The Erosion of User Experience in Digital Products in Japan - A Designer's Perspective

Japan, a country renowned for its precision, innovation, and attention to detail, ironically is facing an unexpected challenge: the decline of user experience (UX) in digital products like websites and mobile apps. As a designer, this trend is particularly disheartening. Let’s dive into the reasons behind this erosion, its impact, and potential solutions to rejuvenate the UX landscape in Japan.

Historical Context and Current Landscape

Japan has long been a pioneer in various technological fields, setting global standards in electronics, automotive, and robotics industries. Think of Nintendo’s multinational video games, Sony's groundbreaking electronics or Toyota's automotive excellence. However, the UX of Japanese digital products seems to be stuck way back in the 90s interface architecture. In recent years, users and professionals have observed a decline in the overall quality of UX in Japanese digital products. Well, it’s not really a decline but more so a state of ‘remaining static’. This trend can be attributed to several factors, including rigid corporate structures, a focus on functionality over form, and a slow adaptation to global design trends.

Factors Contributing to UX Decay

Now, there are several factors that cause stagnation in the development UX in Japan. Corporate Hierarchies and Decision-Making: Traditional Japanese corporate structures often involve multiple layers of decision-making. This bureaucratic process can stifle innovation and delay the implementation of user-centered design practices. Senior executives, who are usually the decision-makers, might not be as in touch with current UX trends and user needs as younger designers. This disconnect can lead to outdated and inefficient design choices​.

Functionality Over Aesthetics: Historically, Japanese digital products have prioritized functionality and reliability over aesthetics and user experience. While this approach ensures robust and stable products, – and almost everyone knows that change is not welcomed in Japan – it often results in interfaces that are cluttered, unintuitive, and outdated. Striking a balance between functionality and aesthetics is crucial, but in Japan, the scale often tips too far towards functionality, leading to suboptimal user experiences​.

Slow Adaptation to Global Trends: Japanese companies have been slow to adopt global UX trends and best practices. In the West, companies rapidly iterate and evolve their designs based on user feedback and trends. In contrast, Japanese firms often stick to tried-and-true methods, which can result in products that feel dated and out of touch with modern user expectations​.

Lack of UX Training and Education: There is a notable gap in UX education and training in Japan. While technical skills are highly emphasized, the importance of user-centered design is often overlooked. This lack of emphasis on UX education results in a shortage of skilled UX professionals who can drive innovation and improve user experiences​.

Impact on Users and Businesses

The decline in UX has significant implications. Poor user experience leads to frustration, reduced engagement, and ultimately, the abandonment of products. For businesses, this translates to lost revenue, decreased customer loyalty, and a tarnished brand reputation.

In today’s competitive global market, Japanese companies must recognize the importance of UX in retaining and attracting users. As digital products become increasingly integral to daily life, the demand for intuitive, user-friendly interfaces grows. Companies that fail to meet these expectations risk falling behind their global counterparts.

Unique Challenges in the Japanese Market

Designing for the Japanese market presents unique challenges due to the diversity and distinct cultural preferences across the region. For instance, Japanese users tend to prefer dense, information-rich interfaces that provide a bird’s eye view of all options, even if it results in a cluttered layout. This preference contrasts sharply with the Western design principle of "less is more," which emphasizes minimalism and simplicity.

Incorporating cultural elements into UX design is essential for engaging Japanese users. Visual design in Japan often includes playful elements, such as mascots or characters, which resonate well with local audiences. For example, Expedia Japan’s use of a bear mascot adds a whimsical touch that appeals to local users.

Reversing the Decline: Potential Solutions

Embrace User-Centered Design: Japanese companies need to prioritize user-centered design practices. This involves conducting thorough user research, creating personas, and continuously testing and iterating designs based on user feedback. By placing users at the center of the design process, companies can create products that are not only functional but also enjoyable to use.

Invest in UX Training and Education: Addressing the skills gap in UX is crucial. Companies should invest in training programs for their employees and encourage continuous learning. Partnering with educational institutions to develop specialized UX courses can also help cultivate a new generation of skilled UX professionals.

Foster a Culture of Innovation: Encouraging a culture of innovation and risk-taking within organizations can drive UX improvements. Companies should empower their design teams to experiment with new ideas and approaches. Reducing bureaucratic hurdles and streamlining decision-making processes can also accelerate innovation. But we all know, although it will eventually happen, this is going to take time.

Stay Updated with Global Trends: Keeping abreast of global UX trends and best practices is essential. Japanese companies should actively participate in international conferences, collaborate with global design experts, and continuously benchmark their products against industry leaders. Adopting a more agile approach to design can help companies stay relevant and competitive.

Apply Design Thinking: Design thinking is a problem-solving approach that puts the user at the center of the design process. By following the five stages of design thinking—empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test—companies can develop innovative solutions that address user needs effectively. Empathizing with users involves understanding their pain points and preferences through research and observation. Defining the problem clearly helps in focusing the design efforts. Ideating encourages brainstorming and generating creative solutions. Prototyping involves creating tangible versions of ideas for testing. Finally, testing these prototypes with real users provides valuable feedback that can be used to refine the design​.


So, what’s the solution? The decline of user experience in Japanese digital products is a multifaceted issue that requires a concerted effort to address. By supporting user-centered design, investing in UX education, fostering a culture of innovation, staying updated with global trends, and applying design thinking, Japanese companies can rejuvenate their digital offerings. The future of UX in Japan depends on the willingness of businesses to adapt and innovate. Digital products have to remain competitive and user-friendly in an increasingly globalized market, every single second. In my opinion, with a strategic focus on enhancing user experience, Japan can reclaim its position as a leader in digital innovation, offering products that are not only functional but also delightful to use. By understanding and combining cultural preferences and global trends, Japanese companies can create digital experiences that resonate with users, both locally and globally.