At the conference OPEN HERE at the Aarhus School of Architecture, Denmark, on 8 March 2012 a team of researchers and organisations presented their new guideline to industry. It is the result of three years of research and aims to help companies develop user-friendly packaging. But what does user-friendly mean? The answer is simple: The users know, so they should be involved in the development process.
By Anna Krarup Jensen
Conference Lars Germann, director of the Danish Technological Institute, welcomed the participants in the conference OPEN HERE with a bleak prediction. Before the conference he had tested the dynamometer that was available for the audience to try.
“With a tractive force of 200 Newton I only have a 50% chance to be able to open a bottle of wine by the time I’m 70. That’s serious stuff,” he said.
Most consumers are only too familiar with the problem: Packaging that is impossible to open without using scissors, knife, teeth or other tools. In Denmark, there are some 2,500 visits to the emergency rooms a year because people have been injured in an attempt to open packaging. That clearly leaves room for improvement, and the research project Accessible packaging for elderly users and users with disabilities has now published a guideline.
|Analyse the packaging. The guideline describes four areas that are particularly important to analyse and optimise in an effort to develop user-friendly packaging: form, graphic elements and colours, materials and the amount of force required to open the packaging.
The website www.brugervenligemballage.dk offers specific advice and instructions telling companies how to develop more user-friendly packaging. Senior Consultant Helle Antvorskov from the Danish Technological Institute describes the guideline as a ‘pick ’n’ choose’ selection.
“The website presents knowledge combined with practical instructions. People can pick and choose among relevant methods, depending on how much time and how many resources they want to invest in the development process,” she says.
The website is the result of interdisciplinary collaboration involving the Danish Technological Institute, Aarhus School of Architecture, the Danish Rheumatism Association and partners in industry. It describes a seven-step process from idea to the production of more user-friendly packaging. For every step, the website offers research-based knowledge, instructions and worksheets.
Among other things, the website has a calculation model for estimating how many people are likely to be able to open a given form of packaging.
“The calculator can give an indication, but ultimately, the consumers always know best whether the packaging is user-friendly,” says Helle Antvorskov.
The website also features a number of case studies, and one of them illustrates this point exactly. It concerns a bag of sweets with a pre-cut triangle in one corner for opening the bag. Tests have shown that it takes so little strength to open the bag that no one should have any problems.
“The catch is that few people ever discover the tiny pre-cut, and instead they try to open the bag by gripping both sides of the bag and attempting to pull them apart. With this approach, the bags are virtually impossible to open,” Helle Antvorskov explains, emphasising that it is also important to determine what grip the consumer is likely to use.
|User-friendly packaging. Associate Professor Birgitte Geert Jensen (right) has extensive knowledge about involving users in development processes. For the remainder of 2012, Birgitte Geert Jensen offers her assistance to companies that want to implement the methods in the new guideline when they develop new packaging.
In exploring ways of opening packaging, user observations and workshops are essential. Associate Professor Birgitte Geert Jensen, Aarhus School of Architecture, shared her knowledge and experience at the conference. User involvement plays a crucial role in her research.
“You don’t have to interview and observe a thousand users. It can be quite useful to have insights from just a few users,” she says and adds some specific advice:
“In the project we used test groups of three to five people. They were selected to include both older and younger people, some with arthritis and some without. The main thing is to find people who don’t normally use the product, as they have no prior knowledge about how to open the packaging,” she points out and adds that children often make good test persons because they do not use products such as laundry detergent etc. on a daily basis. Besides, in terms of strength they are fairly close to elderly people or people with rheumatism or arthritis.
“It’s also useful knowledge in relation to developing child-safe packaging. Screw caps that require simultaneous pressing and twisting are impossible to handle for people with arthritis. So how do you make child-safe packaging that’s still accessible to elderly users? The difference lies mainly in hand size, and that’s useful to know,” Birgitte Geert Jensen explains.
Much of the advice and many of the tools in the guidelines are simple to use. Birgitte Geert Jensen is a trained designer and teaches design students at the Aarhus School of Architecture. As part of the project the students took part in user tests.
“It’s important not just to ask the users but also to observe what they actually do. And to put yourself in the user’s place: Wrap your hands in sticky tape or put on hand lotion – and then try to access the packaging. Put on spectacles that give you blurred vision… You don’t have to be a designer to do these things. But it helps,” she says with a smile and adds,
“Use designers. They have an understanding and a holistic approach that can stimulate the creative process. And it really isn’t very costly.”
|User testing. The optimised packaging should be subjected to user tests, since ultimately the consumers are the only ones who can really assess whether a particular form of packaging is user-friendly. Elderly people, children or people with arthritis or rheumatism make excellent test persons – if they have the strength to open the packaging, most other groups will too.
Photo: Thomas Vilhelm
Birgitte Geert Jensen recommends that companies set up an interdisciplinary project team. Ideally it should include people from marketing, sales, design, production and management as well as packaging manufacturers.
“User tests require planning, and it’s important to have consensus about user testing within the company. Otherwise it’s difficult to implement. Preferably, in fact, the decision should be made by top management,” she says.
Bent Dahlgaard, who is a senior category developer with the Danish food manufacturer Tulip, agrees. Tulip’s development of packaging for their Pålækker series of cured meats and pâté was used as a case in the project, and the process is described on the website.
“There’s a wide range of stakeholders. Each department has its own success criteria. The purchasing department, for example, wants low cost. If a new type of packaging was tested with foil A, the purchasing department subsequently checks with suppliers B, C and D for cheaper alternatives. Even if they require specifications to match foil A, there’s still a risk of lower quality. The technical department has to make sure, for example, that the packaging is air- and watertight. Then maybe the foil is to blame if something goes wrong,” he explains.
As a result of the project, the Pålækker packs now have larger and more visible flaps for opening and – a request from marketing – a larger surface for presenting images and text. The material is also textured to provide a better grip.
More accessible packaging can lead to many benefits. Most consumers do not give the manufacturers feedback on inaccessible packaging – they simply stop buying the product. The research team found that 16% of all consumers avoid products that are difficult to open. The methods in the guideline can also be used to focus on other issues, for example sustainability in packaging development.
The project runs until the end of 2012, and during this time the research team offers to help companies implement the guideline.
“Including design students in the process can be a good way to start. We would like to do development projects together with additional companies, and we are available throughout 2012,” says Helle Antvorskov.
Facts about packagingOn the website www.brugervenligemballage.dk (in Danish only) companies can find a guideline for incorporating user involvement in the development of packaging. The website also offers knowledge and advice about materials, form, graphic elements and colours, user strength, the most common grips used to open packaging and a wide range of other topics. Later this year, the guideline will also be published in English.
Why focus on user-friendly packaging?
Some of the advice in the guideline
You can find additional advice here (in Danish only).
See Associate Professor Birgitte Geert Jensen’s lecture on user-friendly packaging in Danskernes Akademi on the Danish broadcasting corporation DR’s website (in Danish only).