I’m an expat from Seattle, WA, currently in Tokyo designing digital products and experiences at Goodpatch. Because we design apps and websites, two ever-changing platforms, I find myself constantly catching up on the latest advice for best design practices, most of which happens to be written by English speaking designers, at companies in the West leading the digital design field.

Something I’ve noticed in Japan is that while the UX design field for digital products is still in its nascency, those same best design practices already permeate many existing physical products and experiences here.

Many design principles come from empathy and consideration, which are also key Japanese social customs and have been since generations ago. Examples of 思いやり (omoiyari, consideration) and おもてなし (omotenashi, hospitality) in Japan are found anywhere from the way of speaking the language itself, to the way that even the most humble items are packaged.

This blog is a exploration of how a few products in daily life in Tokyo display omoiyari and omotenashi, but also exemplify well known design practices in the UX field.

Theme 1: Preventing Error

McDonld’s Jaan(Overly?) considerate takeout

When expats get takeout in Japan, they’re usually surprised by the sheer amount of packaging that it comes in. I was too. I still think it’s too much. However, after living in Tokyo and getting an idea of what people here expect from customer service, I see the purpose of the layers of bags. McDonald’s takeout is an good example of packing in a way to prevent both user error and discomfort.

Let’s say you order a meal with a burger, fries, and drink to go. The staff will wrap the hot foods in one paper bag, and the drink in another, keeping the food warm and separated from the condensation of cold drinks. The drink is held upright by a cardboard stand to prevent spillage, which is standard service at Starbucks. All this is wrapped up again in a large plastic bag that protects food from the rain, and has a handle for easy carrying for the walk home.

Theme 2: Anticipating User Needs & Pain Points

Example 1: Yukimi Daifuku — mochi ice cream, provided with a stick

We have mochi ice cream in the States too, but anyone who’s tried it knows it’s troublesome brushing the powder off your hands when you finish. This isn’t a problem with the Japanese version; Yukimi Daifuku packs contain a plastic stick you don’t have to get powder on your fingers, or touch food with bare hands.

This stick actually resembles the small wooden utensil that accompanied Japanese traditional sweets, or wagashi, from decades ago. It’s likely that the creators of Yukimi Daifuku just followed convention and thought it was obvious that a soft and sticky food would include a utensil for ease of use and cleanliness.

Example 2: Ippeichan Yakisoba — instant noodles, with a water drain

Yakisoba is eaten without soup, so a few minutes after putting in boiling water, it has to be drained. A pain point of draining the water in instant noodles is not draining the noodles along. Ippeichan Yakisoba packages have a clever solution: one end of this package is lifted to pour in boiling water, and the opposite end is lifted to reveal a securely attached filter to drain it out while keeping noodles in place.

Example 3: Cereal — resealable and reasonably portioned

A pain point of buying cereal in the States is the cereal becoming stale too quickly because the paper flap on the top of the box doesn’t do anything. Another pain point is cereal coming in larger amounts than you’d ever know what to do with, and becoming stale because you just didn’t want to eat cereal everyday. Solutions like bag clips and Tupperware exist, but cereal packaging in Japan avoids these problems altogether with a resealable top and smaller bags at around 240g/8.5oz. Many food packages in Japan are designed to keep food fresh, either with a clever closing method, or just a smaller size.


Theme 3: Good Affordance & Clear Signifiers

Takeout bento tray — with indents for a fork and rubber bands

For lunch, I often stop by a popular but tiny deli, with lines wrapping around several aisles during the lunch rush. I wondered how the deli was so cramped yet the line moved so quickly. Of course, the ordering process is well organized and the staff move quickly, but I noticed that even the bento box itself helps streamline the process with indents for a fork and two rubber bands.

While these indents don’t mean much for the customer, they make packing easier for the restaurant staff. The staff only has a minute to prepare a bento for a crowd of people. These indents serve as signifiers to save the staff guesswork, and also prevent error by reducing the chance of rubber bands or utensils slipping out of place, therefore saving time for both the restaurant and customers.

Theme 4: Designing for Certain Behavior (Moderation over Excess)

Example 1: Mintia Breeze — mints in an individual dispenser

Give the case a shake and pop out the tab where a single mint will sit securely in a slot built precisely to size. It’s convenient for offering a mint to others.

Example 2: Meiji Meltykiss — individually wrapped chocolate

No fumbling with excess wrapping. Just put your finger on the tab, and press down. This compresses the cardboard barrier and lets a piece of chocolate slide out. Push the cardboard back up to secure the container. Each piece of chocolate is sized just right for one bite, and wrapped in gold foil that’s firm enough to open easily (unlike the kind of foil where you have to dig with your fingernails).

Travelers in Japan often comment about how delicious the food is, but that the portions always leave them wanting more. Similarly, people rave about Haagen Dazs in rare flavors, but also remark about how the serving is tiny enough to finish in three spoonfuls. Average tasting food in excess portions was the norm back in the States, as was average tasting ice cream in family sized tubs.

The “value” of consumables in Japan seems determined by quality and presentation rather than volume and cost. This results in items wrapped for the ideal method of consumption, which often means enjoying the flavor and textures piece by piece, in moderation.

Furthermore, the per unit cost of smaller packages is not significantly higher than larger ones, so customers buy the amount they need. This contrasts with items in the States, where larger packages often have a lower unit price, which encourages customers to buy more, whether or not they actually need to.

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