Last Updated on November 3, 2023
When social networking super-app WeChat launched ‘mini programs’ in 2017, they were met with some scepticism. Some critics decried a lack of uptake among both businesses and users. Others posited that they were an almost-useless innovation, bound to struggle to gain widespread adoption, given the presence of already decent H5-enabled web apps.
Fast-forward five years, however, and such critiques feel wrong-headed and anachronistic. The truth is, WeChat mini programs have swept China by storm, and have partially redefined the way in which Chinese netizens, government agencies, brands and even small independent companies interact with one another over the internet.
We will also be explaining exactly what WeChat mini programs are, how they are used, who uses them, what they can offer businesses, and what insights companies need to know regarding the latest trends and developments. We will present a practical guide on getting started, and the options available for those who want to get their own WeChat mini program off the ground.
What Are WeChat Mini Programs?
The first thing to understand is that WeChat is a super-app, with chat functionality at its core. Its goal in China is to create an app so all-encompassing that no other apps are necessary. It started in 2011 by including messaging, a social feed, a dedicated online payments service (WePay), and some basic ‘daily life’ functions which it lists as ‘services’, e.g. booking transport and hotels, buying tickets to events, ordering taxis, topping mobile credit, and paying utility bills.
WeChat Ecosystem. Source: Hi-Com Asia
Placing all these functions in one app broke new ground, but their scope was limited by the fact that they have to be centrally managed. In 2017, WeChat supplemented these with a more decentralised offering: for the first time, companies and individuals would be able to build and host entire apps within WeChat. These, they called mini programs.
In 2022, thanks to mini programs, we are closer than ever to the ecosystem that WeChat dreams of, with more than 4 million mini programs across e-commerce, games, education, health, news, fitness, brand representation and more. Swathes of restaurants are doing away with paper menus and taking orders in person, exchanging them for QR codes on tables from which diners select their food. Provincial governments increasingly use mini programs as a way to manage the population’s covid measures. Delivery companies and even some hospitals offer their mini programs as a first port of call. In short, they have become virtually ubiquitous.
PinDuoDuo native app vs mini program. Source: Dragonsocial.com
How Are WeChat Mini Programs Used?
Generally speaking, the first point of contact for an average user will either be a scannable QR code (physical or digital), or a menu item on a WeChat official account. Mini programs are searchable too, but this is more commonly used when a user is looking for a specific service, or is looking for a mini program they’ve used in the past. They may also be found linked to within WeChat articles, shared via chat, and via WeChat’s ‘discover’ tab.
Results from searching for ‘音乐‘ (music) and ‘看书’ (read books) mini programs
Upon entering a mini program, it’s common to be asked for permission for access to the user’s basic data, such as name and user ID. For further login steps, other information may be requested, as in the case of WeChat games where a Chinese ID is usually required. Previously this was hugely advantageous for companies looking to gain user data, but new laws that came into force over the last year strictly limit the amount of personal data that can be asked for, and how it may be requested.
After entering a mini program, the user experiences are almost as varied in scope and design as standard Android or iOS apps. There are a few formats that tend to dominate, however. They have to be lightweight and sleek, as they have a 10MB size limit. Below you can see the Starbucks and McDonald’s mini programs for comparison. Notice how the UI is full-screen, extending to the bar at the top. Both of them then offer two main buttons, for delivery or in-store purchases, and then a series of membership or promotional options.
Below you can see the Nike and Adidas mini programs side-by-side. Each adopt a similar design, with banners at the top, followed by a series of other features, and a navigation bar at the bottom.
Who Uses WeChat Mini Programs?
Virtually everyone with an internet connection in China uses WeChat on a daily basis. Of the roughly 1.3 billion monthly active users, 450 million use mini programs on a daily basis. Their use has risen quickly, with year-on-year use up 30% in Q4 2021. In Q1 2022, WeChat reported a 100% year-on-year increase in mini program transactions related to catering, tourism and retail.
Unlike many new technologies, user age demographics are evenly distributed. Older generations are just as likely to use mini programs as younger ones. Users of WeChat games, facilitated via mini programs, display gender parity, while e-commerce users are 71% female.
WeChat users age distribution. Source: Statista.com
Why Should Businesses Use Mini Programs?
- Low user friction. The fact that users don’t have to download mini programs, like they do traditional apps, is a boon to usability. They have instant access to all features without needing to use up much data or phone storage.
- Tied in with a WeChat official account, channels account, and WeChat Pay, mini programs become part of a one-stop-shop that encapsulates the entire customer journey.
- The largest userbase. WeChat is simply unrivalled in the number of daily active users. For reference, 1.3 billion people in China use WeChat, close to the entire population, while iOS is used by only 23% of mobile users.
- Drive users to native app. Many companies will also develop a full-fledged app as well as a mini program. Certain features on the mini program will prompt the users to open or download the app for the full experience.
