Chris Pratley, one of the Microsoft Office developers, has written a very interesting blog entry, in which he explains how Microsoft Word tied up the Japanese market.

It’s interesting; unlike in the West, Word wasn’t a serious contender in Japan until very recently, because it just didn’t work how Japanese users wanted it to. The rules of Asian typography are so completely different to those of languages in the Roman and Cyrillic alphabets that just translating the menus doesn’t cut it.

Here’s an idea of some of the things you need from time to time in Japanese typography:

  • Ruby or furigana: small characters above or to the right of the main text as a pronunciation gloss
  • Distributed justification: adding spacing between characters to provide constant line length
  • Columnisation of characters: the thirteenth character on the first line and the thirteenth character on the second line should be over one another
  • Flexible right margins: some punctuation should be kept where it is, and not start a new line—even if this means overhanging the end of the line.
  • Vertical text: some characters need to be rotated (parentheses and Roman letters) and some don’t (Japanese characters, Western numerals).
  • Character count: Japanese essays at school and university are specified as a set number of characters, not words—this is a language with no spaces!

And this is how they did it:

To give you an idea of how the Word team was successful at what it did in general, I’ll give you a rundown of what we did to “win” in Japan. We had a team there already, but they were mainly a dev team working on porting the English product. We sent planners (and myself) to Japan to visit a lot of customers to find out what they hated about Word. It turned out that they hated Word for 5 major reasons—not because it was a bad product, but some common tasks that they did every day in IchiTaro could not be done in Word. We collected hundreds of sample documents and interviewed many users. We also set up a temporary “usability lab” in our Tokyo office and did side by side tests of Word and IchiTaro to see where we were going wrong. We used typical sample documents we had collected and asked users to create them in each application. What we found was that many of the documents simply could not be created in Word, and those that could took on average 5 times longer than in Ichitaro, even accounting for familiarity with the products.

So, we developed a prioritized list of things we had to fix in Word. Word 6.0 for Japanese was already in the bag, so our main focus was on Word95 (Word 7). We decided to work on the biggest problem, which was that Japanese documents used a lot of really complex tables—in effect their documents were more like forms than memos. So we built the Table Drawing tool (you can see this in Word today in all languages). We did a few other things that Japanese users expected, and released the product.

Japanese society is pretty bureaucratic, and form-writing seems to be a big task, particularly for those in government, offices, and schools—the kind of people who would be using a word processor.

Although Ichitaro is still popular, Word out of Office 2000 and later seem to do a good job with Japanese.

However, I have to take issue with one of his comments about “what customers want":

[Word processor] reviews were really totally subjective and reflected the bias of the reviewers pretty strongly. They rarely connected with real customers to see what mattered—instead they prioritized what they thought was important (why on earth was “word count” such a big deal? It is rarely used among the real user base outside of students and professional writers—we have quantitative proof of that. But it turns out reviewers need it all the time, so it became one of the “critical features” of a word processor according to these reviewers).

I’ll repeat that: “[word count] is rarely used among the real user base outside of students and professional writers”—they charge hundreds of pounds/dollars/Euros for Word; it’s aimed at people who write for a living, and it really ought to fulfil their needs! That is the lamest excuse that I have ever heard for not implementing a widely-requested and simple feature—it’s the kind of thing that could be done in an afternoon. Apparently, Word has long done a bad job of counting words; the first version didn’t even have a word counter.