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Usability Engineering in Japan

First Era of Human Factors in Japan

After World War II and especially during the Korean War, human factors and ergonomics emerged rapidly in Japan. This was also the time when industrial design grew rapidly and the first stage of usability engineering activity started.

Human factors and ergonomics, at least at that time, focused on the physical and physiological characteristics of human beings. Many research projects collected characteristics of the human body in both static and dynamic conditions, as well as sensory and physiological measures such as visual acuity, visual sensitivity, and fatigue.

The goal of such activities was to fit hardware—automobiles, clothing, and furniture—to the physical characteristics of human beings. Although usability laboratories were used for experiments, they were not necessarily called “usability”—the concept and the name had not yet emerged.

Second Era: Cognitive Engineering

In the 1980s, PCs and word processors became popular in offices and homes, and computerized interactive systems appeared in the retail market for the first time. But people started to complain that the systems were too difficult to use. At first, the problem was thought to be poor-quality documentation, so technical communicators were brought in to improve the situation. However, companies began to realize that users tended to start using the product before reading the manuals. So it became evident that the solution lay in improving the devices and systems themselves.

In 1990, Donald Norman’s The Psychology of Everyday Things was translated and published in Japan. This publication showed people the importance of ease of understanding. Many cognitive psychologists were invited to the project teams. Concepts such as metaphor, affordance, and the magical number seven (plus or minus two) became very popular among designers and engineers.

Third Era: Evaluation Centered Approach

After the publication of Usability Engineering by Jakob Nielsen in the late1990s, heuristic evaluations began to be widely used. However, this approach faced many difficulties, including the negative attitudes of engineers and designers, as well as managers. Engineers and designers sometimes felt insulted when they saw the lists of problems. Technology-minded people tended to think the proper logic of operation should be the only goal they should pursue. They didn’t understand the significance and importance of usability. Managers were also negative because usability efforts were not seen as increasing sales. Unfortunately, this was true at that time, because users purchased products based just on functionality, performance, cost, and aesthetics.

photo of people waiting at a train station using mobile devices
In Japan, small digital devices such as the cellphone are quite popular. However, users do not use it for calling but for email communication, web browsing, checking the train timetable, playing games, etc.

Web Usability

In Japan, the Internet became popular around 1995. Many people started to browse the Web and even create their own websites. When industry realized the importance of the Web for providing product information and for selling products, they then also understood that web usability was directly linked with the effectiveness of the site. Around 2000, web designers started to emphasize the usability of websites. More than twenty usability books were published in Japanese, and, owing to this movement, the concept of usability began to be properly understood.

Impact of International Standards

ISO 13407, Human-centered design processes for interactive systems, was standardized in 1999 and, in 2000, translated into Japanese and published as JIS Z-8530. It was very influential in Japan. Japanese industry was making strong efforts to meet ISO 9000 standards, and they were quite sensitive about the possibility that they might be shut out of the international market if they didn’t meet ISO 13407 standards as well. Even managers who had been negative about usability had to change their attitudes and seriously consider it.

One result of the interest in ISO 13407 was the establishment of many industrial usability laboratories. A usability lab was a symbol that a company valued the usability of its products.

In addition to labs, usability departments were founded and usability professionals were hired for full-time positions. In Japan, independent usability consultants are rare, maybe because the industry worries about confidentiality. In some cases, the usability department reported directly to the CEO and was charged with maintaining the quality of use of all company products. Japan has a tradition of strong quality control, so the usability activity was regarded as just another method for reinforcing the quality of the product.

Usability as Process Rather Than Product

Followers of ISO 13407 did not aim to certify each product, but instead emphasized the design process as a whole. The standard told stakeholders that generating the right product concept was strongly related to the usability and market value of the products. This changed the mindset of stakeholders who had regarded the usability evaluation as the end-point. Instead, they started to understand the importance of being involved early in the design process, and they gradually began to use field work to get context-of-use information, rather than depending on the questionnaire and focus-group approaches adopted from market research.

ISO 13407 adopted the definition of usability proposed in ISO 9241-11: “The extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve the specified goal with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use,” in which effectiveness is defined as “accuracy and completeness with which users achieve specified goals”; efficiency as “resources expended in relation tothe accuracy and completeness with which users achieve goals”; and satisfaction as “freedom from discomfort, and positive attitudes to the use of the product.”

This definition of usability is quite different from the one proposed by Jakob Nielsen, in which usability is defined as removing deficiencies and utility is defined as promoting functionality and performance. Today, the ISO 9241-11 definition is seen as the standard definition of usability in Japan; it is sometimes called “big usability,” as compared to Nielsen’s definition, which is called “small usability.”

Current Era of Usability

The situation of usability activity in Japan has improved, but there is much to be done to widen that activity. In 1999, even when evaluation was the central activity of usability engineering, less than 10 percent of all products were evaluated for usability and the rest were released into the market without any evaluation. Even today, it is typical to find only five usability professionals working in a company of 70,000 employees.

However, usability professionals have adopted the strategy of focusing their energies on just a few products, making them as usable as possible, and then using these “ideal” products to promote usability within their companies. As a result, some CEOs and managers have begun to use the term “usability” in their own presentations.

Users and Consumer Organizations

One of the reasons that it has been difficult to make the case for usability in Japan is that, generally speaking, users in Japan have an “intrapunitive” tendency. In other words, they rarely express their negative feelings to retailers or manufacturers, even when products they purchased were difficult to use or useless. They will ask for replacements or refunds if a product is unreliable or unsafe, but they seem not to consider a usable product as their right.

Two major consumer organizations, Japan Consumers’ Association and the National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan, check newly released products and report the test results on their websites and in periodicals. However, their checklists lack usability-engineering viewpoints. Thus, it could be said that consumers in Japan are not provided with adequate usability information.

On the other hand, the concept of universal design is more widely known than usability in Japan. Historically, universal design in Japan focuses on the care of disabled and senior members of society. In other words, it is seen as a treatment for the weak and can be regarded as a social-justice and moral issue. Hence, many companies, including manufacturing, railways, banks, and local governments, have started to adopt universal design strategies.

What is needed now is to widen the scope of universal design to those from different cultures, those speaking different languages, to both genders, to every generation, and to those having different lifestyles.

Future of Usability in Japan

For the future, we will have to reconsider what usability means, to expand the scope from products and systems to services, and to create a nationwide strategy for enhancing usability activity.

Until recently, the only professional organization for usability in Japan was the Usability SIG of the Human Interface Society. Human Interface Society, an academic organization, was organized in 1999 and has more than 1,300 members today in the fields of engineering, design human factors, psychology, and usability. More than 170 Japanese members are registered in the SIG and have been devoted to exchanging information, sharing experiences, and addressing new ideas at meetings held three to four times a year.

But the SIG is limited in that it is just an academic organization. A new nationwide strategic plan was needed. After six months of preparation, the non-profit organization Human Centered Design Network (HCD-Net) began in April 2005. HCD-Net now has five sub-groups or departments and an international advisory board (IAB) that includes notable usability professionals from many countries who give us their advice.

Since its start, HCD-Net (

  • Organized several tutorials and workshops
  • Participated in the UPA World Usability Day
  • Discussed usability issues with the Ministry of International Trade and Industry
  • Participated in Embedded Technology 2005 (ET2005), collaborating with engineers

HCD-Net is planning even more activities in 2006. We hope that this kind of strategic activity will help usability engineering to be more widely recognized in Japan, and lead to products and services with high levels of usability.