- Ease of setup and maintenance. This will be covered in detail in part two of this guide. Put simply, from a technical perspective, it’s quite easy to get a mini program off the ground and then provide it continuous updates.
How do I launch a WeChat mini program?
We’re rolling up our sleeves and getting into practical advice for getting a mini program off the ground. To international brands it may appear daunting at first, the prospect of learning a new tech ecosystem, but it’s not as hard as it may appear, and the pay-offs are potentially huge.
We’re going to start with a bit of background, covering first the path for those more technically inclined, then showing an easier path for those who prefer to go a quicker, easier route. We’ll provide step-by-step instructions for getting the mini program launched on a WeChat official account, then finish by exploring some UX/UI considerations.
The Techy Way
One option: using Lambda AWS Gateway. Source: AWS
A couple of technical details to note. One, WeChat does not exactly run HTML5, instead using a simulated version that is often called simply H5. Prior to the launch of mini programs, H5-only pages ruled the roost, but are more or less being phased out. The H5 interpretation of HTML5 is still a holdover in some aspects of mini program scripting, however, and so it’s a good idea to get familiarized with the whole WeChat SDK. Two, CSS and DOM are not used by WeChat mini programs, meaning certain third-party libraries cannot be included. For full development documentation, in English.
How to Skip the Techy Way?
The second way to make a mini program is to use an online tool, such as SXL, or if you want a simple e-commerce mini program, then Weidian. No technical experience or knowledge is necessary to use these tools, as they provide a simple editing interface, the kind of which one might expect from Western site-building platforms like WordPress or Squarespace.
Using these tools requires an annual subscription, but even so, they tend to be a far cheaper option than hiring a developer, and a much faster option than developing a mini program independently. With that ease, however, comes trade-offs in terms of functionality and layout. These platforms have only a certain amount of customizability, so if you’re looking to stand out with something completely fresh, and design a unique UX or UI, this is not the way to go. If you want a simple app, however, they’re incredibly useful tools.
Linking to an Official Account
Once the mini program is developed and ready to go, it’s time to get it linked up with WeChat.
- Register. Mini programs must be linked to the WeChat official account of a company registered in China. There are two main types of official account: subscription and service. For mini programs that are going to handle transactions, it is necessary to be linked with a service account. In order to open either account, it will be necessary to submit mainland business license information, details of a Chinese representative, and a bank account number. For verification, the cost is 300RMB.
- Authenticate. After an official account is open, linking the mini program is fairly straightforward, although this is one part of the WeChat backend that isn’t fully translated into English, so help from a Chinese-speaking colleague may be necessary. Below is an image of the screen you will be met with. Here, using the administrator account, you can register the applet to get its linking key (a passphrase that is used to identify and communicate with the mini program), and then use the key to create an account association.
- Set up menu. Have your mini program primed and ready to go on the official account menu, for easy access. Select the ‘Custom Menu’ tab in the backend, add an item, then select ‘Jump to Mini Program’. After clicking the ‘Select a Mini Program’ button displayed, you will be shown your linked mini program(s). See the images below. Publish the menu, and you’re done!
What are the UX / UI Considerations when launching a WeChat mini program?
- Size constraints. Mini programs can be a maximum of 10mb. With native apps frequently exceeding the 200mb mark these days, this can be quite an adjustment. This has direct UX and UI consequences, as large media items and interactive elements must be limited. Pair back the desired app to the most important features, and possibly create multiple mini apps, as demonstrated by the McDonald’s architecture in the image below, for different functions.
- WeChat norms. While there is a diverse range of mini programs out there, there are some fairly standard layouts that people have grown accustomed to. It is worth exploring existing mini programs to see what to replicate, so that users can easily navigate between different parts of the mini program.
- Tend towards minimalism. For the last couple of decades, the main UX/UI advice for international brands looking to launch websites or apps in China is that user preference is for maximalist design – as much information on the page as possible, as many options as possible. WeChat mini programs have heralded a shift here, towards a more minimalist approach, similar to Western apps.
- Analytics. WeChat helpfully provide a full range of analytic tools to track customer journeys. These are built into the backend. Once again, these are not fully translated into English, but with Google Chrome and/or a Chinese-speaking colleague they are relatively easy to interpret.
Get Personalized Support
For a more in-depth and tailored introduction, feel free to reach out to us here at Sekkei Digital Group. Our WeChat marketing team is experienced in helping from planning to execution, maintenance to analytics, and can offer advice on the legal side of operating mini apps.
China Internet Watch – WeChat Users & Platform Statistics 2023
App In China – How and Why To Develop A WeChat Mini Program or Game
Mind Studios – Conquering China: How to Make a WeChat Mini Program
GoClick China – All you need to know about WeChat mini-programs