Neon Lights and Bullet Trains: Contextual Inquiry in Japan

Understanding user needs is essential for any product development cycle

— Neon Lights and Bullet Trains: Contextual Inquiry in Japan

Understanding user needs is essential for any product development cycle, and when a product is aimed toward a foreign market and end user, it’s that much more significant.  That’s why Key Tech recently took part in several in-field studies across the country of Japan. The purpose of the study was to observe the users’ workflows in their natural setting, while asking pertinent questions in order to understand the users’ thought processes and product requirements.  While there were certain cultural aspects relevant to the project that needed to be observed firsthand, there were also a few cultural customs necessary to follow when participating in the site visits that challenged us as American product designers.

First, it was required at every location to remove our dress shoes upon entering the buildings and replace them with a pair of ill-fitting slippers.  Wearing dark suits with white foam slippers initially had a strange feeling and fashion, but after a few visits it became more customary.  Often times we were presented with a pair that was many sizes too small and narrow.  We made do, and gave the Japanese associates a good smile.  Designers should take note that the shoehorn is alive and well in Japan…









Secondly, before meeting with the intended end users, it was customary to be introduced to the head of the department/organization first.  This usually involved a quick exchange of business cards with an explanation for the reason of the visit.  Upon finishing introductions, an exchange of bows would take place before moving on to meet with the scheduled end users.  These meetings would again begin with formal two-handed exchanges of business cards and bows before beginning our contextual inquiry session.  One can never have too many business cards in Japan.

And lastly, the need for a translator was new for conducting user sessions.  In the days leading up to the planned site visits the involved parties made sure to prioritize and clarify the questions to be asked.  It was an important task to make sure that our questions were clearly understood by the translator, before arriving at any of the sites.  When conducting the user sessions it took another level of concentration and awareness, as often times the user would be speaking while the translator was translating in parallel.

Following the few days of site visits, I took to the streets, temples, and soccer matches of Japan in order to experience firsthand more of this fascinating culture so different from my own.  While it was all new to me, the obvious structured Japanese way of life made for a pleasant and carefree exploration.  From lining up to board trains at designated locations to meticulously waiting for the cross walk signal to indicate it’s time to walk, everything seemed to have a thoughtful way of conducting the action.  Riding public transportation was clean, quiet, and efficient, a somewhat different experience than my experiences in the US.  It was astounding at how frequent and on-time trains rolled in and out of the stations and not to mention the number of different train designs.  Doors that fold open, raised conductor cockpits, 70s style upholstered seats—the level of visual stimuli for a designer was excessive!  The same can be said about what was seen above ground. There is an immense level of engineering put into the raised expressways and the longest suspension bridge in the world, which contrasts with the well preserved age-old temples and castles that are design and engineering marvels in their own right.









On final reflection of my field study in Japan I can only describe my time as experiencing ‘organized energy’.  Even though the trip seemed fast paced at times, the customary Japanese business and societal practices around everything from meeting with end users and communicating ideas, to learning to line up to board public transportation lessoned the frenetic pace around me.  I was able to focus my attention on appreciating historical and modern design features both in the business and tourist areas.  The juxtaposition of predictable order amid the commotion helped to revitalize my attention to detail, which is an essential skill for the Key Tech designer.











Chet Larrow

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