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Collaborating Across Cultures: Designing UX Studies for Japan

Years ago, when I came to Japan to teach English, it was the first time I had ever left the United States. I was on my own and I didn’t really know anything about the local culture or language. In my head I thought itcouldn’t be much different than America; after all, Japan was the third largest economy in the world, and surely a very international place.

I was aware, almost immediately, of how wrong I had been. Even so, it took me a long time to fully adapt. The way that Japanese people behaved and communicated was completely different from anything I had previously experienced. It was also not as internationally diverse or as English-friendly as I was expecting. For example, in the first town I lived in, out of about 300,000 people, there were only a handful of non-Japanese and very few Japanese who could converse in English. In fact, Japan remains one of the most homogeneous countries in the world, and fluent English speakers are a small minority of the population.

Not only was the cultural difference evident to me through teaching English, but also when I began to learn Japanese. When I thought about directly translating my feelings from English to Japanese, I often stumbled. For example, saying “no” in Japanese is rarely straightforward. There is a word for “no,” but it’s not often used. You’re more likely to hear the word for “it’s difficult.” My first experience of this was when I proposed a new idea to a former boss. The conversation went something like this:

Me: “Hey, do you think we could try X?”

My boss: “Ah that sounds a bit difficult, right?” (This means we can’t do it.)

Me: “Yeah, it’s probably not easy.”

(long pause)

Me: “So, can we do it or not?”

My boss: “Uh…”

 Picture shows a bird’s eye view of Central Tokyo at dusk.
Figure 1. Bird’s eye view of central Tokyo.

Friends of mine advised me that I needed to change the way I thought. They suggested it would be impossible to learn Japanese if I thought about the language only through the eyes of an English-speaking Westerner. I shrugged them off initially,  but ultimately, they were right. In order to fully understand, I needed to unlearn what I had learned.

Conducting Research in Foreign Countries

So why am I telling you about being an English teacher during my first years in Japan? I think teaching in a foreign country has a lot in common with international researchers conducting user testing in Japan. For outsiders looking in, it’s nearly impossible to understand the complexities and nuances.


The world may be globalizing at a rapid rate, but people are still very much separated by language and behavior. No matter how much we progress as a global society, it’s still possible to err by viewing the rest of the world only through the prism of our own experiences.

When we design global studies, we have to be sensitive to the ways other people live, how they communicate, and what’s important to them. For our studies and designs to be truly user-centric, they need to be fully localized to the markets in which we test.

At Mitsue-links, we often get international clients (usually UX professionals from agencies or large companies) who are looking to collaborate with us for local UX research. Occasionally, however, clients have created the study beforehand and ask us to perform a translation and carry out the research. We suggest that overseas clients involve us, the local partner, in the earlier planning stages of research. This helps ensure that we are aligned with the full scope of the research, as many things can potentially go amiss in UX testing.

As a case in point, I’ll examine two keys aspects of Japanese culture that can affect UX research in Japan. I’ll also provide a list of helpful tips for doing research in Japan.

Expression and Logic

You may have heard the famous Japanese phrase, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” While this idea may be an overly simplified characterization of Japan, it’s not without its merits.

When I was a teacher, I had the opportunity to interact with a lot of Japanese people, from kids to adults, from casual learners to business professionals. And of course while no two people acted exactly the same, there was a very obvious sense of adherence to established social protocols and ways of thinking. These cultural norms manifested in a variety of ways, but one significant aspect was a lack of public personal expression.

Take Japanese schools as an example. One of the first things you might notice when observing a classroom is how the teacher lectures the students. It’s not an open discussion-based environment. Even if the teacher does ask the students if they have any questions, nine out of 10 times no one will raise a hand.

The reason for this is the assumption that things are quite straightforward. There isn’t much of a reason to ask questions, because if there was anything else to know, the teacher would have said so. And if you didn’t understand, it might be improper to trouble anyone else with your problems.

In user testing, social norms about expression can mean users may be less willing to give their opinions or think aloud. When giving opinions, they may only be neutral responses, which is far more culturally appropriate than being overly negative or overly positive.

Participants are also less likely to think abstractly or respond when they are unsure of a clear answer. Mostly likely, they will need to probe for meaning, thereby consuming valuable interview time. The Japanese language can often require a lot of reading between the lines, so interview questions need to be carefully planned to alleviate any potential misunderstandings.

To understand this logic, we can compare these two basic equations:

2 + 2 = __


__ + __ = 4

The first question has only one answer, but the second could have multiple answers. In Japanese schools, you would not commonly come across the second question. The logic with the first question is that the answer is always clear and there is no need for you to interpret or think abstractly. All you need to do is memorize the information that you are given. The answer to the second is more ambiguous.

Differences in thinking can lead to dissonance in the expectations of researchers. One key aspect to consider is the importance of localizing research materials—not just translating them directly. Understanding upfront that changes will likely be necessary can save everyone from frantic last-minute changes. When local researchers recommend a change, it is not because they want to devalue the global study, it is because they see issues about how the material will be received by the local culture.

