Why Zen Software Design Does Not Come From Japan

Japan is the epicenter of Zen, a concept with deep religious roots and a mandate for simplicity of appearance and lifestyle. But when it comes to native gadgetry, Zen is only skin-deep. Japanese cell phones are sleek on the outside, but once you open the clamshell, the interface is a complete mess. While American-made phones are leaning more and more towards simple interfaces and clean design, Japanese gadgets continue to be plagued with feature overload and nightmarish interfaces that are totally impractical.

Maybe Zen is irredeemably uncool in Japan, like linsey-woolsey dresses and RAZRs in America. "In the west, we relate Zen to everyday life and design," says Garr Reynolds, an Osaka-based brand consultant who used to work for a US electronics company known for its strong user interfaces. "In Japan, it makes people think of ancient art."

But that still doesn't explain the super-complicated menus and the overload of hidden commands that only the most advanced cellphone users (aka schoolgirls and geeks) ever-if ever-use. Like all social phenomena that play out in the consumer market, there has to be some deeply ingrained psychosocial and political reasons for Japan's reluctance to adopt Zen as the next step in interface design.

On one of my more recent trips to Tokyo, I conferred with some tech and culture experts and picked their brains to try to figure out why. Mobile phones in Japan are a multi-gazillion dollar industry, so why aren't they coming out with the next super-phone? The answer, it seems, lies in some kinks and quirks in Japanese industry and personality. Here's a quick recap:

1. The politics of Japanese telecom: There are a lot of unnecessary politics in Japan's telecom industry. Back east, Sony Ericsson and Sharp are NTT DoCoMo's robot slaves. NTT does all the R&D, creates a software platform, and then tells the handset manufacturers what to make. "Operators set a road-map and provide their own services, like i-mode (NTT DoCoMo's wireless internet service)," says a spokesperson from Sony Ericsson. "We have to develop phones that match this." NTT is largely government-owned and has an unofficial and longstanding monopoly on Japan's telecom market; as long as they have free reign, this pattern is unlikely to change.

Local companies in turn spend so much time and energy trying to meet the rigorous demands of the domestic market that they do really badly worldwide. (Sharp, Japan's leading brand, is only eighth in the world and only sells one fortieth of what Nokia does worldwide.)

2. Just-in-case syndrome: Japanese technology is all about the spec sheet. In order to compete in the domestic consumer electronics market, it's more important for a product to have lots of half-assed features than just a few that work impeccably. A new cell phone handset has to have GPS, 3G, e-wallet capabilities, a music player, a TV antenna, RFID and a whole slew of other features, or it's considered old news. Nine times out of ten, consumers would rather have more, even though they don't know what 90% of the functions on their phones are for. Providers refuse to reverse the feature-adding process because they don't want to lose customers in a fiercely competitive, highly saturated market. It's a vicious cycle.

3. Software engineers get no love: "Software engineers in Japan make money like Indian engineers in India," says Chika Watanabe, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who blogs about technology in Japanese. So while DoCoMo owns all the rights and does project coordination, most of the real work is done by small, second- and third-tier anonymous companies. "I wouldn't be surprised if the software engineers at these companies made $30,000 a year."

Software manufacture is often outsourced to smaller companies that don't get a lot of say in what they're making. While the handsets get smaller and better-looking every month, screen savers still feature cutsey animated characters from a decade ago. "i-mode was first introduced in 1999, but the basic design hasn't changed at all," says Daiji Hirata, a senior advisor at Six Apart. To prove his point, he shows me an old-school graphic of little smiling 8-bit mushrooms dance across the screen of his DoCoMo handset. "They added a little bit of flash, but that was more for advertising, not for the interface."

4. An affinity towards excess packaging: Think of the Yahoo! Japan homepage, a Murakami painting, a scene from Pokemon, a Pachinko parlor, a Donki superstore-Japanese popular culture icons are often inundated with stuff. While Japan is, on one hand, truly a culture of efficiency (i.e. trains are hardly ever late, parties always end on time) it is also a place where overpackaging is considered totally normal. Try ordering a Coke at a McDonald's in Tokyo. They will put the cup in a small paper bag, fold over the corners, put the small paper bag in a small plastic bag, tape the top of the plastic bag shut, neatly place it at the center of the counter before handing it to you with both hands and thanking you for your purchase. That's the same number of steps that it takes me on my prepaid Softbank handset to check missed calls. You get the idea.

So don't be surprised if that cool-looking Japanese cell phone you bought at an Akihabara electronics shop has a menu that is impossible to navigate, totally gimpy applications and patchy connections to the celebrated one-seg TV. As with any culture, you just have to adapt to the local way of thinking. (Who cares if it takes you an hour to figure out how to text message your mom to say you'll be late for dinner? At least you don't have to worry about anything else, since your cell phone doubles as a train pass, a credit card, ID and house keys.)

Photo Credit: Koh Aoki