When I first started working as a designer in Japan, the different standards of design in Japan compared to the West took me by surprise. In a land of beautiful tranquil temples like Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto and minimalist structures like that of my favorite architect, Tadao Ando, that sense has yet been fully translated to the digital realm in Japan.

What Japanese users are used to, is probably unfamiliar to the western eye. Take a look at some of Japan’s most popular sites

An average western user will be appalled at the design which is made of tightly-packed text, tiny low-quality image, multiple uneven columns, incohesive bright colors and flashing banners.

Yahoo Global vs Yahoo Japan

I once had a friend from Singapore who was working with a Japanese designer on a Japanese site asked me why the design look so bad. I told him, it might look bad to us but it will convert in most cases. It’s because cultural differences do affect the perception of websites in Japan.

 

Honda Global vs Honda Japan

 

Taking the safest route

There is an obvious cultural difference and approach when it comes to design in Japan. Some of those that became very apparent to me after I started working here and can often be summed down to the culture of avoiding risk, especially with something as hard-to-measure as design quality.
 
 

Tightly-packed Text

Most Japanese users need a high level of assurance, especially for a new service, in order to feel more comfortable. This means marketers will lean towards having long, lengthy text at the expense of looking cluttered. Or including similar information at the expense of being repetitive and long-winded. Western users instead prefer large images that inspire emotions and would likely skim past lengthy text.

This is the reason why abbreviations like TL;DR exists in the west. TL;DR, short for “too long; didn’t read”, is Internet slang to say that some text being replied to has been ignored because of its length.
 
 

Incohesive Bright Colors

I was having a discussion with a marketer once who was insisting on a bright pink banner in a site. I told her that there wasn’t a similar pink throughout the site and it was against our branding. She argued something to the tune of, “For Westerners, it might seem like a big, bright banner. But for Japanese users, it is something super special that they want to click on.”.

Looking around the streets of Shinjuku, where brightly lit neon signs litter the streets, screaming for your attention, it’s not difficult to imagine why Japanese people react more (note I didn’t say better) to attention-grabbing mechanisms with all the chaotic busyness of the streets spilling into the digital space.

 
 

Why this isn’t the Repro way

The safest way is often the easiest way, but it is, by no means, the best way. Defaulting to the safest design will usually alienate users who want a better or simpler experience, or spread your resources thin by adding features every user asks for.

As I often say, most Japanese users do want a simple, beautiful site to use, but we also need to consider the cultural necessities and your specific audience and judge accordingly.

Take Instagram as an example. The interface of Instagram is minimal to a fault, yet they have more than 2 million monthly active users in Japan.

In fact, while still limited to campaign or smaller boutique companies, plenty of Japanese sites have begun moving in the direction of lesser, but intentional design. Here are some examples

As you can tell, it seems that the culture of risk avoidance is most apparent in larger companies, where company bureaucracy and layers hierarchy are often perceived as too mendokusai (troublesome) to push for a simpler design.

This doesn’t mean that design should be simple for the sake of being simple, but should be intentional and well considered. This is somewhat similar to the “Just Right” philosophy of Muji’s designer, Naoto Fukusawa.

 

How to design for a Japanese audience

As with any great business, a reasonable amount of risk comes with any decision. The same goes for the design. While it might be easy to simply decide to take the path of least risk when it comes to product and design decision, the team at Repro are, in that sense, not too Japanese despite having only 3 foreigners in a 60+ strong company.
 
 

Be a great company

As much as I’d like to say that the design of a product is the sole factor you can get users, that is obviously not the case. Take for example the Apple website which retains it’s minimal clean layout for the Japanese site, yet the iPhone penetration rate as of April 2017 is at 66.68%. Apple is the most valuable company in the world, so users will simply use the site, even perhaps feeling there is a lack of information at times. Being a great company will make users more inclined to your site, especially when they buy into the whole philosophy of good design.

Repro started from a tool-only startup and now we have different services aim at app success, such as our Customer Success Team. The team that explain and guide users through each step of the features, making it easier for them to use features without too much description in the interface. Having a great overall business communication lets your users understand your service better without too much information within your interface.
 
 

Listen to your users

We have a Customer Reliability Engineering team that channels the enquiries or complaints on the UI of the tool directly to me, as well as the Customer Success team who will relay requests from customers to the product team, and if enough users experience a pain point, it gives us more reason to fix it.

In Repro, the most important of our pillars is “Client First”, therefore we would often default to customer feedback when making design decisions.

It is also important to understand that users will seldom make a support request when it comes detailed design matters like spacing or colors or consistency. Therefore, independent from user requests, a standard has to be set by the designer and maintained for each project.
 
 

Making design part of your priorities

Running a product is all about prioritization with the limited resources available. For a B2B tool, feature additions are often more valued than user-friendliness and clean design. If you only work solely on feature additions, and ignore improving existing features, long-term customers will feel increasingly frustrated with certain parts of the UI.

We learnt that it is hard to prioritize between different category of tasks, such as deciding between a new feature and to improve an existing one since the KPI for each is different. What we did was to create dedicated resources to work on specific category. Depending on the current business goal and amount of resource, we shuffle the resources around based on skill and experience of the developer.
 
 

Include Japanese sensibilities

As the only product designer, and one of the three non-Japanese of the company, not including opinions of my Japanese colleagues would be a terrible mistake. Certain labels won’t translate well to Japanese. Certain information or lack of might seem too much, even for the users of Repro with higher IT literacy.

For huge features, we have a few layers of checks before it hits production. First, is a very basic vetting by the product manager and the lead developer while creating the specifications for a feature. After which, a prototype will be created and a user test with Japanese users will determine if certain parts are hard to understand. I often strive for the simplest and cleanest design, and add details should it be hard to understand. Next, we have our Customer Reliability Team that will go through the feature and raise concerns and possible issues based on past customer inquiries. Finally, we have the Quality Assurance Team that will test the feature as a whole.

Different opinions will arise during such process and sometimes it is hard to differentiate between personal opinion and a viable concern, so there needs to be reference to other platforms or customer inquiries in order to understand the underlying issue as well as a default decision-maker, in most case being myself and the product manager, since the responsibility taken on by the product team.
 
 

Have the right people and right data

Being the only designer, doesn’t mean I’m the only one concern about the appearance and usability of Repro. It pays to have team members who are knowledgable of what a good tool and user experience is, and counter your suggestions with better one. In Repro, while differing opinions often arise, the sole goal of  wanting to create a great product is shared.

On occasions where opinions are split, its important to also refer to data to make a decision.

 
 

When in Rome, do as the Romans do is very true in Japan. But my aim is to take it a step further and bring out the best in both Japanese and Western design sensibilities, especially for a tool that have sights set on a global market.

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About the Author
Alex Kwa

UX Designer, Repro
Alex has been designing for Repro since the company begun. He worships his design heroes, Dieter Rams, Tokujin Yoshioka and Naoto Fukasawa. He's an occasional digital nomad and is obsessed with the streetwear brand, Supreme.
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