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 way 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 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 invalid ticket presented
  • designed with 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

Restaurant ticket machines

Japan Restaurant Ticket Machine

A picture is worth a thousand bowls of ramen

  • most popular dishes usually shown as photos at top (easy for non-Japanese speakers)
  • side dishes and drinks 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 more obvious green ENT key
  • pressing 万 (10,000) or 千 (1,000) could result in 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!

Source Credit:
David Gilbert

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Comments (5) Write a comment

    • From what I can tell it`s a “Taspo” card with dangles in front of a cigarette vending machine, right?

      For those who don`t know, “Taspo” it`s an age-restricted IC card in Japan to activate purchase at certain vending machines e.g. tabac, alcohol etc.

      In some restaurants/bars the owners can`t be bothered with customer request (who don`t have a card) and simply keep a Taspo dangling at the machine.

      Another example would be convenience stores where one has to press a touch screen button at the register when purchasing alcohol or cigarettes. Anyone can press the button and it`s definitely not enforced by shop staff to check an the actual age of customers.

      There are lots of examples like this in Japan: thought up with the best of intentions but being bypassed or ignored easily.


      • That’s really funny – I’ll have to include something about vending machines in part 3, I seem to remember hearing that after a major earthquake they are programmed automatically to give away free drinks.


          • I’ll have to do some research about the quake feature – pretty cool idea even if it is an urban legend.

            The touch-panel vending machines are very flash but its key feature seems to be its ability to shove adverts in peoples face and I dread to think how much electricity they use vs the old-school ones!

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