There is a lot of hate directed at Japanese UI design.
To Western eyes, it’s just too busy, too dense, too confusing, too outdated, and just plain wrong.
And sometimes that’s true, but usually there are very good, and highly profitable, reasons Japanese websites and Japanese software looks the way it does.
Today I sit down and talk (and argue a bit) with Brandon Hill about how Japanese design got this way, and the new direction it’s currently heading.
It’s an amazing conversation, and I think you’ll enjoy it.
- Why people think Japanese UI design is broken
- The real reason Japanese sites never seem to get updated
- Why young Japanese sometimes prefer old-fashioned design
- How high-information density builds trust in Japan
- The social trigger that caused Japan to (almost) abandon minimalist design
- Why Japanese core design metaphors differ from those in the West
- Answering the top Western criticisms of Japanese design
- How Japanese labor law affects web and app design
- Why Western logo design is changing (and not for the better)
- The impact of smartphones on online and brick-and-mortar design
- What it’s like for foreign designers at Japanese companies
Links from the Founder
- Everything you ever wanted to know about btrax
- A recommended in-depth article on American and Japanese UI/UX design
- Follow Brandon on Twitter @BrandonKHill
- Friend him on Facebook
Welcome to Disrupting Japan. Straight Talk from Japan’s most successful entrepreneurs.
I’m Tim Romero and thanks for joining me.
Today we’re going to talk about Japanese UI/UX design.
For the last 20 years, there’s been this steady stream of Western designers explaining how Japanese web design is “broken”. Now, those critics often make some good points, but they usually completely misunderstand the underlying reasons that Japanese design is the way it is.
Today we’re going to address these criticisms once and for all as we sit down over a beer with my old friend Brandon Hill. Now Brandon runs btrax, a design and market entry consultancy based in San Francisco. And for the past 10 years, Brandon’s been working with Japanese firms to get their design and UI ready for the American markets and with American firms to get their design and UI ready for the Japanese markets.
In terms of practical hands-on experience, Brandon probably knows more than anyone in the world about the reasons Japanese and Western UX design are so different. And that’s what we’re going to dig deep into today.
This episode’s a little long, but I assure you it’s worth it. There was simply nothing more I could have edited out.
We explore the common criticisms of Japanese design, we talk about the psychology of e-commerce, and we dive deep into Japan’s commercial culture.
But you know, Brandon tells that story much better than I can. So, let’s get right to the interview.
Tim: So, cheers! So, I’m sitting here with Brandon Hill, the CEO and founder of btrax. So, welcome back.
Brandon: Thank you so much. It’s my pleasure to be back here.
Tim: Now I’ve given everyone a really detailed description of you and your expertise during the intro. But just to make sure, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what btrax does.
Brandon: I started this company btrax long time ago. It’s a long time that I don’t even remember when that was, but started as a web design agency in San Francisco, and then we started specializing in US and Japanese localization and cross-border, cross-cultural marketing and branding. We now do a lot of work for Japanese corporations to create a new businesses as well as promoting them, branding them, and expanding them into the global market. Likewise, we work with many US companies coming to the Japanese market, taking care of their marketing and branding and localization. So, that’s what we do,
Tim: And that is why I’m so glad to have you here, because I think you know, more than anyone else I know, and probably more than almost anyone in the world about Japanese design sensibilities versus western design sensibilities. And so we are going to work through all of the myths, truths, and half truths about Japanese design. Are you ready to dig into this?
Brandon: I love to do that.
Tim: So, like Japanese web design, how bad is it really?
Brandon: It really depends on how you look at it. Because you said bad. It’s is really a subjective opinion. From Western’s point of view, they look really messy, clutter too busy. It’s not intuitive. However, as far as I know, from performance point of view, that’s the most appropriate design.
Tim: Yeah. This is one thing I think is an obvious truth. I mean, since the early 2000s we’ve had a steady stream of American web designers coming to Japan declaring Japanese web design, hopelessly broken, and they’re going to fix it. But the e-commerce sites in particular are extensively AB tested. Try everything. If you can get like a 3% uplift with a new design, people be all over it. So, it seems to me that like they’re doing what works. If not what the consumer wants, what the consumer responds to.
Brandon: So, I think there are two aspects to it as far as I see. One is people may prefer easy looking, messy layout. I wouldn’t say messy, but it’s cluttered and busy. The second thing if you realize is there are many, many websites in Japan, popular high traffic website that haven’t been redesigned for 10 plus years.
Tim: Yeah. I mean, there’s a lot of it. Like Yahoo Japans still looks like Yahoo…
Brandon: From 20 years ago.
Tim: Yeah, yeah. Why is that? Is it It’s certainly not laziness or lack of funds.
Brandon: My theory here, two or three. One is people in this country do not typically like changes, they feel more comfortable sticking with the original design or what they have been seen on a daily basis. Something gets changed then they get freaked out. I mean, everywhere does, but especially in Japan, people get freaked out and traffic goes down for short amount of time. Eventually it’ll come back, but before it comes back, maybe the corporate says like don’t make those changes. Like, we don’t want to have any dip. The second is aging society. Elderly people typically like to stick with what they have seen 10 years ago, and they don’t want to learn anything new. So, mixture of those two, maybe.
