10 Lessons from a Japanese UX Designer’s Time Studying Abroad in London

Did you learn anything during your education that stuck with you for life? Can you pull up the exact moment and even remember the classroom? Or is it something that you learned gradually?

I am a digital product designer at ustwo Tokyo and from September 2018 to June 2019, I studied Interaction Design at the University of the Arts London, UK. My English was perhaps the lowest level in the whole class, and I could barely keep up with the lectures. While I grasped some of the content on the spot, other lessons took me years to understand, long after I graduated and started working. 

Nonetheless, I learned many important lessons during my time at University of the Arts London, and today I’ll be looking back on ten of them, as well as introducing books directly related to each.

1. “User-centric design” is NOT “User-designed”

In my very first class, it was impressed upon me that “user-centric design” is NOT “User-designed”. To this day, this remains a phrase I always keep in mind when creating design.

Positioning users at the center of the design process is different from allowing them to make important design decisions. To this end, directly asking the user “Which one do you like?” in an interview doesn’t mean their answer is necessarily going to be a correct assumption. 

This is emphasized in the words of Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company, who said, “If I would have asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Indeed, users generally don’t understand the details behind what they really need. Observing user patterns, deducing the “why” behind their behavior and uncovering related values and behaviors are the first steps in user-centric design.

Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug

First published in 2000, this book mostly features examples from web design, which may seem old-fashioned at first. However, it focuses on usability and framing basic concepts in a comprehensible manner. With a focus on determining what designers should notice when users comment that something is hard to use, this book is a fantastic introduction to necessary basic principles of user design.

Japanese Version:『超明快 Webユーザビリティ ユーザーに「考えさせない」デザインの法則』 スティーブ・クルーグ (著), 福田篤人 (翻訳)

2. Everyone has a mental map

When I enrolled in my program at the University of the Arts London, I thought I would mainly learn how to do user testing, because my English skills were not strong enough to understand complex subject matter. However, something happened that put a stop to that thought.

At a design event I attended, one speaker mentioned how UX design is all about shining a spotlight on the dark areas of a user’s mental map. To be honest, I don’t remember the name of the event or the name of the designer who was speaking, but the expression “shining a spotlight on the dark areas on a user’s mental map” left a strong impression on me, and I can remember the stage they spoke on like it was yesterday.

I think we all have a “mental map” and “manual” in our heads. The mental map charts individual perceptions of our world, and the manual features behavioral patterns nurtured throughout life. To wit, this system is also a bit unreliable, being easily influenced by our emotions and sensibilities.

For me, the role of UX design is to first understand this mental map and manual as deeply as possible by observing the target users. Then, we must create design according to that map, shining a spotlight on dark areas. Finally, we work to verify that the design is working as intended. In particular, I think that this last step is the most important part – to make sure the design is doing its job. If possible, someday I would love to discover the name of the designer who gave me this great clue on stage that fateful day.

The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman

This famous book was written by cognitive scientist D.A. Norman, who needs no introduction. The book is very readable, incorporating common everyday examples, and is easier to understand the more you read. From the perspective of cognitive science, the book describes how humans form mental models, how mistakes are bound to happen due to human nature, and that if users make mistakes, it is likely due to a design problem! This book taught me so much regarding my basic mindset as a designer.

Japanese Version:『誰のためのデザイン?』D.Aノーマン (著), 岡本明 (翻訳), 安村通晃 (翻訳), 伊賀聡一郎 (翻訳), 野島久雄 (翻訳)

3. Final output is not the only evaluation criteria

My university course was divided into several modules on different themes, but the flow of each module was consistent, as below:

1. Classroom-based theoretical learning
2. Project brief and a long reading list
3. Creating a product through user-centric design in line with the project brief
4. Summarize individual results and present to the whole class
5. Write a report on final approach and lessons learned through steps 1–4

I was taken aback by the fact that the quality of the design and the presentation were not the only items evaluated. I found that through this approach, even if a project fails, students can still earn a good grade if they prove how much they learned. 

Bringing a team of people together with unique specialties, working towards mutual understanding and effective opinion sharing, and working together towards one final project is very similar to working on an agile project at a design agency. 

During the class, as we proceeded with idea generation and creation, becoming “one team” as quickly as possible was paramount. We leaned on each other’s abilities and knowledge, and learned from each other’s mistakes as we fine-tuned our project. This environment that places value on team-centric development, no matter how much knowledge and skills you think you have – and where the ability to collaborate at a high level is tested to the maximum – prepared me very well for my career down the road.

4. Determining what to digitalize and what NOT to

My graduation thesis was focused on “The Influence of Digital Tools on Art Creation.” At the time, the iPhone drawing app Brushes was very popular, and I tried to dissect the added value that such tools add to art production. I accomplished this by tracking the production process of artists (painters and other fine artists) who generally don’t use digital tools, in comparison to those who do use them in creating hybrid digital/analog art.

