I recently took a trip to Japan with a few associates to study how our customers there search, use our products and make online purchase decisions. We conducted usability and cognitive studies in Tokyo with different sets of customers. Below are highlights of key findings that will be useful if your goal is to optimize your product for the Japanese market. This list contains ideas that I found to be the most counter-intuitive based on my admittedly western view of user experience

Instruction. The Japanese culture favors more instruction on web pages that helps them understand what might happen once they click on something. We had a saying in our UX department that if you have to explain the feature, you’ve designed it poorly but it’s apparent to me that this statement is less true for the Japanese market. Culturally, we observed that people not only wanted to know what was going to happen before clicking on things, they also longed for instruction and/or details about the thing they were going to purchase. This isn’t just the web, walk into any electronics, furniture store etc and you’ll seem catalogs full of detailed specification and product photos. 

Trust.  We learned from Japanese users that they wanted to feel like they could trust the organization they are purchasing from. They would spend more time on tertiary pages like the “about us,” “FAQs”, “Licensing terms” than other users in an attempt to gain a higher level of trust in the organization they are purchasing from. People want to know that the company behind a product/service is legitimate and Japanese companies invest in “corporate campaigns” to make the company name a trustworthy one. 

Text Heavy web pages  - Many western UX Professionals comment on how cramped / cluttered many Japanese websites are. It’s not visual clutter if the user finds the content valuable. Take a look at this collection of Japanese product pages.  You’ll notice right away that they are text heavy but they often convert better anyway. Japan web aesthetic favors information density - in part because of the number of glyphs in the Japanese language, but also due in part to the instruction topic raised above. 

Very Few Fonts - You’ll need to design your webpage to look good using one of the basic Japanese fonts such as Meiryo or Hiragino Kaku because there aren’t nearly as many font options as latin character sets. Creating a new font requires 8000+ glyph and that’s a large task. An even heavier task is the work your browser will need to do to load some of the fancier Japanese fonts. Here’s some details about Japanese Web Fonts. 

Mobile + Image heavy pages - It’s common knowledge that images tend to convert higher than just plain copy in much of the landing page and email tests online, but if your image heavy page has a slow load time in Japan due to your servers being located in the US or Europe, than you are probably hurting your conversion more than helping it with the images. Mobile web usage is over 60% in Japan so more than half your traffic is loading the page on their phone. The Japanese culture has a much longer relationship with mobile web browsers with the early adoption of mobile phones and 3G.

Collectivism - (出る杭は打たれる)Japan is noted as a culture that puts the harmony of the group over the expression of the individual. We saw this in user experience research as well hearing from Japanese customers making purchasing decisions that they would have greater trust in an organization if they knew that many other people were already using that service. It seems like social proof might help conversion on pages with purchasing decisions. Here’s a famous Japanese proverb that means “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down.” 出る杭は打たれる

Typing Roman characters => Hiragana => Kanji.  Watching Japanese users type is a fascinating experience considering they are using four types of characters: Roman characters + Hiragana (phonetic) + Katakana (phonetic/foreign words) + Kanji (pictographic). The web was born from Roman numerals, so Japanese type on a Roman keyboard, but the type appears as either Hiragana or Katakana (depending on what they choose.) Then they hit the spacebar, which make suggested Kanji appear. If it’s the correct Kanji, hitting the enter key will select it. If it’s incorrect, then tapping the spacebar a second time will make a drop down menu of Kanji appear where you can select the correct Kanji. Watching Japanese users, this complexity seems insignificant as they tap away, but it’s an important aspect of usability because in some cases a sentence in a western language that takes 8-10 keystrokes, can take up to 50 keystrokes in Japanese. Here’s a video illustrating the complexity. This may appear complicated, but in some ways it’s actually more efficient because of suggested words, phrases and the fact that sometimes Kanji can very precisely mean something that takes 10 english words to express. 

Flick Input on mobile.  I can’t find stats on this, but anecdotally at events we attended, we saw people under the age of 40 using flick (which is available in both Android and IOS) instead of an ascii keyboard to communicate much faster than the typical writing described above. In this input system, the userstarts from a seed hiragana (“A” and other consonant/vowel combinations ending in “A”), and flicks it in the other four directions to get vowel/consonant combinations. Here’s a description of how it works and here’s an example of how fast it can beMany young people in Japan have converted to this input system, which allows faster, more direct input than using romaji to spell out hiragana.

A written language. A Japanese friend of mine told me that there exists a disproportionate volume of fax machines still in use throughout Japanese business. One reason is  because it’s still easier to write a document freehand and fax it over to someone than to type an email. Food for thought when you are asking for information from a Japanese user in form fields. There are other reasons as well documented here in the NY Times and here in the BBC

Search Experience - Users we observed typed shorter queries (fewer terms) than Users in western languages. The Japanese language is more specific and accurate than many western languages. For example, in English there is only one word for brother but in Japanese, there are two words “older brother” (兄) and “younger brother” (弟). This level of specificity requires a search engine’s accuracy of keyword translations to be more nuanced than other languages.