NN/g News

Obstacles to Iteration in a Gadget-Driven Culture

February 18, 2001

By Marie Tahir

Jakob Nielsen speaks in Tokyo; sign lists language channels for simultaneous translations
Nielsen speaks in Tokyo

TOKYO, Japan, February 18, 2001. Our Tokyo attendees consistently told us of how usability is still in the early pioneer stages in Japan. People at the conference repeatedly said that they hoped to take the information they learned at the event back to their offices and use it to champion usability within their organizations. Interestingly, Japan poses some cultural resistance to adopting user research and design iteration methods, in addition to the usual reasons that usability and design professionals face worldwide.

Basuke, a Mac application designer and programmer of his own firm, Siestaware, hoped that he'd not only learn design and usability tips at the conference, but also learn presentation skills for convincing clients of the value of usability research.


Photo of Basuke, Siestaware

Basuke explained that usability testing, which entails talking through UI problems and iterating designs, is counter to Japanese culture: "Japanese culture is based on not explaining everything in regular communication--we have Japanese common sense... we think behind words."

Not only does Basuke find it challenging to get people to participate in the tests, he also struggles to get his clients to budget for usability testing, because iteration is not as attractive to them as new invention: "If something is not successful, it's considered failed, and it's not done again--you don't work on improving it. Japanese like new things--they don't want to fix old things--it's not as exciting."

Basuke explained that this Japanese love of new things, can pose significant challenges for designers and usability specialists, who must encourage their clients to refine, rather than re-create designs. On the other hand, we saw examples of innovative gadgets that can help introduce new technology through a non-threatening and familiar form. Mitch Tsunoda, a Senior Marketing Specialist at Microsoft in Tokyo, gave us a great example of how one such gadget, the "i-pot," might help the Internet infiltrate Japan, because it connects to the Internet in an innovative, yet transparent way. Mitch thinks the Internet has more of a chance of pervasive adoption in Japan if it comes to people in recognizable forms.


Photo of Mitch Tsunoda, Microsoft
Mitch Tsunoda,

The i-pot is a hot pot, a standalone electronic appliance used for dispensing boiling water for tea. Hot pots are common, everyday items in Japanese people's homes. Yet this hot pot is quite different. This hot pot doubles as a monitoring device, so that you can keep tabs on anyone who might need close monitoring, such as an elderly person. When someone uses the i-pot, it sends a signal (using NTT DoCoMo's Packet communication service), to a Web page that records all of the activity for that i-pot. The web page charts the time of i-pot events, like filling or dispensing water. In other words, it lets you track the well-being of your loved ones by watching their tea drinking patterns: "If you see they missed a day without making tea, or they're up at 1:00 in the morning, you know you need to give them a call" Mitch said.


Mitch talked about how effective this device as a way to get the Internet into people's homes, without people needing to know anything about the Internet. "All the grandmother needs to know is that when she dispenses the water, she sends a message to her grandson... she doesn't need to know how it works... what is so great is that the pot has no new interface for the actual user; it just heats and keeps the water warm."

Photo of Kinko Sugiyama, Seiko Epson
Kinko Sugiyama,
Seiko Epson

Along with these uniquely Japanese learnings, we heard from several attendees about challenges similar to what we've heard in other World Tour cities. For example, Kinko Sugiyama, a designer at Seiko Epson, a printer company, shared two common challenges with us: moving from hardware design to website design, and trying to figure out how to best get engineers, editors, writers, and designers to cooperate on this effort. She said that hardware design could afford to be more technology-driven, and engineers defined and influenced these designs. Her role used to be developing UI architecture to support technology-driven design. Now her challenge is not only to learn about and practice good e-commerce website design techniques, but also to convince the engineers to adopt a user first focus: "Web design is different... users won't visit if it's not good." Kinko was very enthusiastic about Jeffrey Veen's discussion of scenarios in his Art and Science of Web Design tutorial. Kinko has been using scenarios in a similar way in her hardware design, and is looking forward to using scenarios for her Web design work.

Photo of Kenichi Ushirobisu, Agilent Technologies
Kenichi Ushirobisu,
Agilent Technologies

Kenichi Ushirobisu, a Marketing Engineer at Agilent Technologies, talked about the challenge of championing usability practices when your product has market share. He wants to incorporate usability practices now, so that his company can maintain its leadership position. Kenichi believes that for his product, usability will be the differentiating factor in the future, so he wants to start building it in today.


Attendees in Tokyo listening to the Main Event
Attendees in Tokyo listening to the Main Event Closing Panel through simultaneous translation

Press Coverage of Tokyo Conference

In Japanese