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[Original Link] You go to a restaurant for dinner a friend recommended without knowing exactly what time they open. Unfortunately you arrive half an hour before they open and disappointed to see “Sorry we are closed” or “closed” sign. You feel “shut out”.

But what if the sign says “we will serve you later”?

The Jumbi-chu or sometimes Shitaku-chu – “we will serve you later” or literally “we are in preparation” signs are commonly seen at the front door’s of Japanese restaurants outside of their business hours. The other day I read an article of a Westerner living in Japan talking about this sign and he thinks it’s a very considerate way of saying “closed” because the guest feels the people working behind the door will welcome you later.

My non-Japanese friends often remind me that in Japan we enjoy “good service for free” and the typical Japanese service is:

Punctual and precise
Detailed
Not to tell people what you want because most of the time people know and will do it automatically
Living away from Japan …
When living in Canada for 2 years, I missed the Japanese parcel-delivery service. One time I could not receive a parcel and I was surprised to know that there was no re-delivery no matter how big the parcel is. In Japan you can request the re-delivery for free at your desired date and time, and although it’s not recommended, even if you miss the second delivery the parcel is re-delivered again and again until you receive it. While such a service mind-set usually provides much convenience to Japanese, it may cause “too much of a good thing problem” causing Japanese not to think consciously about our users.

As a usability consultant I conducted many web site competitor analysis and find that US companies seem to know what to provide their users and how to approach them. The common problems of Japanese websites:

Too much information is provided at a time – In usability tests we see users who are overwhelmed by the amount of information they see and they are unable to find what they really need.
Regardless of how much the users know about their services/products – The service/product information starts from their real names and content is dominated by business terms or technical features that users would not understand.
Writing how good their services/products are and not about the user benefits – Even if we read all the information, we are still left feeling “so what?”
In short, they just stick to explaining all the little features they think is good and not clear about who they are talking to and what/how information should be communicated clearly.

Why does this happen?
The Japanese are generally very good at providing services that take the customer’s situations into account. But why not on the websites? I think a major reason is that Japanese companies are behind in marketing compared to the western companies. The process of marketing usually starts from defining the target users first then the business goal is broken down into action plans (inductive). But most Japanese companies’ websites seem to do the reverse, starting from the small pieces of service/product features and not getting to the conclusion which communicates the benefit to the users (deductive). Seems like they force users to figure out the benefits and next steps themselves.

Different way of thinking?
As professor Richard Nisbett agues in “The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why”(2003), Asians are context and setting dependent and allow multiple causes, while Westerners are focal object/outcome oriented and pursue single cause and effect. Even in daily conversations Japanese tend to avoid taking a pronounced standpoint and expect others to read between lines, because it avoids conflicts with others and protects from unwanted counterarguments. This way of communication works if you can expect the middle or long term relationships. However, the nature of websites as media only allows “Treasure every encounter, for it will never recur” type of relationship. So, if websites are unable to catch the users at the first glance, they leave the sites very quickly.

In my 2 years in Canada I was “trained” by my Taiwanese friend to be more assertive to deal with different situations living a Western life. Years later, I joined the global usability community, and interestingly, I feel I do not need to be so assertive among usability professionals, no matter where they come from. Perhaps because the nature of usability work is empathetic i.e. to be “in your user’s shoes”, adaptive to different approaches across cultures and considerate before its demanded by others. The Japanese in general are good at considering other people’s situation and for Japanese companies to be more successful in the online communications, they need to provide the information in the shape so users can easily understand them in seconds not minutes or hours.

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What I really like about this article is that goes beyond a local culture and says we need to consider the needs of users beyond our own spectrum. I have worked for far too many firms who say, “We don’t need to consider accessibility as that’s only 2% of our users. Yet that 2% is millions of potential customers that organizations are missing out on. If you are truly an organization that cares, that means you care about ALL your customers not just the majority.