Tim: Yeah, that makes some sense. But like nobody likes change. Even like we Americans are supposed to be all this innovative in here, but we hate change too. And so like anytime someone redesigns a website or software, users hate it. So, what’s kind of the mental calculus that the American companies are doing that Japanese aren’t?
Brandon: There’s clear, clear differences there. In the United States typically tech startups, there is one person who takes full responsibility, which is CEO obviously. Recently Elon Musk purchased Twitter and he says, get rid of this, get rid of this team, people, I’ll take full responsibility because I’m the CEO. Top down a hundred percent. People just follow him. And it’s extreme case. But with many organizations in the United States, it’s really top down. If the top guy says, change this today. Everything is different from tomorrow. In Japan I think even if the president has an opinion, he needs to get all the consensus from people around him, Nemawashi, yeah.
Tim: Yeah. That is an excellent point. And actually, and I think that is something that a lot of people misunderstand about Japan, particularly Westerners look at Japan, which in some ways very hierarchical. People are aware of and sensitive to the hierarchy. Protocol is there, it’s almost military in some respects, but it’s not top down.
Brandon: It is not at all. It is not.
Tim: It’s kind of middle up…
Brandon: It’s middle up, I would say group of executives anywhere between like three to 10 people. There’s committee sort of team, and you need to get a majority of votes from the committee members, otherwise you cannot push things forward.
Tim: So, just the initial effort required to push it through internally is not worth the expected gain.
Brandon: Right, right.
Tim: That makes sense. That makes a lot of sense. On the consumer side, though, even new consumers, I mean, Yahoo, Japan, even though it looks just like it did in 2000, it’s still attracting new users. I mean, young people use it. Why is that? Why hasn’t a newer, hipper, cooler design site taken business away from them with the next generation?
Brandon: My theory to that is when it comes to webpage on the computers Yahoo, Japan is leading, however younger audience shift focus onto mobile phones, smartphones. And there’s some apps like SmartNews, NewsPicks, New Kids on the Block, taking younger audience possibly away from Yahoo, Japan.
Tim: Okay, that makes sense. But I’m going to play devil’s advocate. The American designers advocates here. So, I understand what you’re saying but some things do seem objectively bad. I mean, for example, there is flashing colors on sites and there’s images that are really low res. A lot of times I’ll still fill out a form, and if I make a mistake, it clears the whole form. I mean, things that we haven’t seen since the dotcom era in the US are still pretty common here.
Brandon: Yeah, it is. It is. There are a few aspects there. I learned users in Japan like to get led to specific directions instead of, they decide everything all by themselves. It’s cultural difference. If you go to a restaurant in the United States, you can pretty much customer order everything like slip or salt, what kind salt, what kind of dressing.
Tim: Yeah. Japan is everything, this is the set menu.
Brandon: Set menu and Omakase. Omakase is non-existent in the United States.
Tim: After 30 years in Japan. I love Omakase. I mean, just bring me the food you decide. I love it.
Brandon: So, the Japanese websites, many of them look like Omakase website, meaning banners, links, full of content and click, and it gives you everything up front, kind of like a family restaurant menu.
Tim: Well, actually, there’s another aspect of this. So, a very common complaint from American designers, and I mean this is very much true, is that the complexity of Japanese web forms is sometimes over the top. And I think another aspect so, I was the country manager of a US startup called Engine Yard. And it was a platform as a service you’d play onto Amazon or Google or Azure. And in the US we had this wonderful six step wizard. You’d fill out some information behind the scenes, it would bring you up the next question. Go, go, go, go. Japanese hated it. They just detested it. And we had this debugging screen that we used internally, which was, I mean, screen after screening, I think it was 70 different input boxes and check boxes that could configure everything. And while we were localizing, we showed some of our customers that and they were like, that’s what we want. And I’m like, are you sure? Like, yes, yes, yes. And so that’s what we did clean it up a lot. But that’s what we used a single form. We tested it with a few users and they really liked it. We rolled it out to more they liked it. I mean, universally, that’s the way people wanted to do it. And six months later we went, went back and people were still preferring that to the wizard. Even new users. And we asked why and the feedback we got was that people like to know what was expected of them before starting. So, the way they would use it is they would read through the whole form top to bottom. Then scroll back to the top and start filling it out.
Brandon: Exactly. So, one thing we learned about Japanese users is that people feel insecure of empty space and people feel insecure if they don’t see everything up front. Could be due to the cities really busy, magazine covers look really busy. Manga shows everything up front. If you go to a restaurant, the whole menu is in front of the restaurant door. Or even some restaurants have food samples.
Tim: Oh yeah. The little plastic food. Those are awesome.
Brandon: Yeah. So, they love to see everything all upfront first, otherwise they’ll feel a little bit insecure. And maybe it contributes to conversion rate to go down.