Uncertainty Aversion

Another important thing to consider about Japan is its high level of uncertainty aversion. This can be understood as behaviors and decisions that seek to minimize the potential for risk.

When learning English, students often adhere to very strict expectations about grammar and spelling. In the classroom or on a test, students’ answers are either perfect or they are wrong. This fact lends itself to students’ perceptions that they cannot speak English.

This thought can linger into adulthood. In Japan, you might notice that asking people for help may lead to the immediate response of, “I don’t speak English.” In actuality, many people understand English to varying degrees, but the avoidance of what they deem as failure often inhibits them from trying.

Aversion can be a big hindrance for international UX researchers in Japan because it can affect the full spectrum of circumstances surrounding user testing, from the selection of participants, to the local partner, to any of the agencies your local partner may contract as a third party.

It can also affect the ability to recruit for certain types of tests, or influence the structure of the test. Because of strict privacy laws, it is unusual for participants to test with their own smartphones, credit cards, or accounts. This is primarily to avoid any risk of user privacy being leaked—something Japanese people take seriously.

There are many other ways that aversion can affect testing, including affecting your relationship with your local partner. Let’s use an example of two companies working together. One company doesn’t concern itself with uncertainty—in fact it expects it to be an ingrained part of the process. Their partner, however, does not accept uncertainty. As you may guess, the potential for frustration and misunderstanding is high.

Picture shows two Japanese business people exchanging business cards, a common start to conducting business in Japan.
Figure 2. Japanese business introductions almost always begin with the exchange of business cards.

Consider also the way Japanese domestic user tests would likely be conducted. The specifications of the study would be diligently planned and finalized before the recruitment even starts. From there, testing would proceed with little to no changes.

So, when you think about repeatedly asking your local partner to make changes to the study in the middle of the research, consider that you may be overstepping a culture boundary. This is not to say that Japanese people are unwilling to be flexible, but this is something that should be explicit at the beginning of the study. Avoiding the surprise of unexpected change requests can go a long way towards relieving possible tension.

By working closely with local partners during the planning stages of a project, you can ensure a much smoother process for the research as a whole. It is imperative that both partners reach an equal level of understanding from the onset.

Tips for User Research in Japan

Figure 3. Creating a good atmosphere in user testing sessions requires a balance of politeness and sensitivity.

It’s good to remember that the aforementioned is by no means exhaustive of the differences in culture or the issues that can arise during user testing, so here are some tips for UX in Japan.

  • In global studies that need to be consistent across countries, do some background research first, or talk to your local partner to understand any cultural differences that may affect how the study is run. For example, if you’re doing a banking study to understand how users log in to their accounts to transfer money to pay their utility bills, make sure that paying utilities via bank transfer is actually an available option in that country.
  • Always plan for extra time for local partners to give feedback on the study methodology, research schedule, and participants you want to recruit. For example, in a website usability test with software engineers, your local partner might advise the study be conducted on weekends due to the difficulty of recruiting full-time engineers to participate during weekdays.
  • Try to send your interview discussion guide (even if it is just a rough draft) at the same time you send over your recruitment screener and other materials. This will let the Japanese team check content and give feedback about the appropriateness of the proposed target participants you want to recruit. For example, if you want to do a benchmark study between PlayStation and Xbox and want to recruit gamers for one-to-one interviews, your Japanese partner might tell you that only two percent of Japanese gamers own or play Xbox, so your study might not even be feasible.
  • Recruitment in Japan is done via online surveys, so screeners need to be converted into a multiple choice answer format. The number of questions should also be ideally limited to between 15– 20 questions to avoid large dropout rates that reduce the chances of getting a good pool of potential candidates to choose from.
  • Testing sessions are strictly kept to schedule. This is to avoid inconveniencing participants. In a lot of cases, if a session starts late, it still must end on time.
  • Be open-minded about cultural limitations as to what is possible or not possible when doing research. For example, when doing home visit interviews in Japan, it is extremely challenging to take any client observers or researchers with us. Many Japanese homes are extremely small and not designed (think 13–20m square total) to accommodate more than one or two people. Furthermore, having foreign observers at a home visit can be distracting and make the Japanese participant feel overly self-conscious and awkward.
  • Moderating in English via an English-to-Japanese interpreter is not recommended. In the past, due to the lack of opportunities to speak English with native speakers, some Japanese participants have seen the interview session as a chance to practice their language skills despite a moderator’s attempts to remind them to please speak in Japanese.
  • In Japan, English may be “cool,” but it is not well spoken. Testing with sites or apps that have been half translated or are still in English is not recommended. Users would likely waste a lot of valuable time commenting on or complaining about how the site is not in Japanese.


In user research, everything boils down to research partners being able to put their faith in each other, a faith that should be developed through open-minded cooperation and trust. This is particularly relevant in working across cultures when we need to be aware of and responsive to potential misunderstandings, limitations, or compromises.  By including partners in the early stages of research and clearly communicating expectations on both sides, we can alleviate issues and build more effective relationships. In the end, the level of collaboration between partners could prove to be the difference between a successful study and a bust.

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