For artists deeply in touch with their own creative process, artwork’s value lies in the fact that it cannot be easily reproduced. Instead, their art is an original expression of a particular moment in time. Digital tools that can easily generate replication are the complete antithesis to this sentiment, but in fact, our project found that this element of “not being easily reproduced” is also relevant in Brushes. 

The color picker is a tool that functions according to trial and error, just like drawing via analog methods, including not being able to input numerical values. The color picker includes a function to record and reproduce the process of trial and error that normally cannot be reproduced. By posting their experiences on the internet, artists who wanted to learn more about each other’s painting techniques created an online community that transcended physical location, much like an art café.

Brushes, an app that dared to eschew cumbersome user experience, taught us that it is not necessarily advantageous to just increase efficiency in regard to art through digital means. Conversely, it is important to create value where digital technology truly shines, without changing the most valuable aspects of users’ tactile, analog experiences.

The Language of New Media by Lev Manovich


Japanese Version:『ニューメディアの言語―― デジタル時代のアート、デザイン、映画』レフ・マノヴィッチ (著), 堀 潤之 (翻訳)

5. Designing conversations, not shapes and forms

My course didn’t really touch on UI design methods directly. Of course, we also designed UI, but as mentioned in the previous section, our grades didn’t depend solely on its quality. There were projects, including physical computing, that weren’t centered around on-screen UI. Throughout the course, it made me feel  that I was designing more than just shapes and forms.

A few years later, I came across a method called conversational design, and it really made sense to me. If a certain system represents one person, and design is a conversation between two people, both entities being able to comprehend each other is the most important factor. Information architecture and interaction design are largely focused on making sense of processes. 

From there, the most important step is to decide what terms meaning should be expressed in. In recent years, agile development has increased the speed that teams work with, which is a fact often easily forgotten. However, I think there is great value in taking time to truly consider the meaning presented and the interrelated nature therein.

The Inmates Are Running the Asylum by Alan Cooper

Alan Cooper popularized personas as a tool for interaction design. I enjoyed this book because it focuses on the “behavior” of the computer. UI and UX have become standardized terms, but we’re often preoccupied with the idea that this craft is equivalent to its format. I have referred to this book again on multiple occasions in regard to “well-presented” computer behavior.

Japanese Version:『コンピュータは、むずかしすぎて使えない!』アラン クーパー (著), Alan Cooper (原著), 山形 浩生 (翻訳)

6. Experience it for yourself

In today’s world, the vast majority of software UI is graphic-based, but there are also other types of UI, including voice-based, haptic and more. In terms of accessibility, design must be considered from a perspective that doesn’t limit access to one method. We all know this in our heads, but what kind of experience are users actually having? Gaining first-hand experience is the best way to actually empathize with users. I was fortunate enough to acquire this understanding during an experience outside of university.

Photo credit : https://www.blindekuh.ch/about-us-faq-gallery-zurich.html

blindekuh / a “restaurant in the dark” in Switzerland

One day during a class trip to Switzerland, we had dinner at blindekuh, a restaurant where diners eat in total darkness. The staff are all visually impaired, and upon entering, we had to hold onto the person in front of us. There was a palpable fear as we entered the pitch darkness. The sensation was different from being blindfolded, and our eyes took time to adjust even slightly. Being limited to only talking, groping to find my fork and knife, feeling and then eating bread and successfully drinking wine from a glass was profound, and forced me to consider an interface that doesn’t rely on visual cues or even sight. As a designer, this experience has stuck with me for life.

7. Teamwork over individual background

In my course, many students came from England, but also from 20 other countries. Many international students, including myself, were not native English speakers. We were all educated in different countries under unique cultures, and had different ways of communicating and values. Then, all of a sudden, we came together to form a team. 

To be completely honest, it was a struggle at times. Tasked with learning concepts that were totally new, sometimes I didn’t understand topics very well at all, and the language barrier made for additional complications. Sometimes tasks were assigned, but no one ended up working on them. At other times, we would be discussing the same concept, but the end result was something completely different than what we imagined. The pre-deadline scramble was always total chaos.

As I delved into this environment with a largely Japanese mindset, the first thing I learned was how to clearly express my intention verbally. There was no such thing as reading the room or coming to a proper understanding through just facial expressions. We had to listen to each other without preconceptions, and even if the going got rough, I often had to speak up from an opposing viewpoint. It quickly became clear that unless the entire team communicated effectively, underlying problems would blow up later, leading to disastrous results.

Looking back on it now, this situation is quite similar to many agencies. It was really rough at times, but becoming prepared for this type of environment as a student has paid dividends. Diverse teams can be very difficult to manage. Building trust takes time, alongside the patience needed to fully utilize the strong points of each team member. I learned that this isn’t impossible, and when everything starts to click, it can be a lot of fun. Incredibly, I still didn’t really understand this until I joined my current company.

8. Common conceptual models for better discussion

When people of diverse backgrounds come together with a common goal, the first topic that should be addressed is establishing a common language as soon as possible. This facilitates effective communication, and when disagreement or miscommunication does occur, it’s easier to get to the root of the problem. Just like the aforementioned relationship between a system and its users, creating this sort of common conceptual model is paramount.