Tim: Well, that is another difference. So, not so much a design difference. Well, no, it does impact design, but I’ve noticed if you look at the product information on like Japanese Rakuten versus the product information on American Amazon. There is so much more detail on the Japanese eCommerce site.
Brandon: Japanese do not want to make mistakes. It takes more effort to make people trust to buy something. When somebody makes a decision, even if it’s a smaller one, the person wants to have lot more elements to trust the purchase or trust the item.
Tim: So, this high information density. If you’re in print, that makes sense because every page costs money, every page has got to be turned. But on the web it doesn’t seem like there’s a penalty for having more information displayed pleasantly and well designed. And yet we still see this very dense display of information on Japanese websites.
Brandon: I mean, you touched a really good point of print and I understand that this country has still lot of things to be printed. When I came into Japan a couple days ago, I showed the app that I got vaccinated. What they did, they gave me a piece of paper to prove that I’m okay to go through the gate. So, they want to have a lot of things still on the paper to feel more comfortable. So, the screens represents the copy of the paper projected on there.
Tim: I mean, to be fair, in the nineties that was the metaphor in the United States and the rest of the world too. The rest of this world moved on. But I mean, in Japan there is a web design magazine, a magazine called Web Design about web design. And it’s printed, which just blows my mind.
Brandon: And there are a few of them.
Tim: Yeah. Not just one. All the publishers have to have one. Do you think it is just that web design hasn’t broken with print? Or is there something deeper there?
Brandon: I have a feeling that people trust still paper more than digital pages. As a matter of fact we are in the process of publishing a design book in Japan, which actually is a collection of our blog articles. So, technically you can read them through for free through our website, however, the publisher says they’re confident that people buy our books even though they can read everything on the screen for free. Because people want to have everything in one place, print it, people have more trust. As a matter of fact, we’ve talked to executives from our clients in Japan about our blog articles. And if they say this is just website, so they don’t trust it because anyone can publish it, if it gets printed, went through the publishing process, they have more trust because it got printed.
Tim: That’s interesting. It’s also worth noting too, that for our listeners, outside Japan, publishers in Japan are extremely powerful and are well-known. In fact, bookstores used to be organized, not by topic, but by publisher. So, you would have science books in four different places in the bookstore based on who had published them. So, that vote of confidence was real. The publishers did not want to publish something that was not authoritative and correct because it would come back to them. Well, that makes sense. So, it is a rational call to authority to produce something that looks like print. The information density though, this gets me because traditional Japanese design is extremely minimalistic.
Tim: What happened?
Brandon: Zen like. Yes. I think that’s the biggest mystery. And there is two very different directions when it comes like Japanese aesthetic design. One is traditional Japanese Zen style minimalist design, which Steve Jobs admired. And then all sudden, like the modern Japanese design, which is really busy, everything is in one place scattered. That actually reminds me of old Japanese history. Like old town like Kyoto Kanazawa traditional versus like new cities like Tokyo. I think there’s huge contrast. Pre-War, post-war kind of concept maybe.
Tim: So, what changed after the war? Design-Wise, I mean.
Brandon: I would say the country got westernized, meaning the country started going to the capitalism direction. Businesses making money, leading people to stores. In the past they’re kind of like community type of like give and take kind of society. But after the war, hyper growth phase, a city like Tokyo got so busy growing businesses.
Tim: So, you think it was more of just a societal importance of growth and efficiency?
Brandon: I would say so, yeah.
Tim: And that this older aesthetic of minimalism and harmony just started to be viewed as old fashioned.
Brandon: I think so. However, the paradox is that since Japanese do not like changes, we do still have those old places, aesthetics in the country everywhere. Every single city has that spot.
Tim: But even, I mean, it still shows through in design too.
Brandon: Yeah. Some designs do. But maybe those designs do not deliver as much business.
Tim: They don’t convert.
Brandon: They don’t convert. People like it. People treat them like piece of art.
Tim: But not commerce.
Brandon: Not commerce.
Tim: I think we’re hitting something important here because if you look at the leaflets that are distributed, commercial leaflets, they very much look like the websites. And actually I’ll go further than that. If you go to big camera or Yodabashi camera, the physical experience is a lot like their website. You got flashing lights everywhere. People are like calling out to you as you’re walking through these aisles. It is a lot like the site.
Brandon: So, you touched a really good point here, Tim. Many websites still are the representation of physical, real experience, digital version of that. And many companies still hire external agencies to produce their websites for them. Those businesses are their customers and designers make whatever the customers say.
Tim: I think that’s the universal designers lament. Designers rarely get to do what they really want.
Brandon: That’s true. Still designers in Japan are in very weak position. Designers are not as valued as those in the United States.
Tim: Let’s dig into that in a moment. But yeah, continue that thought.
Brandon: I mean I did a research and it’s clear that in terms of like how much a typical designer makes, it’s double or triple higher in the United States comparing to those in Japan. Designers in Japan unfortunately are making least amount of money.
Tim: We’ve talked before on Disrupting Japan how traditionally software developers have not been valued. That it was considered kind of menial work, clerical work. Is the same true of like UIUX?
Brandon: I think we are getting better understanding the value of UI designers, UX designers, but still it’s a minority. It’s not a mainstream yet. Because let me tell you this, for example, in the United States, most of the customers come from digital channels. And many companies rely on digital channels because country is so huge, vast. And it’s really hard to get customers through physical channels or doing like door to door sales. In Japan instead, it’s still very salespeople driven business. The first priority for any given company is to hire salespeople and let them do the sales. And they get customers through that way. And digital channels, websites are secondary.
Tim: I guess so like, I mean there’s definitely the cult of the salesman, I mean that deserves its own episode. It’s just over the top sometimes. But the websites, the e-commerce sites especially, they bring in business. They’re not trivial amounts of money. And a designer making a change can point to that and say, look, this design change was responsible for X million yen increases of sales last year and in the states that’s a lot of the conversation that designers are having. But is that happening in Japan?
Brandon: I think so.
Tim: Because I mean, it would seem like being able to point so directly to sales would raise their profile.
Brandon: As we researched e-commerce, there are well designed e-commerce websites in Japan exist and they’re performing very well. So, there’re rather newer brands with really clean design e-commerce sites and they’re doing okay. Likewise, Amazon, Japan is getting lot of traffic, lot of customers, a lot of sales now compared to 10 years ago. So, it’s slowly but steadily people are going to that direction instead of sticking with domestic eCommerce marketplace, which I don’t say the name of it, but everybody knows about that. So, I think the shift is happening now. By the way, I don’t think Amazon is not the cleanest website.
Tim: No, actually I was going to say the same thing. I mean it’s a little cleaner than Rakuten, but compared to the average website, it also is pretty information dense.
Brandon: It is. It is absolutely, it is.
Tim: And man, if any site has been optimized to convert it’s Amazon’s.
Brandon: Yeah. Yeah. People are so used to ugly design and they feel very comfortable using ugly design. Take Craigslist as an example.
Tim: Ooh, yes.
Brandon: I mean you criticize Japanese web design, take Craigslist. They’re using 30 year old text only website, pre-CSS era. People got so used to using it, they don’t change it. I feel very comfortable using Craigslist because it doesn’t change.
Tim: It gets the job done.
Brandon: Exactly. So, it’s got its own place to live and that’s absolutely fine. Everything doesn’t have to look pretty.
Tim: Yeah. I agree. Just for context, I mean because you work with clients throughout Asia. So, is this sensibility, this information density, is this unique to Japan or do you see this in like Korea and China as well?
Brandon: In a way it gets worse. Especially if you go to China, windows pop up all the time. Flashy gifs everywhere. Objects move around. In Japan’s at least things are static. If you look at some of the Chinese marketplace websites, you get blown away. I was like, what the heck is going on here?
Tim: But obviously the same rules applied. They’re testing the hell out of this. They’re doing what converts.
Brandon: It does remind me of those cities like Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, busy, busy street, lots of small buildings and stores everywhere. Back street, messy street.
Tim: Yeah, I guess there is this internalized sense of what commerce is. And whereas maybe in the US they are striving to the Manhattan Fifth Avenue boutique fueling, where in Japan they’re striving towards the big camera shabua craziness. And in China it’s the Backstreet Hawkers.
Brandon: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
Tim: I mean in perhaps the same way that you were saying like the representation of print is this like emotional call to the authority and this busyness of the sites is this emotional call to prime people to buy.
Brandon: Exactly. People get drawn to what they see on a daily basis. And if you live in Tokyo over 20 years, then your sensibility goes to like busy looking object look really comfortable.
Tim: I love that. That’s great. Let’s run through some common reasons that get talked about on the internet about why Japanese web design is the way it is. I’ve collected a few, I’ve done my homework. So, a lot of people seem to think this is caused by a language issue. A common theme I hear is that since all new web frameworks, all new technology first is developed in, well not necessarily America but in English speaking countries and all the documentation is English, that since there are so few bilingual Japanese engineers, that it naturally takes years for things to diffuse to Japan. Any truth to that? What do you think?
Brandon: A good friend of mine started a company called Mercari and he actually used to live in San Francisco. And the secret of Mercari’s success he told me was that they applied what’s considered to be good user experience and usability in the United States. Took that to Japan and distributed the app towards the Japanese younger consumers. And they loved it. And they took customers away from Yahoo Auction to me Mercari app. I think that’s a quite a shift happened from old school to a new school. So, I don’t know if this is the right answer to that.
Tim: No, but it is interesting because like Mercari is a very interesting, so the way they’ve run their technology, the Mercari Japan app and the Mercari US app…
Brandon: Are different.
Tim: Totally different development teams. It it’s just managed separately and…
Brandon: No, a few years ago that was not the case. When they started, a few months after they started Shintaro, the CEO comes to San Francisco very often and learn what’s the good UX design, considered to be good in the United States. And came up with the UI ideas working with their designers in the US and took the ideas to Japan. Kind of localized it. Reversed, localized it and designed the app. That’s what I heard from him.
Tim: Okay. In that case, it’s not an issue of technical ability or ability for Japanese engineers to read technical documentation because it was developed by Japanese engineers.
