The deeper meaning behind Japan’s unique UX design culture | by Bas Wallet | Dec, 2023

The Japanese writing system is a combination of several scripts. Kanji, the main script, was borrowed from the Chinese. Kanji literally means “characters of Han (China).”

The Chinese alphabet didn’t cover all of the Japanese cases. Japan had their own terms and names. Therefore, Hiragana and Katakana were added later.

Hiragana is a phonetic lettering system. Each sound (or syllable) is written with one or two characters called mora. The term hiragana is derived from the word “simple” or “flowing”.

Katakana is usually used for words that find their origin in other languages. Names of people, cities, plants, animals, foreign jargon, etc.

The (Arabic) numbers (1, 2, 3 etc.) are also used in Japanese. Japanese also have their own year numbering system based on each emperor’s reign. This also comes back in their UXs.

No bold or italic

Unlike languages that use the Latin alphabet, Japanese fonts don’t have italic or capital letters. This makes it harder to highlight certain words visually. Japanese designers often use decoration or graphic elements to compensate for this limitation.

Japanese sentences can also be displayed horizontally or vertically, which might appear unorganised to Westerners.

Reading speed

Languages like Japanese use characters that can hold a lot of meaning in one character: a so-called logogram. This type of writing may appear crowded to Westerners, but it allows the Japanese to process information quickly.

Something else that helps with quick reading is that Japanese people don’t have a need to pronounce the words in their heads. Western readers use a concept called subvocalising. We learn in primary school to read out loud the words we process.

At a later age, we will still do this in our heads.

In Japanese, you can recognise characters’ meanings without pronouncing them. This allows for much quicker reading.

Complexity of fonts

Creating a Latin font requires you to design a variety of glyphs for each character: A, a, a and 1, 1. This means around 200 unique glyphs are needed. If you want to include the other languages based on the Latin alphabet, like all the odd German, Scandinavian, and Romanian accents, a total of less than 1000 glyphs is enough.

The JIS (Japanese Industrial Standards) specifies a set of 2,136 kanji characters known as the Jōyō Kanji. These are considered essential for daily use in newspapers, official documents, and education.

Hiragana and Kataka both contain 46 basic characters.

Akira Kobayashi, a renowned Japanese font designer, explains in an interview with Smashing Magazine that:

“A set of proper Japanese fonts requires approximately 7,000 characters and takes a couple of years to complete by an entire team of skilled designers.”

As a result, there are much fewer Japanese fonts on the market. This naturally leads to more uniformity in the lay-outs. Designers are forced to use the same fonts.

Typing in Japanese

Having this many characters makes typing in Japanese more difficult, both on a mobile phone and on a desktop.

This means that Japanese people are less inclined to use the search bar. As a result, websites show a more link-based browsing mechanism, cluttering the UI further.

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