, the lighthouse of eternal solitude, the hot air balloon of nothingness

It works like this: You may choose to either compose a message of your own and entrust it to the sea, or pick someone else’s message out of the vastness of infinity. If you choose Throw, you scribble a tiny piece of your essential self onto a scrap of digital notepaper, stuff it into an imaginary bottle, fling it into nothingness, and then enjoy a profound sense of loneliness as the entire universe repeatedly fails to get you.

Marco:
My message: I excel at seduction.

Polo:

What I got back was not a picture of arms.

Alternately, if you choose Pick, you can pluck the tattered strips of other people’s hopes and fears from the bosom of a binary ocean, then wallow in the deep spiritual exhaustion that comes with realizing, yet again, that everyone is desperate to talk, but no one has anything to say.

Plucked from infinity: “Very curious what women are like ‘down there’.”

And sometimes, sometimes, when you reach out blindly towards the warmth of human connection, you grasp something wet and squishy and prickly in the dark, something like a beating human heart. Pregnant with anticipation, you open your fingers…

… but lo, it is only a starfish.

4. The App: Also Wechat

The feature: Shake it like a polaroid picture
The lesson: Hope springs eternal.

You know what, though? You don’t need to hurl notes into the abyss to meet someone. As a construct, language is inherently limited. It obscures the true self, it paints a rose-tinted picture on top of a crap-tinted reality. If you want a shortcut to a truly meaningful social interaction, if you’re searching for a real kindred spirit, you’ll have to transcend words. You’ll have to find someone who’s as desperate, bored and unmotivated as you are, but who’s still miraculously nursing a tiny crumb of faith in “everlasting love” and “chance meetings”. Also like you are.

Behold, the “Shake” feature:

The shake feature: instructions

The Shake feature: shaking in progress. Depression pending.

Sigh.

5. The App: Mobike

The feature: Mobike points
The lesson: We are perpetual savages that will abandon centuries of civilized etiquette the minute no one’s looking.

I happen to be a huge, huge fan of China’s country-wide public bike sharing platform, Mobike. I have the stupid limited-edition rider gloves and everything. I mean, the idea is genius: using the app’s onboard map, you find an unused GPS-enabled Mobike on the side of the road. Then you use the app again to open the lock, ride to wherever you’re going, and lock the bike up wherever you stop. You get charged based on the length of your ride, about 10 cents US for every 30 minutes. It’s cheap, it’s good for you, it’s good for the environment, and it fills a genuine market need. The Chinese masses agree: Mobike was an instant hit, clocking around 35 million monthly active users since its launch at the end of 2016.

Mobike primary landing screen: GPS tracking shows bikes near you.

Explosive growth like that is bound to come with some growing pains. Freed from all personal responsibility for the vehicle, riders drive like total assholes, steal parts, and leave bikes parked in the middle of the road. As Mobike’s popularity grew, China’s urban centers became post-apocalyptic junkyards of used-up two-wheelers. Things got out of hand fast, and the government held Mobike partially responsible.

Bike sharing graveyard on the outskirts of Shanghai

In January 2018, the company rolled out a solution: Mobike points, a behavior modification system that’s kind of like a credit score for your transportation etiquette.

My Mobike score: fair to middling.

You get good points for parking in appropriate places, reporting broken bikes, and riding carefully. But don’t stress it, friend. It’s not that Mobike wants you to change. It thinks you’re great just the way you are. There are no plans to, for example, ask you to do a series of tasks that seem reasonable at first but become increasingly psychologically compromising until you’re experiencing homicidal urges. Mobike just wants you to be the best version of yourself. The youest you you can be.

6. The App: iQiYi

The feature: “Barrage video”
The lesson: The white noise of human chatter is a comforting blanket protecting us from our inescapable aloneness.

What if you knew, before you ever bought the movie ticket, that the whole theatre would be full of chatterfaces and wailing children, that no one would put their phones on silent, and that, right before the best part, some kids in the back would start shouting spoilers at the screen. Would you still go? Yeah, me neither. That does not sound like an experience I would pay to have. And yet, this is insanity is happening on streaming video apps across China:

Travel program: viewers are really into some guy named Jie Ge.

More chat insanity

That’s not a glitch. That’s a feature. “Barrage video”, or danmu, is a live feed of user comments that scroll across the top of the video viewport, creating a kind of audio-visual fusillade. And contrary to all logic and decency, it’s tremendously popular.

7.The App: YingKe

The feature: Virtual gifts
The lesson: Imaginary dog food is better than no dog food at all.

Oh, the Instagram glitterati, with their perfect lives and even more perfectly-posed acai bowls. And the Youtube vloggers, with their pert opinions about Kylie Jenner’s baby. Surely, indulgent Western society has reached peak self-involvement.

Please. These lesser creatures can only aspire to the levels of self-centered surreality achieved by the live streaming (zhibo) community. Popular zhibo app Yingke is kind of like Facebook Live on crack – it’s mostly just a bunch of hot chicks presiding over group chats from their bedrooms, but there are also entire subcultures that do nothing but dress up in cosplay outfits and broadcast a continual, 24-hour feed of their own hands while they like, smoke cigarettes and work their desk job, or home-DJ a mix made entirely of laugh tracks. Through a emoji-laden chat screen, live streamers interact in real time with their fan base, who express appreciation via virtual gifts, like imaginary teddy bears and boxes of digital chocolates, which are purchased with actual meatverse money.

A one-man live-streaming host-audio-producer-comedian-VJ stream

Viewers comment live as broadcasters angrily eat lunch or whatever.

Fans choose gifts for their favorite broadcasters.

Jon Snow has given these ladies a bowl of imaginary dog food. Oh, joy.

Despairing for the future of humanity?

Wail piteously in the comments.

About the author: Kendra Schaefer, China UI consultant, writer and UI designer
Title image credits: XiaoLong

Check the article sharing tips on design for top-ranked mobile apps and the review of free resources for making a mobile app