Seeing the world in UX - Japan

Guest Author

December 24, 2019

Illustration by Daria Khil

UX is a universal language, as designers, we should learn to be fluent in it.

Motenashi - a Japanese cultural concept outlining the ideal relationship between guest and host, speaks to the importance of the connection between hospitality and user-centred designs. 

I recently visited Japan for a business trip, and despite only knowing basic Japanese I learned from anime, I was able to live in the city effortlessly. From using the airport washroom to using the subway system, I noticed and experienced the way UX is implemented into improving user experience in Japanese culture. In this article, I will be sharing the ways Japan apply intuitive design seamlessly into people’s daily lives. 

What is good design?

Have you ever seen or used something in your everyday life and thought to yourself, “That product completely changed my life”? Great product designs are all around us, but we often don’t realize how great they are as they blend in so seamlessly into our daily lives. Good UX design is intuitive, so intuitive that it’s invisible. When it’s invisible, people don’t value it as much, which is why it’s our job as UX designers to see the value in good and bad designs, and learn to implement them when we are designing for users. 

When I first made my career transition into design, I didn’t know what to learn first. Grid, typography, resolutions, motion guidelines, laws of UX, the list goes on. While these fundamentals are extremely important, I didn’t feel like a real designer until I started including design thinking in my everyday life. That’s when I realized, UX is everywhere. I believe that UX designers should look at anything in the world and be able to examine it with a critical eye. That’s why in addition to studying the design principles and tools, it’s important to train ourselves to see these “invisible” designs. 

It takes a practiced eye

Emotional design by Don Norman

So, how do you train yourself to see something that’s invisible? Start by being the users. Go out there, use products, and experience it yourself. After that, analyse how you feel based on the theory of Emotional Design. 

According to Don Norman’s Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things, all designers must address the three components of emotional design and understand how they interweave with emotions and cognition: visceral, behavioural, and reflective.

  1. Visceral design: The direct emotions and feelings that users feel when interacting with perceptible qualities of an object. It aims to get into the users’ head and tug at their emotions. 
  2. Behavioural design: Most of the time referred to as Usability.  It focuses on the effects of the functionality and practicality of features on users’ experiences with the design. This involves the feelings of pleasure, ease, frustration, enjoyment etc. when users are completing a task.
  3. Reflective design: the highest level of emotional design, focusing on the conscious thoughts when users are approaching a product. This allows users to use rational infromation from our surroundings to influence decisions and behaviours. The factors could be based on superficial qualities, past experiences, and attaching personal meanings. 

Experiences that allow users to be immersed in their emotions and feelings, tapping into their opinions, attitudes, memories, and life experiences, let designers see clearly how a product’s impact is projected onto our lives.

Accessibility elevator buttons

Accessibility is one of the most important factors to consider for designs. In Japan, I came across multiple elevators that have two sets of buttons. One set at standard height, and another at a lower height with a disability label, designed to provide easier access for wheelchair users.


A lot of washrooms in Japan have a map outside, displaying the layout and the types of toilets inside. Most also have braille on it, making it more accessible for the visually impaired.

Going into the washrooms, there are sensors that play white noise so people can’t hear your business. There were a few times when I got startled as bird chirping and waterfall sounds started playing when I was using the washroom, which was a fascinating experience, that got me thinking about the cultural context behind the designs.

In Japanese culture, most people believe that being quiet is polite, furthermore having others hear you going to the washroom could be embarrassing. 

Underground transit system

The subway in Tokyo uses different representative colours to indicate different transit lines, giving clear directions, even at busy and crowded stations. 

There are A LOT of subway lines in Tokyo, but everytime I felt lost, I looked up to see overhead signs showing the directions of lines, as well as which side of the platform would take you to your destination.


To see the world in UX, start by being the user yourself, understanding the emotions different experiences project on users, allow us as designers to be able to create intuitive designs. Going to Japan and seeing the UX myself, helped me perceive the way technology, product design, and cultures interweave with each other. 

Check out these articles about user experience in Japan that inspired me:

Crystal Chu is a Toronto-based Product Designer who just returned from her trip to Japan; you can find her work right here. We'd love to also have you write on our blog, we are open for stories, interviews and opinions on the design industry.

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