Understanding the art of Japanese hospitality to design a better experience

In 2013, Japan once again won the opportunity to host the Summer Olympics, making them host the prestigious sports event for the fourth time. It was not an easy journey for Tokyo to beat other contenders like Madrid and Istanbul. The case of radioactive leaks at the Fukushima power plant made the voting jury doubtful about Tokyo, which is only 155 miles away from the location. Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, flew personally to Buenos Aires to reassure voters. “Let me assure you that the situation is under control,” Abe said. “It has never done and will never do any damage to Tokyo.” Even the Japanese government has pledged nearly $500 million for stabilizing the nuclear plant.

Not only the effort of the prime minister, a speech from the Tokyo Olympic bid ambassador, Christal Takigawa, grabbed the spotlight. She introduced a Japanese word that later became a buzzword and created a positive image of Japan.

The word is omotenashi

(pronounced: ohmo-te-nashe).

The word has no direct equivalent in English, however, Ms. Takigawa described it as a spirit of selfless hospitality. “Omotenashi explains why Japanese people take care of each other… and our guests… so well," Ms. Takigawa said.

This spirit of hospitality has been deeply rooted in Japanese culture for a long time. The word was first recognized in the Heian period (794-1185)—And that was the era in which tea ceremony flourished. That's why omotenashi is often associated with tea ceremonies. In a tea ceremony, a host makes immense efforts to prepare it, so that every guest can have the most memorable experience. Sometimes it can take almost a year for the host to prepare for just one ceremony. Not only the host wants to make guests feel welcomed but they will do their best to anticipate and cater to each guest's needs.

Ingrained in the modern generation

Omotenashi has been passed down from generation to generation and manifested in many different aspects. It’s a subtle, almost invisible aspect of Japanese culture. However, if you go to Japan, even if not for a long time, you can feel this kind of different form of hospitality. People greet you by bowing, or when you just enter a shop/restaurant they will greet you with irasshaimase which means 'welcome to my shop/restaurant'.

Even in casual interaction, I feel they are hospitable. I once traveled to Japan about 10 years ago. I didn't know what omotenashi is, but I experienced it and it was memorable. I was confused to find an address. I haven’t had a smartphone with Google Maps on it yet. I asked one of the local people who passed in front of me as soon as exiting a train station. It was a rush hour and raining. I didn't expect much, because most people walked fast. I was just a little frustrated and gambled if I could get a little help from someone – And it was beyond my expectation. The Japanese person kindly accompanied me to the location I was looking for.

Ms. Takigawa in her Olympic bid speech shared an example that if someone loses something, they will almost certainly get it back, even if it is cash. She said, in 2012, more than 30 million US dollars in lost cash was handed to Tokyo police.

You will also experience omotenashi from everyday things in Japan. You can see baby seats attached to the wall in most public toilets. Sinks on top of toilet cisterns so that you can reuse the water for your next flush. A toilet that has a button to play white noise/water sounds so other people can’t hear your businesses. Free smartphone wiper dispensers. Umbrella lockers.

Omotenashi is a human-centered approach that Japanese people don't learn from design school or business class, instead, their grandparents foster that kind of mindsets in everyday life.

Here are three core values of omotenashi which are similar to the principles we have in the design process.

Empathy

For UX designers, empathy is a word we hear most often. Empathy is a starting point that brings you closer to understanding for whom you are designing. NN Group defines “Empathy  as the ability to fully understand, mirror, then share another person’s expressions, needs, and motivations.”

In a tea ceremony, the host will find out guest's preferences to prepare the best experience possible. Like UX designers, they don't base their decisions on their personal preferences. Designers make decisions based on the understanding of users to design the best experience.

So next, always remember in your design process that you are making a tea ceremony, not your wedding.

Anticipation

Anticipation means being prepared to do one step ahead when you expect something to happen so that you can meet the needs of others. To anticipate, you need empathy. You cannot anticipate without understanding for whom you are doing the action.

The way that I want to describe anticipation based on omotenashi is similar to what Huge CEO Aaron Shapiro describes about anticipatory design, yet not the same thing. Aaron takes a perspective on how the future user experience should be – while I’m more talking about the behavior of designers to think about how they can anticipate user needs. As you can see, Japanese people, they don’t think just about meeting user needs - for them, it's also about "just-in-case" user needs. Like a toilet in Japan that has a baby/kid seat. It's a just-in-case – Just in case someone needs the flat plastic seat with a strap to buckle the kid in.

In a digital product, it could be as simple as providing more explanation (micro-copywriting), just in case someone is hesitant or needs more context or information. It could also go beyond that – a new feature that requires more effort to design and build – even if it's not a feature that supports the main mission with impact to the north star. It’s just a "”just-in-case” feature, but who knows, it might bring you more loyal users, happier customer.

Back in 2013, I used to travel to Singapore for doing a project. Singapore is a great city, modern and thoughtful. I realized there are quite a lot of blind people – they look comfortable blending in in public areas. I wonder why there are so many blind people in Singapore? Based on The International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB), in 2020 in Singapore it was estimated that there were 7.10% of the population with visual impairments and 0.20% were blind (~13,000 people). If I compare with Jakarta (to give an almost apples-to-apples comparison in terms of the size of cities and how modern they are) where the city has almost 0.40% (in 2013), that means almost 40,000 people with blindness – I think Jakarta is less anticipating than Singapore.

Not because Singapore has a lot of visually impaired people so we can see them more often in public spaces, but people with visually impaired feel more comfortable going out and interacting just like normal people. The city provides the best experience possible for a “just-in-case”, for a minority.

Integrity

Integrity is about authenticity. It is a state of being true to who and what you are – And manifesting that in every aspect of your life. Your values align with your actions. Authenticity is barely visible but you can feel it. You can tell whether someone is sincere or not.

Sometimes, UX in practice can slip to the dark side. Designers study how human psychology is and try to hack users perception of a product. They provide inaccurate information to build social proof. They design a bait so that users switch from their initial choices. They take others' privacy for their benefit.

Designers and product owners should learn from Omotenashi – to practice a selfless act, a gratitude that appreciates that someone chooses to spend time with you, to use your product/service.

For us who don't live within Japanese culture, it makes no sense to understand how much effort is put into holding a tea ceremony. Still, you can encounter their warmness, sincerity to provide the best service, and thoughtful everyday things.

Just like a tea ceremony host, as a UX designer, you make every effort to delight others when they use the product you design. You can practice the spirit of omotenashi. You empathize, trying to understand others from their point of view (empathy), you are one step ahead in fulfilling their needs, (anticipation), and finally, you are sincere in providing the best experience (integrity).


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