Researching the travel experience of foreign tourists to Japan


From navigating the train systems to overcoming the language barrier, tourists struggle during their trips to Japan. Odigo, a tech startup in Tokyo, focuses on improving the experience of foreign tourists to Japan. The Odigo mobile and desktop platforms currently help tourists build curated travel itineraries. Although the use of their desktop site was booming, their mobile app was lagging. They came to us with some questions: Why were people using Odigo on their computers at home, but not on their phones while in Japan? What could Odigo do to make more of an impact on its users and make Japan more accessible to tourists?

Deliverable: User Research Report, Presentation
Client: Odigo
Role:  UX Research Lead
Duration:  8 months
Collaborators: Katherine Habeck [Project Manager], Ajayan Subramanian [Prototyping Lead], John DeGore [Design Lead], Angela Liu [Tech Lead]





Understand the current experience of foreign tourists to Japan and discover their unmet needs. 


After conducting rigorous research both in the U.S. and in Japan, we scoped our future design to the Western traveler. We mapped out the journey of the Western tourist to Japan and discovered five main insights that will drive our summer design.

We discovered:

1. Tourists visit Japan to participate in Japanese culture.

2. The cultural barrier inhibits this participation. When distressed, foreign tourists seek out familiar surroundings. Tourists fear making a mistake in a culture far different from there own. If they do not know how to participate in a tourist activity, they opt out of it altogether. When tourists feel overwhelmed by the cultural barrier, they often seek familiar surroundings such as a Starbucks. Western establishments such as Starbucks are incredibly popular for foreign tourists and often act as a safe haven where tourists can order food they recognize and in a manner they are familiar with. Simple familiar surroundings give tourists a break from culture shock and disorientation.

3. The language barrier makes necessary and routine tasks difficult, such as navigation or ordering food. Struggling with routine tasks can have a major impact on a traveler's experience. For example, we talked to two tourists who could not arrange for luggage storage due to the language barrier and thus could not hike Mt. Fuji as planned. Another tourist could not visit the Golden Temple in Kyoto because they he could not demystify the bus system. The language barrier has the power to sour a trip to Japan because it prevents tourists from participating in activities they have planned.

4. Rarely does a Western traveler go to Japan on a whim or purely out of desire. About 80% of the Western tourists we interviewed had some sort of safety net or reason to go to Japan, such as knowing the language, visiting friends or family who live there, or going to Japan to study abroad. We believe that this safety net is a driving reason for tourists to visit Japan. Without this safety net, Western tourists do not feel comfortable traveling to a country so foreign from their own without something or someone to mitigate the language and cultural barriers.

5. In contrast, the Asian tourist does not need a personal connection or safety net to visit Japan because they favor the group tour. For many Asian tourists, group tours are extremely popular. We believe that Asian tourists use group tours to effectively mitigate the cultural and language barriers of Japan. On group tours, every aspect of a trip to Japan is planned, from transportation to translation services. Asian tourists rarely face the same number or severity of problems such as getting lost or committing a cultural faux pas as compared with the Western tourist and we believe this is because they favor the group tour.



The summer months will be spent brainstorming possible solutions, testing them on users, honing down to one, and prototyping a final solution. We will present our solution to Odigo in August 2016. The final solution with be a conceptual prototype along with a printed book and formal presentation.



My Role as UX Research Lead

I have managed the planning, execution, and synthesis of user research, both in the U.S. and in Japan. As we finish the design phase of our Capstone project, my role is to lead user recruitment, user testing, and evaluation of our prototypes. 

The MHCI Capstone Project

The Masters of Human-Computer Interaction capstone project at Carnegie Mellon University is an 8-month project in which students collaborate with an industry sponsor to innovate, improve, or modify human-to-machine technology.

Odigo: Making Japan More Accessible for Tourists

Odigo is a technology startup based in Tokyo with a desktop and mobile application aimed at foreign tourists. The Odigo platform provides foreign tourists with top-rated trip itineraries that have been specially curated by vetted local experts.




We continually revisited and refined our initial research questions as we gathered more data.

We brainstormed our initial research questions, chose appropriate methods, and matched those methods with a plan for synthesizing the data. 



We exhausted industry and academic research on tourism to Japan.

We did as much secondary research as we could, answering as many of our research questions as possible before we even considered conducting primary research. We focused on current and historical market research on tourism in Japan. Within a few days we understood a grand overview of our target users and the social, economic, and political factors that have been affecting individual decisions to visit Japan. 


Subject matter experts advised us to order business cards to demonstrate our legitimacy and seriousness. We designed bi-lingual business cards with one side in English and the other side in Japanese.

Subject matter experts taught us to properly exchange business cards before meeting with our client and their partners in Japan. 


Subject Matter Experts on Japanese culture helped us understand the cultural gap between travelers and the Japanese.

We interviewed a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who teaches on the subject of Japanese culture. We learned that we needed to have personal business cards in Japan in order to establish a relationship with our client. We consulted other subject matter experts to learn how to exchange the business cards appropriately.



Our Instagram bot helped us understand patterns in tourists' photos.

We built Twitter and Instagram bots that scraped our users’ posts for certain hashtags. We discovered interesting preferences and behaviors of our target users related to location, time, and content. 



We gained an understanding of tourist behavior and needs by reading what people were posting online.

We poured over academic articles and scoured the Internet to uncover traveler behavior and user stories about Japan. We combed through travel blogs and websites, printed guides, and social media posts. We wanted to know what questions people were asking, the complaints they were voicing, and what advice they were giving. This helped us decide what questions to ask when we began to interview people who had been to Japan.



We interviewed tourists on the streets of Japan to get their feedback in-the-moment

Because we only had six days in Japan to gather our research, we interviewed as many tourists as we could find. We interviewed people at the airport, on the street, at tourist sites, and even people on the plane.

We interviewed tourists on the plane to discover not only their reasons for visiting Japan, but also their expectations of their trip. We matched tourists' expectations with their actual experiences to discover which pain points came at a total surprise and which were expected..

We interviewed tourists along the popular street in the neighborhood Harajuku, a major tourist neighborhood in Tokyo.



We engaged in tourist activities, such as kimono rental, to gain a personal understanding of why people visit Japan.

To gain a deeper perspective of the foreign tourist, we became the foreign tourist. We went to Japan and participated in tourist activities that are popular for Western tourists. Experiencing the journey for ourselves was crucial for gaining a full perspective of our users’ needs. 

Kimono rentals are an incredibly popular tourist activity in the city of Kyoto. Researcher Angela Liu participated in kimono rental for a day while I documented her experience. This activity helped us to understand one of our key research findings: Tourists desire to participate in Japanese culture when visiting Japan. 



Through co-design we explored our client's needs and constraints.

Our client's employees, bloggers, friends, and partners are multi-national. They also have rich knowledge and experiences from helping foreign tourists in Japan. We wanted to tap into that knowledge, so we led a co-design workshop at Oligo's office in Tokyo. We presented employees with our research findings and prompted them to design a solution. By designing together, we learned about our client's needs, constraints, and how the team perceives the experience of the foreign tourist. 



We synthesized our data and found connections and relationships.

We used the process of affinity diagramming to discover relationships among our interview notes and our field observation notes. 



We wrapped up our research at the end of April 2016 and presented our synthesis to our client Odigo. The summer semester, which begins in May and ends in August, focuses entirely on designing and testing a final prototype for our client.