On the extensive reading list assigned to us for the course, several books designated required, including the aforementioned Don’t Make Me Think: Revisited and The Design of Everyday Things helped provide a common understanding that allowed us, as inexperienced student designers, to somehow come together as a barely functioning team.

The Elements of User Experience by Jesse James Garrett

In the fields of UX design and design thinking, there are endless conceptual models. Each one conveys a different perspective, and no single one is better or more correct. Personally, I find the “five elements of UX” presented in this book to be the most “user-friendly.” As it’s from 2002, this book also focuses on basic premises of web design, but if you consider the “transformation of intent” from abstract strategic concepts to concrete UI at the surface layer, it can be very helpful in finding focus during different project phases. The concepts introduced are simple and follow a straightforward workflow, providing a framework that is easy to become familiar with.

Japanese Version:『The Elements of User Experience 5段階モデルで考えるUXデザイン』ジェシー・ジェームズ・ギャレット (著), ソシオメディア株式会社 (翻訳), 上野 学 (翻訳), 篠原 稔和 (翻訳)

9. Business is not all about money

Discovering a culture that supported entrepreneurship made a huge impact on me as a student in the UK. Our course featured a class with guest lecturers from active design agencies who were invited to create business models. There were also free summer courses that offered students insight into the world of startups. I was so inspired to see many people, including aspiring designers or artists, considering starting their own business instead of finding a job after graduation. Angel investors even took the time to speak with students, and I strongly felt the impact of a culture that promoted entrepreneurship throughout society.

To be honest, I wasn’t really interested in this class at the time and I don’t remember much about it. I thought, “I am a designer, only interested in creating,” “I don’t know how to talk about money” and “I want to remain an advocate for users.” After joining my current agency, I regretted not taking this class more seriously. Of course, it is important for users’ issues and ideas to be communicated to the business side of operations. But first and foremost, a sustainable business model is required to provide services and products. In order to deliver value to users, designers must understand this. As you may have gathered above, as a student I simply didn’t understand this.

Rework by Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson

The book is co-written by Jason Fried, co-founder and President of 37Signals, a web software company formerly known as Basecamp that since reverted to its original name. After graduation, a friend invited me to the launch event for this book and gave me a copy. I didn’t read it at first and it sat on the shelf for quite some time. However, now that I’m actively working in design, it’s been very interesting to come back to! The book delves into different mindsets for individuals in business and in particular, startups.

As a student, I suppose I wasn’t interested in the business modeling class because I assumed business was all about selling a product to make a profit. However, Rework clearly elucidates how business isn’t just about money, but is deeply focused on culture, community building, how we work and how we live every day. Even if you’re not interested in starting a business, this book provides compelling perspective and is very much worth a read.

Japanese Version:『小さなチーム、大きな仕事』デイヴィッド・ハイネマイヤー・ハンソン (著), 黒沢 健二 (翻訳), 松永 肇一 (翻訳), 美谷 広海 (翻訳), 祐佳 ヤング (翻訳)

10. Coming to grips with the unknown

In our class reading list, there was a book that I picked up, but failed to understand whatsoever.

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter

Japanese Version:『ゲーデル、エッシャー、バッハ』ダグラス・R. ホフスタッター著

During university, I struggled to comprehend a single page of this book given my English ability. My classmates who read it kept talking about how interesting it was, and this motivated me to actually buy a hard copy to bring back to Japan. To be honest, I still feel frustrated when I flip through it today. This is a real tome, and could almost make a pillow, albeit a rock-hard one.

During my single year at University of the Arts London, I had many moments when I felt lost in a fog. My reading pace was slower than my classmates. I couldn’t always follow conversations completely. I didn’t understand what my professors were saying, or what my teammates were asking me to do, and keeping up with discussions after presentations was a real challenge. Although I did my absolute best, in retrospect I can only describe my experience as a mix of desperation and frustration.

When I started working as a designer at an agency, I started to understand that in our digital industry, conceptual knowledge and frameworks are always in flux, and the idea of perfectly mastering your domain doesn’t really exist. The most important thing is to keep learning. Frustration is natural and should be turned into motivation to grasp the next fresh idea. If you don’t understand something right away, you should revisit the idea with a fresh perspective. Don’t let it eat away at you. For me, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid serves as a reminder to never give up and never stop learning.

Some things will always remain unknown, and I think we all need to be comfortable with this fact. Someday, with effort, my understanding of this book will reach a new plateau. I wouldn’t want anyone who’s read it to try to explain it to me. I will come to grips with it in my own way.

Written By

Mayu Nakamura

Mayu is a Principal Designer at ustwo Tokyo. After working in Japan as a UI developer for optical discs, she moved to the U.K. and joined ustwo London as an interaction designer. She worked on a wide range of design projects from financial systems, mobility to kids' apps. Mayu is a music lover of all genres, from classical music to punk rock.

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