Brandon: That’s true. That’s true.
Tim: From my own experience with Japanese programmers rather than designers, most of them are perfectly comfortable reading specs in English. So, in my opinion, I don’t think language is a real barrier to adoption for new frameworks and new technologies.
Brandon: I don’t think so.
Tim: So, you think it’s more likely just that inertia you were talking about that like you have to get buy-in from so many groups to try something newer to change things or…?
Brandon: Technologies wise, engineers obviously ready, they’re fully capable of doing that. Their bosses may not accept new technologies or frameworks and common premise behind that they say, oh, it’s not proven to be secure yet.
Tim: You know, this is something point number four from the feedback I received, was older generations making decisions and young people aren’t allowed to contribute.
Brandon: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Tim: That’s real?
Brandon: That’s real. That’s absolutely true. Many of our clients in Japan are big corporations. They prohibit still their staff to use some of the cloud-based software, namely like Slack.
Tim: And they cite security reasons.
Brandon: They say because of security reasons, some companies prohibit using Zoom because it’s not secure.
Tim: And yet anyone listening now who’s ever worked at a Japanese company or had Japanese clients knows the old encrypted attachment emails.
Brandon: Zip files.
Tim: The zip files, which is this bizarre security practice where for “security reasons,” if you send an attachment, the attachment must be zipped and password protected. And the password sent 20 seconds later in a separate email. I’ve been trying for years to figure out how this nonsense got started. Nobody knows, but it sounds like the same kind of thing. Like there’s an older generation that for whatever reason, has come to believe that XYZ is not secure and it’s very hard to prove something is secure when there’s no specific criteria.
Brandon: It’s so funny you say that, I call this self-defense measure. Meaning when you send a zip file attached to your email and you password protected and send a password 20 seconds later if something goes wrong, at least you can say, I’ve tried.
Tim: I have covered my ass.
Brandon: Exactly. So, you don’t have to take responsibilities. And if you try to get updated, like if you try to improve the experience by not password protect zip file, if something goes wrong, people around you say, see your fault.
Tim: All right. Now this is true well beyond design, but yeah. The person who says, let’s try this or no, this is fixed, is taking a huge risk.
Brandon: Exactly. That’s closely connected why websites won’t get updated when it comes to UI and UX. Because if you try something new, if that goes wrong, then you need to take responsibility. If it goes well, you won’t get credit for it. If something goes wrong, it’s your fault. If something goes well, that’s organizations win. So, naturally you’d give up trying something new because you might get penalized.
Tim: Yeah. And that’s why I have like six standard points minute presentations I give about Japanese culture, but one of my personal favorites is called culture is bullshit. They don’t always allow me to give that one, but I do what I can. The point of that is that when we talk about Japanese people being risk averse, I don’t think Japanese people are more risk averse culturally than anyone else. But I think the risk reward equation in Japan is very different than it is in the United States. And exactly like you’re pointing out, the designers are behaving perfectly rationally within those parameters.
Brandon: Yeah. Yeah. There’s another side to that. So, last weekend I went to a city called Atami. This is my first time that city is located in between Tokyo and Osaka, there is a bullet train coming to the city, multiple ones. Those trains are run by a company called JR, Japan Railways. And somebody tries to purchase tickets. It turned out that JR has three different regions, JR West, JR East, JR Middle. And you need to go through each app or website to purchase tickets.
Tim: Yeah. It’s horrible.
Brandon: And that’s horrible. That’s horrible experience. We discussed about like, why don’t they march everything into a single streamline process? My theory to that is, this is true, if you do that, then some people lose their jobs. Companies in Japan cannot lay people off so easily, so they need to keep the positions.
Tim: Wow. That is an area I’d never really explored before.
Brandon: So, some of the websites, some of the apps are very hard to use for good reasons. It’s so hard they need somebody to take care of inputting data or managing it, operations that creates jobs for especially elderly people.
Tim: So, in the US so much of web design, so much for commerce is driven by ruthless efficiencies, scalability, squeezing every bit of efficiency and performance out of whatever you have.
Tim: Automation, yeah. I mean, it is an end in itself. And I think you’re right in Japan that’s good. I mean people value that, but that’s not the end goal, is it?
Brandon: No. So, if you make everything too intuitive, for example, then a lot of people will lose their jobs. For example, if you go to a bank, there are ATM machines and there are people standing next to ATM. Their job is to help customers navigate through the ATM.
Tim: I have used those people. I have.
Brandon: If the UX of ATM machines got too intuitive, they don’t need those people, guess what happens? They’re going to lose their job.
Tim: Is that really…? No, I mean…
Brandon: That’s my theory.
Tim: But I love that. I mean, do you think that’s actually part of the conscious decision making or is that more of a, like an excuse after the fact?
Brandon: I think it’s a mixture of both of them. So, imagine that they have a meeting discussing about updating their system and a designer comes up as really seamless design, very intuitive. Everything could get automated and you don’t have to talk to customers anymore. Everything’s done on the website and screen basis. Then maybe some executives say, what are we going to do about those people in those departments, their job is to take care of customers navigating through the websites and can you take responsibility of their position?
