The Rise of Super Apps

By 2021 the term ‘Super App’ had become commonplace in China, but what can we learn from this growing trend? In this short series we try to unpick if Super Apps are a fad, or if they are the future of app design.

Image Credit: Afif Kusuma

Image Credit: Afif Kusuma

You might think of Super Apps as the Russian doll of the homescreen app; one interface with layers of different services built into a single location on your homescreen.  The original and most successful example of a Super App originates from China in the form of ‘WeChat’ which was developed by Tencent at its Guangzhou Research center, and was launched to the Chinese market in 2011 and now boasts 1 billion active daily users.  What began as an instant messaging service similar to WhatsApp, quickly grew to become an all encompassing platform for virtually any product or service.  Amongst other things the user can schedule doctors appointments, purchase insurance, check crowd density and even pay traffic fines. A large part of WeChat’s success is the integrated digital wallet ‘WeChat Pay’ – a single sign in model providing instant access to the users banking details, saving time and hassle when reentries don’t have to be made for every payment.

You might think of Super Apps as the Russian doll of the homescreen app; one interface with layers of different services built into a single location on your homescreen.

Well known brands have already begun buying into Super Apps and household names have signed up to be part of the growing market, such as Tesla, TenCent Games and global ecommerce giant JD.  WeChat hasn’t quite been able to monopolize the market as other competitors have been vying for a spot in the growing industry and other notable names include Alibaba and Alipay – both similarly to WeChat were initially created for Chinese industries, but have begun to cross borders.  These apps have quickly become ingrained into users’ lives as they appreciate the ‘one-stop shop’ that a Super App can offer them when it is user friendly, functional and friction free.

The question is – can these super apps have the same level of success in the West that they have seen in Asia?  Only time will tell but it could be said that their popularity has been in part due to the unique situation in China where the population’s first contact with the internet is via mobile phones. They are effectively a user group with no previous desktop experience.  A mobile-first market, a largely unbanked population, and the important element of government backing allowed for the Super App concept to really take off.

A mobile-first market, a largely unbanked population, and the important element of government backing allowed for the Super App concept to really take off. 

Despite the unique situation within China, there are signs that Super Apps have begun to gain traction in other parts of the world such as India, South America and Southeast Asia (see Go-Jek and Grab). Key success factors in these areas include untapped markets where there is infinite room for emerging technologies, which have little preexisting tech infrastructure, and a cultural appetite for embracing new offerings.  These fast growing countries are becoming increasingly ‘connected’ which is allowing a boom in the tech sector and Super App companies are expanding aggressively to fill the gaps, and similarly to the Chinese markets, these populations are largely unbanked.

There’s many articles online that suggest that Super Apps are unlikely to enjoy the same level of success in the West as they have seen in Asia and other developing countries.  Factors such as anti-trust regulation, cultural differences and privacy concerns are amongst some of the reasons why people believe that these apps are destined to fail.  However, it seems too easy to shrug off Super Apps as a purely emerging market phenomenon; yes, the West might be moving at a slower pace, but we are starting to move towards a reintegration of services after decades of fragmentation. Banks, for example, are just one sector that need to be aware of the space that these apps are creating.  Uber (after starting up as an app that moved people from A to B), is beginning to look towards banking and the boom of digital first banks such as Monzo support the well established idea that we are moving away from the traditional brick and mortar style of banking.

It seems too easy to shrug off Super Apps as a purely emerging market phenomenon; yes, the West might be moving at a slower pace, but we are starting to move towards a reintegration of services after decades of fragmentation

It is hard to speculate what role Super Apps might play in our complex digital world, but it’s a trend we’ll be exploring more. Watch out for our next posts where we will explore the user experience of Super Apps, as well as issues around trust and privacy for the user.

Director of Design Research

Sutherland Labs
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