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.