I went to Japan and discovered deep pleasure..
This past June, I got the chance to work in Tokyo on a project. As a first timer, every exchange in this foreign city stood out, from loading my subway card to ordering lunch bentos at the local food truck.
At home in San Francisco, every day interactions feel natural and invisible, because they’re guided by mental models of how I expect the world to run.
The Japanese clearly had their own mental models. While there were some sticky situations, riding the subway and eating at casual restaurants felt more enjoyable out there than back home.
Aarron Walter, author of Designing for Emotion, calls this emotional response “deep pleasure.” Deep pleasure happens when a design works so well that it feels invisible. While Walter’s theory is often used to argue for form over function, I’ll be using it in this article to explore how Japanese transportation and restaurants made me feel deep pleasure.
User needs build on each other
Walter measures the quality of product design against a hierarchy of user needs (above). Each level on the pyramid represents a higher order need that products must meet to move to the next tier. The levels are:
- Functional: Products first have a reason to exist by addressing a user need
- Reliable: Products gain users’ trust by performing consistently at all times.
- Usable: Products reduce anxiety by being easy to use, learnable, and consistent.
- Pleasurable: Products sprinkle moments of delight into the user’s journey at the right times.
Experiences that hit all levels put users in a state of flow, or total immersion into their task. This is called deep pleasure.
Take notes, BART
In San Francisco, public transportation is the last thing you’d expect to give you deep pleasure.
BART rides feel like one tense, bated breath in the face of constant delays, confusing signs, and filthy cars.
I took this anxiety with me to Tokyo. To my surprise, I enjoyed getting around, with the exception of a few sprawling stations (Shinjuku, I’m looking at you). The well-mapped, punctual, and spotless transportation systems felt like a huge sigh of relief.
From Functionality to Usability
Walter’s pyramid shows why these two systems feel so different. Both systems function to get you from one place to the next. But BART remains stuck in this functional tier, unable to level up to reliability with its frequent delays.
Punctual to a T, the reliability of Japanese transit provided the peace-of-mind I needed to brave rush hour crowds. I would trust their subways to get me to the ER if I were in labor.
Building this type of trust is crucial if you want people to come back to your product.
Japanese subways meet Walter’s next tier of usability with strong wayfinding. Bilingual signs seemed to anticipate my needs at crucial moments. When rushing blindly towards the sound of an approaching train, I would look up to see signs like this magically appear.
The sign tells people which side of the platform to stand on by listing stations on their corresponding sides. Seeing this, I knew right away if I needed to sprint to catch that oncoming train.
In digital environments, this is called progressive disclosure, where products share the optimal amount of information you need to make a decision at the time. As a user, I appreciated the nudges but didn’t feel overwhelmed by choices.
I wasn’t alone in this observation. Product designer Colby Sato goes in-depth about the progressive disclosure of Tokyo stations in his stellar article.
Deep Pleasure Experiences
Moments of delight then elevated my transportation journey to one of deep pleasure.
When exploring the city of Kamakura, I found myself stressing about which shrines to visit on limited time. As if on cue, I noticed an interactive touchscreen map near the subway exit. The map showed defining features of each shrine and where they were located. I loved the use of modern technology to celebrate history and meet my real need for information. Sadly, I was so immersed in the experience I forgot to take a picture.
To top it off, Japanese summers are humid, sticky affairs. Grabbing a refreshing drink from touchscreen vending machines like these made time pass more quickly when waiting for the next train. Placed perfectly throughout my user journey, these touches Japanese transit feel friendly, fun, and memorable.
5 star service
To state the obvious, restaurants in Japan (and San Francisco) meet Walter’s functional tier by solving a real need: feeding hungry customers.
Restaurant service in San Francisco is a mixed bag moving up Walter’s pyramid. People tend to expect deeply pleasurable experiences at more upscale restaurants. Most self-service restaurants remain stuck in the functional, reliable, and usable tiers.
On the other hand, it’s hard to have a bad restaurant experience in Japan. Small shops run like well-oiled machines. Coming from a culture where you tip for service, I was surprised at the quality of service at even the most casual spots.
Foundations as Service
A number of factors keep restaurants speedy and attentive. Many casual eateries have a self-service vending machine outside, where diners can pre-order their meal while waiting for a table.
The machine itself wasn’t the easiest to learn. The sheer number of buttons and Japanese characters felt overwhelming my first time using it. Even so, its presence curbed the anxiety I felt waiting in a crowd of hangry customers. Using it to put in my order gave me confidence that I’d get seated. Need for reliability, check.
Japanese restaurants met Walter’s next tier of usability with clear organization. Most casual shops and cafes provide baskets where you can store your belongings during the meal. Sometimes, waiters would politely urge me to put my bag in the bins, making their use feel obligatory. Even so, I saw that organizing personal belongings helps diners focus on the food in tight, busy spaces.
Some restaurants used progressive disclosure to make the dining experience feel smooth and learnable. This restaurant in Kyoto gave me a set of instructions with my udon. Their perfect timing made the instructions feel friendly and informative rather than restricting. I still felt in control of my meal — assisted, not directed.
The usability of these spaces became a visceral experience where surprise and the foreign brought deep pleasure to each meal.
One such experience was at a local soba restaurant. Seeing peanuts double as chopstick holders made me laugh and set the tone for a relaxed meal. With the peanut, the restaurant showed me it didn’t take itself too seriously despite its traditional, muted decor.
Another restaurant skillfully used tradition to evoke deep pleasure. Already sated by a delicious and smooth dining experience, my table gasped in delight when our server gave us these origami cranes. The thoughtful touch earned the restaurant a lasting spot in my memory of the trip.
Cultural gaps in user needs
Not all experiences went so smoothly. Some environments bombarded my senses with information overload.
In Tokyo, I stopped by discount store Don Quijote eager to buy souvenirs. I walked out emptyhanded. Walking through this mecca of brightly colored signs, I felt overwhelmed and distracted.
Some attempts at progressive disclosure also felt abrasive to my western mental map. Rules about proper behavior and etiquette are placed all over public spaces. At times, this felt controlling.
It’s easy to point fingers at poor user experiences. Well-designed products feel tougher to break down as the design principles they’re built on often operate in the background. Exploring Japan with fresh eyes helped me to notice and define what actually underlies a pleasurable experience.
In the case of Japanese transportation and restaurants, thoughtful usability works wonders to fight friction. Exploring these experiences showed me that good products help users achieve a goal. Great products help users create a story they will remember.