Packaging Openability - A Global Issue

Openability, or ease of use in packaging, is a global issue impacting consumers of all ages and abilities.  However, the impact of openability does not affect population segments equally.   What might be a minor annoyance to some is a loss of independence for others.  For example, 1 in 5 or 50 million US adults have at least one form of doctor diagnosed arthritis.  Arthritis in the finger joints and wrist can make many forms of packaging difficult or impossible to open.  When presented with a package with an openability issue, consumers with painful finger joints are presented with the choice of either enduring the pain or asking for assistance. 

Evidence of openability issues are easily observed when customers have functional limitations that reduce their ability to manipulate packaging features.  However, those without functional limitations will also experience openability issues as inconvenience or simply having to exert more physical effort than is appropriate for the situation.  What we need is a design approach that simultaneously removes unintended barriers and builds in design features that are appropriate for the way people interact with packaged products.  Universal design is the concept that a product or packaging solution should be usable by as many people in as many different situations as possible.  If a company designs a packaging solution that accommodates the reduced grip span of someone with arthritis, they have probably designed a packaging solution that will be easy for children to grasp.  If a company designs a packaging solution that can accommodate users with limited functionality in one of their hands, they have designed a packaging solution that people “on the go” will find easy to use while walking or carrying other objects.

Openability is a global issue and can impact consumers in at least two different ways.  First, openability issues may represent an unnecessary barrier to consumers who have functional ability limitations that limit their ability to open packaging.  Second, openability issues may limit the usefulness of the product to the consumer.  If packaging becomes destroyed while opening the packaging, consumers may not be able to reuse the packaging to ensure the freshness of a product.  Also, users may find that packaging is too difficult to open in the context that the product is designed to be used.  While openability is not just an issue for older adults, the markets that are addressing the openability issue are markets that serve a relatively pronounced aging population.  Efforts of Arthritis Australia, the Arthritis Foundation in the US, and the Arthritis Society of Canada have served to focus attention on the openability issue.  In Japan the packaging of the product is often seen by consumers as almost important as the product itself.  Substantial innovations in universal design in packaging have originated in packaging solutions developed in Japan.

While the impetus to address openability seems to have been the need to accommodate a population that is aging, there is a growing trend within those markets to address openability even if the product under consideration is not targeted at older adults.  For products that are seen as commodities, openability is sometimes seen as a key product discriminator.  The idea is that companies can capture market share from competitors by introducing products that have openability features into markets that are dominated by companies with packaging solutions that are particularly difficult to open.  This approach is particularly effective when coupled with an overall attempt to design packaging around the way consumers actually use the products.  For example, cookies are often packaged in a simple plastic or foil wrap or pouch.  In addition to being difficult to open, the packaging approach offers no protection from spoilage once the packaging has been opened.  The freshness of the cookies are often compromised well before consumers would consume the product resulting in wasted goods.  A packaging solution that combined easy to open features with features that allowed the product to be resealed resonated with consumers because the packaging aligned with the way consumers used the products.

Arthritis Simulation Gloves in Use in the UK

RA Awareness Week 2015 - RA simulation glove

We've been filming people in their workplace wearing gloves that simulate the stiffness of RA, to help them understand how the disease can impact everyday tasks. This video shows how they struggled to manage basic tasks. They were really shocked at how just one symptom of the disease would make their work so difficult.Find out more about the campaign at #RuAware

Posted by National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society (NRAS) on Monday, June 15, 2015

Customer Learned Helplessness in Packaging Design

Brand owners and packaging designers have been slow to address the issue of ease of use in packaging because the general population is accustomed to poor packaging.  If you want the product, getting through the packaging is seen as a necessary burden.  There have been very few innovations that have made substantial improvements in ease of use over the years so consumers really have not had much of a choice.  The design of the beverage can and flap cardboard packaging has been essentially unchanged in the past 20 or more years. 

In the few cases where easy to use packaging choices were introduced into the market the results have been dramatic.  For example, for many years consumers were accustomed to purchasing ground coffee in difficult to open tins or vacuum sealed bags.  Both the tin and the bag typically required a tool such as a can opener or a knife to open.  Consumers accepted the packaging because there were no reasonable alternatives.  A number of years ago, Folgers introduced a new easy to open packaging for coffee that featured a seal with a pull tab and a handle for griping the container.  Customers that found previous packaging solutions difficult or impossible to open without assistance often reported to me that they were delighted by the new packaging and switched to the new brand of coffee featuring the easy to open packaging.  If a customer is willing to switch their brand of coffee because of a competing product’s innovative ease of use features, they may be even more willing to switch brands for other commodity items which are not associated with as high of a degree of brand loyalty when presented with the opportunity.

