Sunday 24 March 2002

The fragility of belief

Working in Japan taught information architect Adam Greenfield that “there is simply no such thing as a universal good.” He resisted a Japanese client’s wish that their book site have a “book sommelier” function, a tool that would elicit “a few lifestyle preferences from site visitors, after which it would recommend a book they might like.” Why the resistance? Because Greenfield thought the name was pretentious and that few Japanese would understand what it meant. As it turned out, his company never completed the project, which was assigned to another design firm.

In the end, I believe nobody won. By inflexibly holding the line on “best practices” regarding a label, and a few other similar disagreements, I contributed to a situation in which a site was built that shafts the hapless user far more thoroughly than any we might have created.

The lesson here is really not a difficult one; it’s merely hard for a headstrong person like me to accept. And that is to slowly back out of the picture and do what I claim I’ve been all about from the beginning: listening to what the user wants. It so happens that, in the States, this is easy for me because “what the user wants” may mesh quite well with all those High Modernist values I hold dear. That is, there’s a happenstance overlap between the crisp grids and clearly articulated navigational schemas I personally like, and defensibly good usability practice for an American audience.Hello Kitty toaster

But what does “usability” or “clarity” mean in a culture like Japan? Have you ever ridden a Tokyo subway? If you have, I’m sure you’ll remember those ads, stuffed to the nonexistent margins with bright yellow copy against black backgrounds, sporting celebrity headshots, bikini girls, cute mascots and entire forests of exclamation points (the one I’m thinking of is an ad for a news weekly). How about all the consumer goods, including more than a few otherwise high-end efforts, overprinted with nonsensical Japlish slogans and cartoon characters?

For me, the most important outcome of living and traveling in Japan, learning to speak and read Japanese, and mixing with Japanese friends, has been this: I’ve come to accept the arbitrary nature of belief. From my first visit I found it extraordinarily liberating to find myself in a society in which both strongly held beliefs and unconscious assumptions frequently seem irrelevant. Japan polarizes foreign visitors and I wonder if this love-hate response isn’t due to an assault on certainty that proves too threatening for some to handle.

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The assault on certainty I can live with; it's the assault on my lungs (eyes, nasal mucosa, etc.) I'm not so thrilled with. Cheers, a.

Posted by Adam Greenfield on 25 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

though i'm certainly confused by japanese culture, and i really don't understand their style of consumerism, for some strange reason i really want one of those hello kitty toasters.

Posted by jim on 25 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour