In Japan, there is omotenashi. In its basic translation, the word means hospitality. But even in Japan, it means something else: it is the aim for perfection with a customer. This idea can be extended to product design, aiming for a product that gives the customer a perfect experience.
The Word Omotenashi
The word omotenashi is written in Japanese as おもてなし or less commonly as お持て成し. It translates as hospitality; reception; treatment; service; or entertainment. However, as we will see later, the English translation doesn’t quite do justice to its meaning. The word is centuries old, first used in the Heian period (794–1185), when the tea ceremony became popular. Hence, it is often used in connection with the tea ceremony.
What It Means
The simple translation of hospitality loses a lot of its original meaning. In my experience, most Japanese often strive for perfection, regardless what they do – from fancy tasks like designing a car to menial tasks that most of us would consider a bother. Omotenashi represents this striving for perfection with a customer. For example, when I was working in Japan, the guy emptying my trashcan in the office did the best job I’d ever seen from a cleaning service. He knew a good way to exchange the plastic trash bag without trapping air underneath. Granted, it was not a life-or-death situation, but it made my stay more comfortable.
Similarly, omotenashi is not just hospitality, but the striving for perfect hospitality. Japanese want the customer to have a perfect experience. When I studied the Japanese tea ceremony in Japan while at Toyota, I probably created some headaches for my teacher (from lack of Japanese language abilities to slight chattiness and more). Yet, I always felt warmly welcome and fully at ease and comfortable when doing a tea ceremony under his tutelage. For me, to make the guest truly feel welcome is the essence of the tea ceremony. (Side note: Since then I have met other Japanese tea ceremony masters who use tea ceremony as a weapon to prove that they are holier-than-thou. That for me would be the opposite of a good tea ceremony).
The idea of omotenashi is to make guests feel welcome, and they will do their best to anticipate and cater to each guest’s needs. This applies not only to the “normal” requests, but also to unusual needs or even needs that the customer does not yet even realize he has. True omotenashi goes to great lengths to provide superior service. There are no menial tasks if the result ensures a great experience for a guest. The word was used heavily in the run up to the 2020 Olympics in Japan, and Japanese tourist organizations often even have an omotenashi division.
How This Applies to Product Design
This concept of omotenashi can be extended to product design. While not a hospitality in the strictest sense, the products should also enable the customer to have a pleasant and comfortable experience, including “just-in-case” needs of the customer.
One example of such good product design are (many but not all) Japanese public toilets. I have written a full blog post on Lean in the Japanese Toilet before. But overall, Japanese try to make a visit to the toilet a pleasant experience, not only for the average user, but also for special needs. Many toilets have baby seats, sometimes even with a (frequently changed) plush cover. Often there is a fold-down plastic tray on the floor if you want to change clothes but don’t want to stand on a dirty toilet floor.
Handicapped stalls often have a separate sink or even a shower head for people with colostomy (where the exit of the intestines was medically rerouted to the side of the belly), so they can also properly refresh. Besides toilet paper, there is also often a shower bidet included. You may even find flowers in the room, and larger toilets indicate with lights if a stall is free. There are even toilets with voice guidance for the deaf. I just wish the customers would use soap more often afterwards, but you can’t blame the toilet for that…
The concept of omotenashi can also be found in cars. Especially Lexus, the luxury brand of Toyota, puts in a lot of effort (and lately also blasts the term omotenashi and the related takumi on all channels of advertising…). For example, when the power window closes, the window will slow down just before closing to reduce the noise of the glass hitting the rubber seal. Most people won’t even notice this feature unless it is pointed out.
Or another feature of a Lexus is that the windshield wipers will stop if the doors are opened. This avoids splashing water on the entering or exiting passengers. Lexus also puts a LOT of effort into reducing noise and vibration for the passengers. They add a lot of dampening material not only around the engine but also around the passenger compartment. Tighter gaps between the sheet metal mean less wind noise. Doors are stiffened to avoid the “drumming effect.” Overall, this makes the Lexus one of the quietest luxury brands. Especially when Lexus started in the 1990s, they set the benchmark for the industry. Since then, other luxury brands have also put more effort into this.
Obviously, not all of that is free. Hence, a low-end budget product just can’t afford to have the niceties and features of a high-end but costly product. Still, there are always possibilities to improve your product that fit within a budget if you apply a little bit of thoughtfulness. The opposite would be a product designed by engineers for engineers, and the normal user is at a total loss on how to use it. Surely, you know such a product too.
There is also a risk of it being too much. Occasionally in Japan, as a customer I had the feeling that the staff was trying too hard, and it was too much for me. Depending on how it is implemented, it can also be stressful for the staff too. Overall, you need to find a balance here.
Altogether, omotenashi is not a method. It is more of a philosophy toward the known and unknown needs of the customer. After all, it is the customer who pays the bill at the end of the day. Now, go out, improve the experience for the customer, and organize your Industry!