For any product the route from assembly line to the consumer is perilous. Along the way it can be squashed, dropped, squeezed, exposed to the elements, lost, tampered with or stolen. And it can fail to attract a buyer’s attention on the store shelf. An industry – packaging – has grown up around the reduction of these risks. Wrapper rage, a disorder so well understood that the expression no longer needs to be set off with inverted commas, suggests usability is an afterthought in much of the industry – but perhaps only for the present.
In an article in Canada’s Ottawa Citizen newspaper in January, Harold Hughes, a professor of packaging at Michigan State University, said his research shows consumers have two major frustrations. The first is that they can’t get the darn packages open – and the second is that they can’t get them closed.
The School of Packaging at Michigan State has taken a lead in moving usability higher up the list of concerns for the industry. It hosted “Universal Packaging ’06,” which was billed as an "international conference on user-centered design, packaging and universal design."
Wrapper rage is the fury that builds with the struggle to extract a product from its package. The nemesis of electronics buyers is clamshell or blister packaging. It’s made of one or two layers of polyvinyl chloride plastic and soldered around the edges. When bare hands can’t open it and consumers resort to sharp implements like scissors and knives, injuries can occur. Emergency rooms see a heavy increase in package-related injuries after Christmas. Some are cuts from the hard plastic casing.
An indication of the scale of the open-me-if-you-can problem is that almost everyone has a horror story. The tales find their way into news features, and web sites have been set up just to collect them. One disgruntled consumer talked about feeling the urge to take an ax to his package.
Some of the web sites “name and shame” products. The plastic casing around the Microsoft Xbox 360 faceplate has come in for its share of criticism. It resists scissors and sharp knives. The casings on Psyclone electronics cables and DigiPower camera batteries are also infamous for their impenetrability. The battery casing, according to one writer, is several times the size of the batteries.
Food packaging also has its critics. The author of “Why consumer packaging sucks” on www.userdriven.org takes issue with prepackaged meals called Lunchables. “Firstly,” he or she wrote, “the glue they use to hold the box together is stronger than the cardboard it’s made of.” The writer complained that instead of opening where it’s supposed to, the box consistently shreds in inconvenient spots, and a plastic tray inside the box is sealed with more plastic “that must be peeled back by hand without any overhang to get a grip on.” The writer added that this layer is needed to keep the food from falling through holes in the front of the box that are there to display the contents. Underneath that plastic layer, each individual component of the meal is sealed separately in its own plastic bag. These inner plastic bags are so tough that only scissors or a knife will open them, the writer said, yet “the whole point of Lunchables is that they are supposed to be portable and all of the food can be eaten without utensils.”
The foil juice packs supplied with the Lunchables also upset the writer: “Trouble is, using enough force to penetrate that spot [with the attached plastic straw] almost always causes the straw to pierce the opposite side of the pack.”
The horror stories take in the cellophane-like plastic that seals CD boxes. It’s as finger- and weapon-resistant as the tamper-proof caps on liquid products.
Another writer complained about zipper-seal plastic bags of shredded cheese whose plastic tears long before the zipper decides to open.
What seems like double punishment for consumers is that these unfriendly packages are often shipped in a difficult package. According to one writer, the FedEx Express Box turns the recipient into a “raving, sore-fingered maniac in less than a minute.”
Consumer Report, the magazine of the national product testing and research center, takes naming and shaming even farther. When the editors and testing staff of the magazine put questions about package usability to its millions of subscribers in 2006, the response was overwhelming. People sounded off about the package designs they loved and loathed, and nominated candidates to the hall of shame. Experts then tested the readers’ nominees to choose the most deserving for the magazine’s 2006 Oyster Awards for impenetrable packaging.
The 2007 winner of the award named after the tight-jawed mollusk was the sealed, hard-plastic clamshell that houses the Sonic powered toothbrush. It took top honors, according to the magazine, because of the tools, strength, time and finesse required to extract the contents.
Packaging for the Bratz Sisterz came in a close second. According to the magazine, about 50 restraints on the popular dolls included “a cardboard and plastic box, tape, tabs, cardboard banner, plastic bags, rubber bands, hard-plastic bands, molded plastic covers, glue, wires, string sewing the hair to the cardboard, a plastic tab imbedded in the heads and pinning them to the cardboard, and a rigid plastic manacle around the arms of one doll, giving her a posture with attitude.”
Honorable mentions went to a box of macaroni and cheese that crushed easily, a toy aircraft carrier with hard-to-liberate pieces, and plastic-encased light bulbs were hard to extract without breaking the bulbs or slicing fingers. In both years the magazine heard about cut and bloodied fingers, hands, and arms. They also heard from consumers with arthritis who struggled with simple tasks such as opening blister packs of pills, and those who used any implement at hand – pliers, kitchen shears, bolt-cutters, military issue can openers, hacksaws, files, teeth, and fingernails – to get the job done.
