Everyday Usability in Japan (Part 1)

While I design software for a living, it’s often the design of everyday physical objects which intrigues me the most. From ticket machines to toilets, every time I travel somewhere for the first time it always fascinates me to see the various ways people have solved the same problems – for better or worse.

While globalisation has led to a certain degree of homogenisation, especially within smartphones, the Galápagos syndrome (ガラパゴス化) is still alive and well in Japan where everything has developed in its own unique way. Below are just a few examples which I’ve noticed day-to-day in Tokyo.

Train ticket machines

Japan Train Ticket Machines
Money pit
  • allows users to insert a travel card in any orientation at any point during a transaction
  • accepts coins as fast as you can throw them in (multiple at once)
  • complex edge cases are designed in rather than designed out of the system
  • this is what happens if you press the help button (must be seen to be believed)

Train ticket gates

Japan Train Ticket Gates
Innocent until proven guilty
  • unlike other metro systems, gates remain open unless an invalid ticket is presented
  • designed with the assumption of users’ honesty (they have paid) rather than deception
  • saves time and power/energy by requiring gates to close/open less often
  • also accepts multiple tickets at once for multi-legged journeys

Toilet controls

Japanese Toilet Controls
Iconographic (in)appropriateness
  • if sanitation is a sign of economic development then perhaps Japan has gone too far!
  • way too many buttons (over-designed) & icon functions unclear/scary
  • most useful function (flush) is not obvious to non-Japanese speakers

Restaurant ticket machines

Japan Restaurant Ticket Machine
A picture is worth a thousand bowls of ramen
  • most popular dishes are usually shown as photos at the top (easy for non-Japanese speakers)
  • side dishes and drinks are shown as text below (lower priority)
  • allows small restaurants to run with minimal staff (1 -3 people often)

Fax machines

Japan FAX Machine Culture
If it ain’t broke, fax it!
  • still heavily ingrained in business processes despite being a museum piece
  • sign of ageing population and “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” culture
  • perhaps a hand-written fax is more personal than an email?

ATM machines

Japan 7 Eleven ATM Machine Keypad
Lost in transaction
  • after entering desired withdrawal amount you have to press 円 (yen) key rather than the more obvious green ENT key
  • pressing 万 (10,000) or 千 (1,000) could result in an undesired withdrawal amount
  • some ATMs adapt UI for foreign cards but buttons could still cause confusion

So what can we learn from all this?

  • Design for edge cases, rather than around them (when appropriate)
  • Trust your users (but not a loo with 27 buttons)
  • Use appropriate pictures & icons
  • Don’t count old tech out
  • Be language-neutral
  • Travel more!

Update: some interesting discussions going on about this on Reddit.

See Part 2 for more intriguing examples of how everyday objects in Japan are designed.

David avatar

13 responses

  1. Luke avatar

    Really interesting, I am unsure that the constantly open ticket gates would work in the West; that said, is there any sort of sensor to stop people going through without submitting their card at all?

    1. Different lines have different types of machines but yes, I think on most if you walk through without presenting a valid card/ticket then the gates shut.

      1. John Sausage avatar
        John Sausage

        The metro in Moscow use the same system. But if you don’t have a valid card, or the reading is not done correctly (if you swipe too fast for example) it will close. violently. in your knees.

        Also, for the toilet, the usual behavior is still respected : if you push the largest buttons, it will do the main use case (flushing).

        1. Antonia avatar

          It also happens in Kharkov. The gates remain open, and if you try to pass without putting a ticket (or an invalid ticket) through it closes. I didn’t believe it at first , but my sister told me to try it, glad my legs didn’t part from my body.

      2. Steven avatar

        Interestingly, when I tried invalid tickets on Tokyo gates, the gates shut but could easily force myself through (when staff found it ammusing to let us – othertimes, no so assumed staff would should and call you back).

        In Russia others have said, you’d need a bulldozer to get through the gates.

  2. Brandon avatar

    Japanese companies do not design with non-Japanese speakers in mind. The shower toilet controls work well for anyone who knows Japanese and the flush buttons are the biggest and on top.

    Also, the ATM buttons for 万・千 are shortcuts. They let you type 5万 instead of 50000. If you use them, you don’t need to hit 円.

  3. “Design for edge cases, rather than around them”

    I am an amateur design lover and a huge Apple geek, full disclosure; I once heard Apple described as an 80/80 company: designing for 80% of the people 80% of the time. Yes, I know this sounds lazy, but it also frees the designer from, as you say, handling every single situation imaginable. Also, for a company with a ‘target market’ this is possible, for a designer of Subway Ticket machines in Japan, the target market is: every Japanese person (many different ages, varying degrees of eyesight etc). That’s still a pretty nice ‘niche’ FWIW.

    Love this kind of analysis, please try to do more. I’m sure there are tons of examples around town. 😀

    1. Thanks Mike – the edge cases one has certainly sparked off some interesting conversations. I wouldn’t argue that you should always design for them since, as you touch on, this introduces a huge amount of additional complexity but in cases like a ticket machine it makes the experience as a whole so much easier.

      I already have half a dozen more examples, some are fairly esoteric, but I’ll try and do a follow up in a few weeks time.

  4. […] meticulous attention to details in terms of usability is a hallmark of Japanese products. Check out this blog post which highlights some of their design principles focusing on user experience. The author shares an […]

  5. Sean wood avatar
    Sean wood

    Laughed out loud when I read this (on the train on the way to work – Chuo line Tokyo). Spot on description.

  6. Hmm… I’m not sure that it is an honor system used for the subway entrances..

    For example, in Berlin, in the public bus system (and perhaps the metro as well, I can’t quite remember) you time-stamp your ticket when you board on an automated machine – there is no turnstyle or person barring your entrance. But there are random checks – and you pay a hefty fine if you have paid less than you should or if you didn’t time stamp it. They are very strict about this.

    Buses in Japan do have the conductor making sure you pay when you exit the bus. So perhaps knowing just a little bit about the culture, perhaps in this case there might be a shame thing if you don’t use a ticket. Everyone can see if you don’t feed anything into the machine. And there is an train station attendant watching everyone come through. If you are caught, it might be such a shameful experience for a japanese person, that might be what keeps people in check.

    We should just ask a trainstation attendant how this is controlled, instead of making assumptions perhaps… I jsut think it is not as simple as what meets the eyes.

    1. Vandana Jain avatar
      Vandana Jain

      I absolutely agree with you. Another point I would like to make is (since I lived there for about a decade and not being Japanese), we so often ask if they design for the western world, but do we ever question if the western world design with keeping the eastern world in mind?
      Japanese people are incredibly organized which is difficult to understand within cultures where everything goes with the flow. Their design mindset is not the same as the rest of the world, they are more organized and prepared because of disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis which plague their land more often than we know.
      So before we make assumptions of why they are not so western worldly in a few things, let’s try and understand.

  7. […] Japan ticket machines, courtesy of Randomwire […]


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