Cross-Cultural Design: From the US to Japan

Exploring the cultural nuances that play into international design.

Article courtesy of Seiko Ikatura, product designer at Citadel.

I organize Japanese Design Community in SF/Bay Area, and I thought about giving a quick review of what the meetup was like this time. We had about 50 members. This time’s topic was on cross-cultural design in US/Japan. Our panelists were Roxy Chaney (Sir. UX Designer at Sony Network Entertainment Int’l) Stacey Baradit (UX Designer at Apple) and Brandon Hill (CEO of SF/Tokyo based creative agency).

We had quite an interactive session with our audience.

One of my goals of this event was to make it interactive and engaging for audience. We had eclectic questions being asked by our audience and our panelists were delighted to answer with humor and great stories. I actually heard from a few folks in audience that they enjoyed last night’s event more because of the interactiveness.

Panelists had breadth of knowledge and experiences with cross-cultural designs.

Roxy works with Japanese and Europe team on a regular bases on design problems. She had wonderful examples and tips on how to work better in the cross-cultural environment.

Stacey has worked with Chinese and Japanese companies in the past as a UX Designer/User Researcher. She had shared her experiences across both markets.

Brandon has his creative agency in SF/Tokyo. He also grew up in Japan and worked for many years in Japan before starting his own companies. He spoke to us from a business prospective also as an expert in Japanese culture.


I didn’t list out all, but these are some takeaways that I found particularly interesting:

  • People in Japan give you positive feedback when you ask but they give criticism online (e.g. If Japanese restaurant rating app is 3.5, that is a good restaurant — equivalent of 4.5 star on Yelp in the U.S.).
  • It’s hard to get people in Japan provide critical feedback verbally. It helps to ask them by spelling their words for them (e.g user interviews), ask them to put their words in an anonymous survey or place a checklist for ‘critical feedback’ in a design process.
  • People in Japan value formality and process. They don’t like being put in a spot for things they don’t know. So prepare and send your questions and presentations before your meeting.
  • How to break the ice when doing a business with someone in Japan? — Have a common thing to talk about (e.g. a pop music/ animation) or have ice breaker questions based on the level of openness (e.g. Lv1. Which sushi is your favorite? Lv2. What are some things you like about your mother?).
  • Relatively speaking, designers in Japan don’t have designer titles, not paid well and work for long hours (like a big ad agency in Japan) though there are also exceptions like at Sony, designers are valued in every product and expected to have a better work life balance.
  • There are not many design schools in Japan. Many of them come from art schools, and designers aren’t like here. They often don’t have title of designers in Japan. Designers are perceived to be easily replaceable in Japan.
  • Japanese companies are looking for fresh minds. They listen to people who don’t speak Japanese more and often respect their opinions (e.g. don’t think themselves are better than English speakers). English speakers have an advantage.
  • Spending time with people in Japan over a meal or drinking is the best way to create a bond with them. Take your account manager in Japan to a Izakaya. You will hear more honest feedback. Once you have a good bond, you can start hearing more of the critical feedback and not many questions about why you design in one way. (Opposite of the U.S. — you have to provide logics and whys)
  • Approvals from a high level stakeholders (e.g. CEO) are vital to success of a project in Japan.
  • Formality vs. Humor: Japanese business environment appears to lack humor (unlike in SF/Silicon Valley), there is something we could look up to in Japanese formality because they document and go through approvals during design processes, often there is no impulsive “Let’s change this in the last minute.”
  • Logic vs. Nuance: In Japan, often time people rely on nuances and feeling, and it translates into the designs. The design is accepted to be playful and artistic whereas in the U.S., designs’ focus is more on functions.
  • When communicating a phrase in a language different from your own, it is helpful to dumb down to pictures and puppets. For example, Stacey had used puppets to successfully gathered user feedback, and Roxy had communicated the meaning of “crafty” better with a search in a Google image.

All in all the event was successful. Many audience told me that they learned so much from this panel event. I thank the panelists for dedicating their time and EchoUser for letting us use their space. I hope to help in bringing more interesting events to our community!

The original article can be found on Seiko’s Medium blog.

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