A Robust Industry
The packaging industry is well supplied with expertise in the United States. Universities with packaging departments and/or curricula include California Polytechnic, Michigan State, Indiana State, Clemson, Florida, Southern Mississippi, Wisconsin-Stout, San Jose. Thousands of graduates of these programs strive in companies large and small to create successful packaging, but the most admired in the industry appeared to have won laurels for almost everything but ease of opening.
“Product packaging that packs a punch” is often high on criteria. An extreme “wow” example is a Russian vodka brand sold in a glass replica of the Red Army’s most famous export, the AK-47 designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov. It comes complete with its own briefcase.
Absurdities like the AK-47 vodka bottle and the prevalence of wrapper rage and its more benign cousins raise the question of why consumer convenience is given so little thought in the industry.
In an interview with The Ergonomics Report™ in January, Laura Bix, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the School of Packaging at Michigan State University, explained it as an issue of competing demands on the designers. “Packaging people have to contend with a wide variety of things that they have to do for consumers. They have to deliver things so that they are not broken. They need to consider sustainability … [and] impact on their environment – the footprint of what they are doing. They need to meet retailer demands. Things have to be shipped great distances and still display nicely and not be susceptible to pilferage and theft.”
Many manufacturers, such as computer hardware and software giant Microsoft, pay close attention to the usability of their products yet appear often as villains on packaging name-and-shame web sites. Professor Bix explained Microsoft’s apparent inconsistency as a security issue. Microsoft’s products in particular, she said, “are things that tend to be high-dollar value yet fairly small. … Generally speaking, if you can divorce the product from the package you have also divorced it from its electronic article surveillance tag. … If you create a package that can be easily opened in the retail environment, where you can slip the CD or DVD out of the package and into your purse, you have successfully, divorced it from its tag.”
She regards the security issue as a consideration rather than an excuse for impenetrable packaging. “I’m a proponent of usability,” she explained, “and I think they [the package designers] can think [more] creatively.” She suggested they could apply the tag to the actual DVD or CD product, as opposed to embedding it in the packaging. In electronic devices, the tag could be placed in the battery compartment, she added, a difficult location for a thief to reach.
Peter Budnick, Ph.D.,CPE, the principal of Ergoweb, Inc., explained the situation in an interview with The Ergonomics Report™ as the result of “poorly informed designers who don’t have the knowledge or foresight to anticipate, nor apparently care about, consumer difficulties with their packaging.” He conceded that designing packaging aimed at helping products survive shipping and resist tampering and theft is important, but he criticizes the business decision that put these considerations ahead of usability and consumer experience. There’s no excuse for poorly informed designers with few concerns for consumers, he added, describing the situation as “unnervingly common.”
“Short-term goals and the short-term thinking that inherently accompanies them” also play a role, he noted. “Sometimes a manufacturer believes the need to be the first to market to secure a lead in the product category or technology niche is more important than being the best. In other words, being first to market, even with flaws, may be a higher business goal than being best to market. So, I can see poor packaging as being an ‘acceptable risk’ to some business minds.”
He describes as amazing what some consumers will accept in return for a lower cost choice. “Of course, the choice is usually not well understood until the purchase is complete, and that’s where much of the frustration occurs.” He explained that packaging goes well beyond the physical challenge of opening. “[It] also influences psychological factors like first impression, ultimate ease-of-use and fit-for-purpose. Packaging can be as much about helping a consumer make the best and most immediate use of a product – especially complex products – as it can be about protecting the contents.”
Ahead of the Pack – and Often Ignored
Impenetrable packages are rich food for web sites and news features, while user-friendly packages generate scant comment because they are painless to open and quickly forgotten. This means that companies deserving of laurels for package usability don’t often receive them.
In Dr. Budnick’s opinion, two manufacturers are already ahead of the pack. “Two examples of product packaging that are well designed to enhance user brand impressions, product assembly or installation, and ultimately a successful user experience are Apple products and Bose products,” he said.
Professor Bix believes the tide is turning towards packaging usability, and she sees the baby boomer generation as a force for change. When the packaging department at Michigan State started its usability project, she said, the concept was pretty novel, and not at the front of agendas in the industry. She doesn’t believe it is at the front yet, but sees the industry “slowly beginning to try to meet the needs of the consumer.”
In this country as the baby boomers begin to age and experience some of the things that happen with aging, she explained, the manufacturers will have to pay attention. “The baby boomers are different psychographically than previous generations of older consumers. … They called for the resignation of a president. They called for equal rights. They called for civil rights. They are very used to making demands of the institution and having the institution deliver on their demands. And so I think we will see a different world as they begin to take that role in society. I think as the see these rising demands we’ll see creative solutions to some of the competing needs that these manufacturers are trying to satisfy.”
Sources: Ottawa Citizen; userdriven.org; Consumer Reports; Dr. Laura Bix; Dr. Peter Budnick
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2008-01-23.