Tim: It goes back to that Nemawashi like middle up decision making. And you’ve got a powerful faction who has not been appeased. I’d never thought of that. I can see that in terms of the internal decision making process of certainly enterprises.
Brandon: Yeah. And many companies still do not have design teams. So, designers are either externalized or part of like maybe marketing team. Their full-time job may not be even designers. They’re doing something else, but they do design on the side. Recently we’ve talked to one of the largest Japanese companies making soy sauce. Everyone knows the company. One thing we learned is that they don’t have designated brand department.
Brandon: No. Even though the brand is well known globally, but we learned that they don’t have brand department mostly because they outsource the work to advertisement agency. That’s another side to the problem, ad agency culture.
Tim: Let’s talk about ad agency culture because that’s a deep and passionate topic.
Brandon: Very complicated topic, and it’s almost impossible to change, which is deeply rooted in to Japanese businesses.
Tim: How is this different in Japan than in the US?
Brandon: So, US when it comes to ad agencies, they mostly take care of advertisements as it says, they run Super Bowl ads, they come with creatives commercials, they purchase out spaces, billboards, TV commercials, shows, online advertisement. That’s all they do.
Tim: They’re execution, they’re procurement.
Brandon: Typically their smaller scale teams work with their customers for particular purposes only. In Japan, they’re two big out agencies and they do everything, pretty much everything. Anything from advertisement to web design to even like product development and branding, pretty much whole thing.
Tim: In the case of DSU, they even do the media management and metrics.
Brandon: Exactly. So, the first choice for a large corporation when it comes to website design and management is to go to one of those ad agencies talk to them. They say, oh, we’ll take care of it. Don’t worry. We’ll take care of it. We know everything. Then the agency works with external designers, freelancers and design companies maybe.
Tim: This almost perfectly mirrors what we talked about a couple months ago on how Japanese enterprise outsourcing their IT to their keiretsu partners. Has hobbled innovation in Japan for the last 30 years. It sounds like in a very similar way, the outsourcing of branding corporate identity to advertising has kind of hobbled this innovation and corporate identity in Japan.
Brandon: It’s almost impossible to find a Japanese large scale corporation that does the corporate identity and branding design in-house. I would confidently say that.
Tim: Well, but wait, I mean, but even the famous US brands, if you’re talking about Apple and Nike, I mean they use brand consultants and advertising.
Brandon: They closely work with those agencies. Those agencies work like a part of their design team. For example, a good friend of mine was with a company called Design Studio in San Francisco. They have an office right next to Airbnb office. Their main customer is Airbnb. They took care of their corporate identity and branding, but they worked along with Airbnb’s design team, closely net team.
Tim: So, the American style, they’re getting advice from outside, but they’re…
Brandon: I think in the United States, we don’t say outsourced. Whenever we say outsourced, that means outsourced overseas to do the development. So, in Japan, everything’s outsourced. Software development IT, design development outsourced. In the US they get consultants, brand consultants, design consultants come to their team, closely work with the experts.
Tim: So, the US companies are reaching outside for advice and ideas and creativity and making their own decisions. Whereas in Japan, they are more throwing the problem over the wall. And saying, come back with a solution for us
Brandon: Yes. And the worst part of that is we work with one of the companies who take care of outsourced IT works in Japan. And their biggest challenge is that they have never met the end customers. They haven’t seen their users. So, they’re like shooting the dark when it comes to designing something or developing software because their customers are those companies who run businesses. They don’t see the client’s customers. They’re not allowed to do it. Everything’s guesswork. And they come to us asking to learn design thinking process. Design thinking is everything about understanding customers and users. And the first thing we ask them, like, have you met end users before? And they say never.
Tim: I mean, I’ve spent my career jumping back between enterprise and startups. The ability to sit down and connect with a customer is one of the most amazing parts of running a startup in any country you’re in. But I think in Japan, you’re right, that division is further and further apart. Looking down my list of common grievances from US designers, ah, the lack of font choices.
Brandon: Absolutely. Really. Absolutely. Oh,
Tim: I was going to dismiss that one.
Brandon: This is easiest topic to talk about. Alphabetical characters. Only 26 lowercase, uppercase mostly, special characters maybe anywhere between 50 to hundred characters. Japan, hirahana, katakan, Kanji, zillions of characters. It’s very, very challenging to invent a font style. So, there aren’t too many font styles.
Tim: But even in the US we don’t see that much variation in fonts, do we?
Brandon: There are many actually.
Tim: So, it’s just subtle. I’m not picking up on it.
Brandon: As a designer, I understand that there are thousands of different fonts. Most of those fonts are not as used as the rest. Most websites on software use top 20 fonts only because it looks good and it gets better customer experience or user experience. However, there are so many different kinds of fonts out there actually.
Tim: Even though as a non-designer, I’m not noticing this, there is that variation and maybe subconsciously it does have an impact.
Brandon: It does. It absolutely does. Not only the fonts and styles, alphabetical characters look better aesthetically because it’s got capital uppercase, lowercase, and it looks really beautiful.