Customers have simply come to expect poor packaging design and brand managers perceive the lack on customer complaints as evidence that ease of use is not an issue rather than evidence for a learned helplessness on the customer’s part.  Customers have an expectation of product quality but they do not have an expectation that the packaging will be easy to open.  It should not surprise anyone when the majority of customer complaints are associated with product quality issues.  When given a choice, consumers will choose the packaging solution that is more convenient to them if the product, as a whole, meets their requirements.  For many, this means packaging solutions that feature greater ease of use.  If the ease of use problem is severe, consumers may even switch brands in preference to the brand that offers the easy to open packaging.

Over-reliance on Focus Group Research in Consumer Product Needs Assessment

Central to design innovation is an understanding of consumer behavior and needs.  Arguably, the success of a new product or service depends on the ability of the company to understand the unmet needs and latent demands of its customers.  An unmet need is a need that the customer can either demonstrate or vocalize that is currently not satisfied by viable market alternatives.  For example, consumers with arthritis may be able to vocalize or demonstrate that they need a way to help them manage their medication schedules while traveling.  Consumers may be fully aware that they have more difficulty remembering to take their medication when their routine is interrupted but they may not be aware of how to address the issue or if products are available to provide assistance.  Addressing unmet needs is one of the best ways for companies to discriminate themselves from their competition in a crowded market.  In contrast, a latent demand is a customer requirement that only becomes evident when the technology or product is made available.  In cases of latent demand, consumers are not even aware that they have an unfulfilled need until the solution is offered.  By addressing a latent demand, a company can produce products that move the market in entirely new directions.

The process of identifying unmet needs and latent demands is addressed by a needs assessment in the Consumer Product Integration (CPI) process.  In practice, a focus group is often utilized as a substitute for a formal needs assessment when trying to identify product requirements; however, there are a number of concerns associated with relying solely on focus group data.  First, people often have difficulty predicting what they will do some time in the future.  When asked to project how they will perform or what they will do when some future product becomes available or in a job function they are not experienced with, they often produce unreliable testimonies.  This behavior can lead to rationalizations that produce seemingly unmet needs that have no real relationship to true needs.  Second, people do not really know what they want or need.  When asked directly, people may communicate what they think they need or focus on a very specific need that appears attractive at the time.  Using focus groups as the sole means of needs assessments may result in the identification of, at best, a biased assessment of user needs and, at worst, an incomplete or misleading needs identification.  Third, people cannot comment on things that are very different from their own experience.  Focus groups are most useful when the design team is focusing on incremental design changes and the participants have had experience using the products being discussed.  Focus group feedback is less useful when the focus is on design innovation since users are being asked to comment on things that are, by definition, outside of their experience.  Finally, focus groups are very poor at identifying latent demands since latent demands are needs that are currently not in the conscious of the consumer. 

In summary, a focus group should not be used as a substitute for a needs assessment.  A focus group is simply one tool among many that can be used to help identify unmet needs.  A proper needs assessment utilizes a combination of techniques such as subject matter expert structured interviews, observational studies, technology forecasting, and product usage analysis to identify unmet needs and latent demands.  Researchers performing a needs assessment will often spend time observing the behavior of consumers using a product in the proper context in order to gain key insights.  This type of focused ethnographic research is often more valuable than focus group research particularly when the focus is on design innovation.   When the focus is on incremental design, a focus group can be a useful resource but over-reliance on the research technique can lead to unintended consequences. 

Consumer Product Integration

Why do some consumer products succeed and some products fail? My theory, and the point of this article, is that most consumer products fail because the consumer wasn’t adequately considered in the design process. By far, the consumer isn’t the only consideration when bringing a product to market. You certainly have to consider manufacturability and the technology among a myriad of other important issues. However, I believe that the consumer must be the most important consideration when it comes to the design of products that consumers are expected to purchase and use.

There are eight aspects of design that relate to the consumer that should be considered during the design process (Human Factors, Safety, Consumer health, Population characteristics, Product support, Training & Learning, User protection, and Aesthetics & emotional design). Typical design projects may focus on one or two of these elements. For example, a product designed for someone with arthritis might focus on the population characteristics (i.e. the functional abilities) of the target audience in order to make sure that the product doesn’t require more strength than user’s have available. The designer of a new wood chipper might focus on increasing safety to minimize accidents. The developer of a new cell phone might focus on the activation experience to minimize product support costs and increase customer satisfaction.

The conventional wisdom is that most consumer products fail just before or after launch. Online sources often site failure rates ranging from 50% to 80% of all new products . We need a different way of thinking about design. We need an approach that considers all of the aspects of design that relate to consumer simultaneously.  Designers need specific tools to assist in the allocation of the appropriate amount of attention to each component of design that impacts the user experience. Consumer Product Integration (CPI), based on the foundation of Human System Integration, pulls together all of the related domains and gives us a framework for successful product design.

CPI is both a management and a technical strategy for considering all consumer related design issues in a well balanced and structured way. Using CPI techniques, designers can make the appropriate tradeoffs and understand how design decisions that relate to one part of the user experience impact other components of the experience. CPI helps to ensure that the proper consideration is given to each component at the appropriate points in the design process.