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Innovation By Design

What Japanese Etiquette Can Tell Us About Good UX Design

Traditional Japanese hospitality, or motenashi, can provide inspiration for the design of smart interactive experiences.

[Top Photo: Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images]

The connections between hospitality and design are well known. Charles Eames once remarked to his contemporary and collaborator Eero Saarinen that "the role of the architect, or the designer, is that of a very good, thoughtful host, all of whose energy goes into trying to anticipate the needs of his guests." I hit on a similar idea (much less elegantly and succinctly than Eames) in my critique of delight as an interaction design value. But how can you operationalize this concept of "being a good host" in the constantly shifting context of mobile digital interfaces?

Seven years ago, a Panasonic interaction designer named Kerstin Blanchy was wondering the same thing. As a westerner working in Yokohama, Japan, she became inspired by the cultural concept of motenashi (or omotenashi), a traditional code of conduct outlining the ideal guest-host relationship. Blanchy published an analysis of "this special version of Human-Human interaction … in order to seek hints on how to improve Human-Machine Interaction," which she boiled down into "three principles of attitude":

Kenny Tong via Shutterstock


Anticipation of the other’s needs
: The host should respond to guest’s needs before the latter feels such need himself.
Flexibility to the situation: Refers to the appropriate amount of formality or casualness respectively.
Understatement: The host should not display his efforts, in order to create a natural feeling for the guest.

Blanchy told me via email that she wrote her analysis before modern mobile devices—i.e., iPhones—became popular in Japan, but she asserts that motenashi in digital interaction design may be more relevant now than ever. When Google Now attempts to anticipate your search queries, or instantly recalculates your driving directions when you change your mind en route, we’re seeing this hospitality concept in action. "To draw meaningful conclusions from user actions seems the [primary] motenashi challenge of today," she says.

But what may be an even bigger challenge than identifying and delivering that intelligent service is the third motenashi principle that Blanchy identified: understatement. The subleties of this kind of "hosting" can be hard even for humans to pull off with each other, so it’s no surprise that machines are clumsy at it. But Blanchy’s close reading of motenashi philosophy uncovers two traditional Japanese concepts that may offer even more guidance.

Shitsurai, or "preparations for the guest," describes structures that put the guest at ease. This includes bookending the interaction with a subtly ritualized or "mannered" exchange, to signal a clear beginning and end to the interaction, as well as maintaining a highly attuned attitude to the guest’s own affect. "A good host does not bother the guest but gives a well balanced amount of information," Blanchy writes of shitsurai. "The advice has to consider the situation and goals of the user—like a sales clerk."

Furumai, or "the attitude of the host and guest," extends this idea of mutual attunement. A good host knows when interactions ought to be formal and when they ought to be casual, and can adjust flexibly along the spectrum between the two over time. This is similar to the different ways that a classy bartender or maitre’d might treat a "regular" versus a newcomer—and how they adapt to a newcomer who becomes a regular.

These are tall orders for any interactive experience, even one powered by scores of servers and artificial intelligence. But that’s just it: because our increasingly context-aware, "smart" stuff has raised the bar on our psychological expectations, these experiences have an urgent imperative to rise to meet them—or risk alienating us in ways that "dumb" objects never could.

Flickr user JasonParis

Blanchy herself gives a vivid example. "I had gotten a new job in the suburbs of Paris and to get there I had to buy a car," she says. "After one week in traffic jams, I started using Waze [to navigate around traffic]. So you get in the car, launch the App, choose the destination and it says: ‘Let’s go, drive safe!’ Quite motenashi, don’t you think?

"Then one day," she continues, "I finish work, get in the car, launch the App and it directly asks: ‘Going home?’ Wow, that scared me. I shut down my phone and thought about how the App can know that I was going home. It’s no great mystery. Yet I felt exposed, vulnerable, somehow observed. For a few days I did not use the App."

This smart interaction totally creeped Blanchy out precisely because it lacked elements of furumai. Blanchy was unpleasantly surprised when the app blurted out its prediction of her destination; it was treating her as a casual "regular" when that "rapport" hadn’t been established yet. Sure, she got over it and now considers this behavior convenient. "However, I do not really want interfaces to know me too well," she admits.

Smart services and their clumsy proto-personalities are still new, which means they may benefit from some motenashi UX as users learn to become comfortable with them. In 10 years, maybe it won’t feel weird to have a software bot "know" you in unexpected ways. But as we stumble towards this scenario, we’ll probably need some sensitive hand-holding. Software may one day be our friend, like in the movie Her. But for now it’s probably better when it treats us as its guest.