Tim: Does this have any relation, we were talking before about information density and…
Brandon: It’s kind of connected. Its two different things. So, I’m talking about how it looks. So, alphabetical character looks pleasing design wise because it’s got rhythm to it. Japanese text boxy, everything’s is so boxy. So, from far away it looks like just tons of square boxes and it doesn’t look good. And it’s a challenge. Designing something with Japanese text is externally difficult. Comparing to designing something with alphabetical characters. That’s the reason why many Japanese brands use alphabetical characters like English language, even though those are grammatically wrong English. Because it looks so good.
Tim: All right. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay.
Brandon: So, that’s one thing. Information density, Japanese language. It can contain a lot more information in shorter sentences because it’s got Kanjii.
Tim: The pushback on that a little bit. I’ve noticed over the last, let’s say 10 or 15 years in the West, there’s been a decrease in the uniqueness of typography in the uniqueness of logos and a lot of very, especially consumer facing brands. There’s been a, what shall we call it? Helvetia-ization of…?
Brandon: I love this topic by the way.
Tim: Okay. So, you know what I’m talking about.
Brandon: I wrote an article or two about how come the older logos started looking the same. They all use modern fonts. Helvetica for example, including those apparel brands, high brands from Europe,
Tim: Especially those, right?
Brandon: Yeah. And my theory to that is it’s a lot easier to read those font on the screen, digital channels. The first thing that you learn as a designer at the design school is that don’t use serif on digital devices. It’s hard to read. It’s a lot easier to read on the paper, but not on the screen.
Tim: Is this changing because we’ve hit like modern iPhones and pixel phones, the resolution is already to the point where the human eye can’t distinguish. Do you think we’ll return to closer to that print where we’ll see more of those serif fonts and subtle design logos?
Brandon: I would doubt that. A lot of brands go with modern font. Take Burberry as an example. A couple years ago they redesigned their logo with plain vanilla looking bold sensory font.
Tim: I loved their old logo
Brandon: Recently, about a week ago, they redesigned that again, went pretty much back to what they used to have.
Tim: Did they?
Brandon: Slightly different, but pretty much the same. They did. Maybe they realized that it doesn’t represent the brand well enough because it looks like tech company’s logo.
Tim: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Brandon: So, they did go back to what they had before.
Tim: That makes me happy. Yeah. I mean, I’m not a particular fan of Burberry, but I mean, just the fact that people are going back to the tradition, I think is a good sign. Let’s talk about the future of UI/UX in Japan. So, you and I have talked a lot in the past about how design is directly connected to ROI, customer attention, customer satisfaction. And like, this is not just theoretical, this is mathematically provable, this is common sense in the US everyone knows, is this way of thinking about design as a core business function, taking hold at all in Japan?
Brandon: I’d say yes and no. Japanese companies and Japanese brands and products are very good at making things look pretty. So, design on a surface level, some companies that do an excellent level, we are in the digital age and we are in a different era than 20 years ago. Design got so important, you need to actually start building products with design in mind from day one. However, most Japanese companies still apply design towards the very end look and feel. There isn’t nothing wrong, but it’s not enough anymore. You need to have a designer in a team from day one. When you talk about new products and services.
Tim: Is this changing at all in Japan?
Brandon: Slowly, especially with startups, I would say most startups in Japan, tech startups, they have designers, they have designers and they do excellent job designing their apps and websites and software. They look good. Most corporations, enterprises, it’s not happening yet. I’ve never met anybody from those enterprises with the title on their business card says, designer, even if I met somebody with designer title, they’re in really lower class in the corporate ladder.
Tim: When you mentioned about the looking pretty, I’ve been on the other side of the table in a few of these meetings. And the meetings where the approval is done is conducted by showing PowerPoint, by showing the design on the screen rather than having people use it or by showing objective metrics on how customers use that product.
Brandon: I would say unfortunately corporate executives are not very interested in design. In other words, they’re in too many executives with design background in Japan. Many executives typically are from sales department. They were the top salespeople and they got the title of like, president, vice president. They’re excellent salespeople. They’re not designers.
Tim: Smartphones. How is iPhone and Android changing design sensibility in Japan? And the reason I asked, we talked about Mercari before, and I think that both Android and iPhone enforce a user interface, a user experience that is fairly limiting and very good efficient. Is this changing the expectation of how UI should work in Japan?
Brandon: Big time. Yeah, absolutely. Prior to smartphone got into the Japanese market, everything was something called Garakei feature phones. It’s got very different UX. It’s even funny that many Japanese companies actually try to invent something like iPhone prior to iPhone came out, they decided not to do it because I heard that they had internal meetings and discussions about producing something like iPhone. And the people in the meeting says, oh, what happens if somebody cannot use the keyboard on the screen. It’s not easy enough. People may hate having their fingerprints on the screen. What happens those like young girls with longer nail cannot type on the screen and all those like naysayers, like, then they say, let’s not do it. Let’s stick with what we have now. Apple, like Steve Jobs says, we’re going to do it, let’s do it. And when it got released in 2007, I read an article in Japan, people say it will never be popular in Japan because it’s so hard to use. The camera on the phone is scrappy. And it cannot record video for the first iPhone. And all those criticism came out and people said, no way. I’m not going to buy iPhone. I’m not going to pay $500 for a piece of crap. Look at what we have now.
