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How the shape of the Tokyo trains can dictate your app's success

Lessons learned in product design from spending weeks in Japan and seeing how a different pace in life can affect whether your game will be successful.

Ramine Darabiha, Blogger

January 25, 2016

4 Min Read

I traveled to Japan for two weeks, doing business development and visiting Tokyo Game Show. I spent most of my stay in Chiba, a large suburb of Tokyo. I would commute to Tokyo every day. Here is what I learned about building products through my discussions with local developers and living in a different context.

A good product fits your free time
Each trip from Chiba to downtown Tokyo takes one hour. I would sit in the train, and try keep myself entertained. People around me read books, slept, played Monster Hunter or Brain Training on their Nintendo DS.

The Westerner in me made sure I’d bring my iPhone to kill time. Every trip, I’d follow the same routine: I’d check Gmail. Then Facebook. Then Twitter, Linkedin. My feed reader maybe? Repeat.
I looked at the clock and only 10 minutes passed. I’d play some mobile games, but they were all designed to be played 5 minutes at a time. It was tedious. After a few days, I started bringing my PS Vita, watching videos and playing games with longer levels and more involved storylines. Time flew!

The daily commute made it easy to understand why consoles such as the 3DS or the Vita are more successful in Japan: the lifestyle supports their adoption. In the West, where I am either at home or at the office and the commute is very short and fragmented, the smartphone is better.

A good product understands the space you are in
I had enlightening moment when discussing the typical Japanese household. Flats are small, often with one TV set shared by the family. It makes it difficult to watch what you want, let alone play a home console. In that context, playing a handheld at home is much more enjoyable, as you can pick up your game anywhere and enjoy it in privacy. This also explains the Wii U very much.

Tokyo’s subways are more packed than the long distance trains. I spent a lot of time sandwiched between two people, holding the railing above my head with one hand. People around me read books, sent text messages and often played on their smartphone. Most Western smartphone games were very uncomfortable to play in this position: it is very difficult to hold your phone in landscape position and play with one thumb. Game that require precision or speed become irritating very quickly. In contrast, most Japanese mobile games were slower, had big buttons and were played in portrait mode. Another solution was to play on a handheld console. The buttons provided tactile feedback, which is precious when you’re being pushed around and can’t necessarily focus on the screen all the time (checking at which stop you are, for example). However it was more cumbersome as it required two hands to play.

A good product has a solid content infrastructure
A great product considers more than the time and space it is allocated. It delivers quality content in synergy with the platforms that enables it.
Short distance trains gave me a shorter attention span. They made me want to consume experiences I could easily drop in and out of. I expected games to to start within seconds, without nagging screens. Tap tap tap and be in the game. I wanted short, simple actions that required some skill, but not too much of a learning curve.

A good game has a pipeline for the right content at the right time. The robust mechanics of Tetris or Crossy Road are only one part of what makes them successful. They have the right menu structure that gets you from A to B in the most logical way in the context where you are. They have the right pacing between levels. They make it easy to select the difficulty level, game mode, to deliver the specific content that you want.

Increases in features, visuals, or production value will not improve products in a meaningful manner. Porting features from one product to another cannot work. It is not enough to make a coherent experience.

  • Quality is about how much attention is paid to details.

  • These details come from the experience you want people to have.

  • This experience is defined by the context in which people are.

  • A great product will be designed with all these elements in mind, and meet them in an efficient manner.

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