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Where package meets person: 3 ways to improve the relationship

Article-Where package meets person: 3 ways to improve the relationship

Where package meets person: 3 ways to improve the relationship
1. Ergonomic design: Among the packaging design solutions for elderly consumers are a rubber-wrapped cap for Aleve to improve gripping and a flip-top closure for Folgers coffee atop a shaped container for easy access compared to a screw-on closure.

Demographic, lifestyle and healthcare trends are driving demand for better human-package interaction.

When consumers encounter a package in what Procter & Gamble calls the second moment of truth, the point of use, a special relationship emerges. In that moment, product success aligns with how well the consumer interacts with the package.

Here are three ways designers can improve a consumer’s physical rapport with a package.

1. Ergonomic design

Improving human-package interactions for certain populations is more challenging than for others. Elderly consumers struggle with decreased strength and dexterity, and tend to have trouble opening and handling certain types of packages, including those that are tightly sealed, large or heavy.

So what is an elderly consumer? Blake McGowan, managing consultant and ergonomics engineer at Humantech Inc.,defines “elderly” as over 60 years old. He further divides the elderly population into healthy and unhealthy. The former are generally in good health, for their age, and the latter are debilitated to some extent by illness and/or injury.

Midlife consumers also may struggle with packaging, as physical and mental changes commence. “At age 45, there are known physiological changes across the whole spectrum of our capabilities: endurance, cardiovascular strength, memory, sensory, motor, information processing,” McGowan says.

Women younger than 45 are challenged, as well, McGowan says, because “across all age categories, women have about two-thirds the strength of men.”

For all these populations, and kids, too, opening a jar of mustard, bottle of water, pull-tab can of soup, juice pouch and many other packages can be difficult—verging on impossible—because of the strength and dexterity required.

The Aleve Arthritis Cap bottle and closure illustrate how this problem can be overcome. The package comes in child-resistant and non-child-resistant versions, each featuring a contoured easy-grip bottle and a rubbery finish on the closure that improves traction and control.

“They designed a cap that was the right width, [with] very, very high friction as well as low force,” McGowan says. These design features make the package easy to open for consumers with dexterity and strength issues as well as for the general population.

Another success story is the ergonomically designed package for Folgers Instant Coffee Crystals. The side wall of this plastic jar curves inward to provide a secure grip, and the package’s flip top eliminates the challenge of twisting the closure. “A lot of twist-offs tops are very large. They’re wide, and it’s hard for a person to get their hand all the way across. So [Folgers] went to a flip type of lid. That’s a really simple, great solution,” McGowan says.

Watch Humantech’s recent video, “Making Packaging Usable for the Aging Population,” at

2. Single-handed design

On-the-go lifestyles also influence how people interact with packaging. The growing numbers of consumers in this category need packages that are easy to use with just one hand, because often their other hand is already occupied.

InsightFarm Inc.principal Kelley Styring, who researched this phenomenon extensively in her One Handed World Study, explains: “We now spend about 40% of our waking hours with something in one hand.”

For example, one hand may be occupied by “a cell phone, a steering wheel, a beverage or the hand of a loved one. Those are the primary items,” Styring says. Many packages, however, are not designed for single-handed opening and use.

The One Handed World Study included qualitative and quantitative research with one-handed consumers—arm amputees—and a survey of two-handed consumers. The ways in which the one-handed participants interacted with products and packages showed great creativity and provided grist for the package design mill.

“By studying the ways that one-handed people use their hand differently, we can forecast ways to innovate for…all of us. You can think of these people not as disabled but as more highly evolved than the two-handed world and [providing] a glimpse into the future of design,” Styring says.

The one-handed consumers in her study found ways to stabilize and manipulate packages by taking the components of their single hand and applying them to different tasks. They might cup a jar between their palm and two small fingers and unscrew the lid using their other fingers and thumb, for example. Or they might place the package between their body and a counter, or between their knees, to stabilize it for opening.

By studying these types of one-handed consumer-package interactions, Styring came up with numerous innovation platforms to help designers create packages and products that are easier to use with one hand and don’t make a mess when opened, as can happen with a lightweight beverage bottle or yogurt pouch.

One-handed stabilization and manipulation is one innovation platform; in other words, designing packaging geared to dividing the labor of one hand into multiple tasks. Another innovation platform is what Styring calls “friendly friction”: using surface friction to stop packages from sliding on a countertop or table.

Yet another innovation platform is “selective rigidity.” An example would be fins strategically placed inside into a water bottle to keep it from collapsing when opened with one hand.

“Two-handed people are encountering products more and more with one hand, and this is only going to get worse,” Styring says. “I think that a day of reckoning is coming for a lot of products. Right now we’re blundering through, blaming ourselves and holding our phone in the crook of our neck while we open the package, but at some point an innovator is going to shift the game by inventing something that [addresses the problem], and I think there’s going to be more awareness from that point forward.”

3. Smart, “teachable” design

The trend toward self-administration of medicine via inhalers, auto-injectors and other medical devices is boosting the interactivity of packaging for these products. Noble, a company that develops patient training for such devices, is using packaging to improve training and reduce medication-delivery errors that can undermine treatment.

To teach patients how to use an auto-injector or inhaler, Noble pairs a training device—which contains no medication but simulates the actual device in every other way—with packaging that gives patients feedback as they practice using the device.

The package may play a series of scripts that teach the patient to perform several steps when using the device, for example. “The purpose of the package is to train the patient,” says Paul van der Pol, director of research and development at Noble.

An even “smarter” approach is to put “sensors in the training device, and those sensors will send signals to the packaging,” van der Pol says. “The packaging essentially has a computer inside—it’s all quite inexpensive, but it is a microcontroller, and it processes those signals. If the patient makes a mistake, the package [tells him or her]. It helps patients go through correcting that mistake, so the patient will not make that mistake again.”

The smart package may use audio scripts or video clips, and it can be configured wirelessly, which patients in Noble’s usability testing said they prefer. The packages are also reusable, so patients can practice repeatedly and really learn how to use the device.

Among other things, the packaging can help teach timing. “Time is important when you self-administer a drug,” van der Pol explains. “For example, with an injector, the needle goes into the skin, and then in approximately 10 seconds, the drug is slowly injected into subcutaneous tissue. If patients withdraw the injector too quickly from the skin, then they only get a partial dose, and the remainder of the dose ends up on the kitchen floor or in the carpet.”

To help patients with timing, Noble has developed packaging that “can give visual or auditory cues to help the patient with the time sensitivity of the drug-delivery device,” van der Pol says. “For example, it can actually count down for you, or with beeps it can indicate when the injection or inhalation is complete.”

This technology can be added to various package formats, depending on the design of the medical device. But in all cases the focus is multisensory learning, which is known to enhance information recall and retention.

“The tactile stimulation is through the practice device, and the audio/visual is through the package,” says van der Pol. The package “gives you spoken instructions and can give you clicks. It has video. You also look at the practice device itself, and that is a visual stimulation. They all combine into that multisensory learning experience.”

Kate Bertrand Connolly is a seasoned freelance writer based in the San Francisco area covering the packaging, food and technology markets. You can contact her at [email protected].

Humantech Inc., 734-663-6707

InsightFarm Inc., 503-554-5567

Noble, 888-933-5646

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