Tim: It’s one of the biggest markets for iPhone in the world.
Brandon: Exactly. Exactly. So, companies never even try releasing something like that.
Tim: But with this huge success of both iPhone and Android, is that design sensibility moving into the web? I mean is…
Brandon: Yes. Yes. I would say so. Especially with younger audience. If you take one teenager in Japan, what she uses, she uses smartphone, Instagram, TikTok, they don’t even use Google anymore. It’s not fun. So, it does change what they use, what they love, what they want to use. And unfortunately there is very little room for Japanese app or Japanese website that they want to use.
Tim: Is that the UI/UX or is that more of the form factor in just having it out on the phone?
Brandon: I think both of those. Yeah. Both of them.
Tim: All right. Brandon, I’ve got one more question for you. And I’m going to let you go after that, I promise.
Brandon: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Tim: Absolutely. So, and I think this is really something important to have a lot of our foreign listeners in Japan. I’ve had this conversation over beers with so many foreign engineers and designers in Japan. So, there has been, over the last 15 years, a huge influx of foreign designers, foreign engineers working at Japanese companies, trying to bring in western engineering practices, trying to bring in western design sense with, shall we say, varying degrees of success. Do you think this is having an influence? Do you think that having these engineers come in and try to explain and try to pitch these companies on, hey, let’s try this. Do you think it’s having an effect?
Brandon: I know a few of them in Japan, I would say very least amount of impact still. Like designers came from United States. They love Japanese design, they love everything about Japan and culture and people, everything. They’re eager to improve the design of products in Japan. First, they’re welcome to the company. Like companies get so excited. We have top designers from the United States changing our design of the products and apps. And after a year or two, slowly it gets shifted towards like what executives say. So, those foreign designers design something, the latest design top level, wonderful looking, really cool, executives start saying, oh, I don’t feel very comfortable with this design.
Tim: It’s running into that same decision making process that maybe even the innovative Japanese designers are facing.
Brandon: So, this is my ultimate conclusion. In order to do a good design, in order to produce a good design to the public, in order for a good design to see the light of the day, the most important thing you want to do is Nemawashi talk to executives, get their buy-ins, get their trust. And this happens outside of design works. Could it be a lot of drinking with them, getting trust with them playing golf, good old Japanese way of getting relationship, close relationship with your bosses and executives and your customers. And many designers still do not know how to do that. It’s part of designer’s fault.
Tim: Well, it’s a hard thing for Westerners to understand.
Brandon: I mean, as Romans do, if you come to…
Tim: When in Rome, yeah,
Brandon: Exactly. And I’m very good at it.
Tim: After all these years. So, your advice to the frustrated designer is keep designing, but focus on building those Nemawashi and social skills.
Brandon: So, my job at btrax in Japan is whenever our designers get frustrated with customers, they’ll ask me, hey Brandon, can you go talk to their executives, have a couple drinks and get their buy-ins? And that’s my job here.
Tim: All right. Brandon, thank you so much for sitting down.
Brandon: Absolutely. This is my pleasure, man.
Tim: It’s been way too long.
Brandon: No, it’s good. It’s good. I love it. I love it.
And we’re back.
There was a lot in there. In fact, when the mics came off, Brandon and I had the same comment to each other. That was, “Wow, you gave me a lot to think about! Let’s continue this conversation later.”
Hopefully it got you thinking as well, because there’s a lot more subtlety to Japanese UI/UX than most people know about.
I really love the framing that the purpose of design in general is evoking a certain emotion and priming the user. While US design often evokes modern efficiency and the exclusivity of a Fifth Avenue boutique, Japanese design often strives to evoke the established authority of print or the sensory overload of shopping in some of Japan’s most famous electronic stores.
It’s really about catering to the user’s tastes rather than the designers’ tastes.
Of course, you know, some design decisions are just objectively bad. And as Brandon explained, those companies are already losing market share to the more innovative firms who are using modern UI/UX in ways that meet Japanese sensibilities.
Things are changing and that’s exciting.
You know, after our conversation, Brandon and I both agreed that there is still so much more to dig into and we promised to finish our conversation later. Now, I don’t know if the mics will be on during that conversation, but I promise you you’ll be hearing much more about Japanese UI/UX on future episodes of disrupting Japan.
If you want to talk more about Japanese UI/UX design, Brandon and I would love to hear from you. So, come by disruptingjapan.com/show202, and let’s talk about it. And hey, if you enjoy Disrupting Japan, share a link online and tell people about it. Disrupting Japan is free forever, and letting people know about it is the absolute best way you can support the podcast.
But most of all, thanks for listening and thank you for letting people interested in Japanese startups know about the show.
I’m Tim Romero and thanks for listening to Disrupting Japan.