Wrap Rage: can gadget makers finally get it right on clamshell packaging?

November 17, 2008

When companies can’t (or won’t) figure out how to improve the user experience customers will always find workarounds.  So it’s been with the deservedly maligned “clamshell” packaging.  Anyone that has purchased electronics on a hang tag knows how difficult (and dangerous) it is to open this type of clear hard plastic packaging.  But is selling power tools to open them really the best solution?

Try Openin!
Is this really the best way to enhance the user experience?

I can’t help but recall an old Saturday Night Live “advertisement” for a drug called “Try Openin” in which cast members try desparately to open a bottle of pills. This was a bit of satire that allowed us to laugh at the still fresh-in-our-minds poison Tylenol scare  that led to tamper-free packaging of all pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter medicines.  Back then manufacturers had a strong motivation to make their products tamper-resistent.  But, did this set a dangerous precedent?

Despite sending thousands of people to the emergecy room each year due to incidents related to opening plastic packaging, it’s easy to make fun of the issue.  Consumer Reports even has an award, the Oyster, for packaging that takes the most time and effort to open.  It’s understandable that companies have to balance the needs of retailers and the marketplace’s desire to see the actual product but are they paying enough attention to the user experience?  Apparently not.  In this same article from CR, I came across this quote from a professor of Packaging Science (no kidding) at Clemson University …

“In the end packaging is perceived by industry as a necessary evil, and manufacturers don’t want to spend more on it than they have to, even if it means compromising usability.”

It’s truly mind boggling that manufacturers and marketers find this to be an acceptable compromise for the purchasers of the products they work so hard to design and market.  This is not rocket science guys and btw, why is it taking you so long?

There is hope
It seems that Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, got the message after spending hours trying to open presents for his kids at Christmas.  According to a recent Amazon press release …

SEATTLE–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Nov. 3, 2008–Amazon.com has launched “Frustration-Free Packaging,” a new initiative designed to make it easier for customers to liberate products from their packages. Amazon is focusing first on two kinds of items: those enclosed in hard plastic cases known as “clamshells” and those secured with plastic-coated wire ties, commonly used in toy packaging.

Amazon is working with Mattel and other companies to get them to ship products to them in cardboard boxes.  This seems like a no-brainer since, unlike other retailers, Amazon doesn’t have to display their products nor worry about theft due to easy-to-open packages.  According to a recent New York Times article some of the other players besides Amazon that are trying to make some changes include:

Microsoft – will feature computer mouse packaging in Best Buy stores that has an easy open plastic zipper similar to that used in freezer bags
Sony – is trying out an easy open adhesive that makes a loud velcro-like noise to deter thieves

Hats off to these guys but where are the other leaders on this important consumer issue?  Just think of the power that companies like Walmart and Apple have to change the dynamic (Apple has already proven with the iPod that it can make packaging more a work of art than a “necessary evil” yet the company continues to feature tons of third party products in traditional clamshell packaging in its retail stores). 

And what about the PR benefits of so called “green packaging?”  Packaging innovation has the potential to be the new reason to buy, especially in tough economic times.  According to a 2004 article from ergoweb, making packaging more user friendly is not just a consumer safety issue — it could be a real competitive advantage to companies willing to provide innovative solutions:

… when paint manufacturer Sherwin-Williams introduced a plastic paint container with a twist-top cap, making it far simpler for the customer to open, hold, pour and carry than traditional metal paint cans which have to be pried open, the can became a quick hit with buyers and left other paint manufacturers scrambling to copy the paint container’s ergonomic design.

Alas, even in this economic downturn it is unlikely that consumers will purposely stay away from products because of poor package design — but they may be attracted more to those building a better mousetrap to hold their electronic goodies.  It’s really up to corporate leaders like Bezos to recognize the importance of creating better user experiences.  And, if the carrot approach doesn’t work, maybe this suggestion from a blogger in Pensacola Beach, Florida will do the trick …

We think the simplest, most effective way of ridding the planet of hard-to-open packages would be for one of the TV networks to launch a new reality show — one where the CEOs of consumer products companies are put on a desert island and, to earn the right of return, they have to open their own products on camera, using only their bare hands, toes, and teeth.”

Hey, why not make it a Christmas special?  The ratings would be through the roof!

 

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You gotta hand it to Apple: gesture-based “soft” interfaces are coming to a PC near you

March 27, 2008

Gesture-based interfaces are looking like the next new thing.  One of the key features that iPhone aficianados love to show their friends is the multi-touch feature that allows them pinch their fingers or expand them to scroll and
manipulate images on the screen.   And, companies like Sony Ericsson, Samsung, LG, and Motorola are coming out with a number of  new “iClones” that offer similar software-based interfaces.

Anyone that caught some of CNN’s recent coverage of the primaries (“The best political team on television!”) couldn’t help noticing Wolf Blitzer and other commentators showing off their gesture-based interface (called Perceptive Pixel) to manipulate the state maps in order to further confuse viewers re: the evening’s voting outcome.  Wolf, we know Tom Cruise (in Minority Report mode), and you are no Tom Cruise. 

 Meanwhile, Microsoft is focusing its efforts on their Surface technology which is to be available in hotels and casinos but isn’t promising any tabletop (or PC) gesture-based interfaces for consumers until 2011. 

However, with the introduction of the new MacBook Air, Apple has introduced the first multi-touch applications for the plain old PC (using the touch pad rather than the actual screen).  And, last summer Apple filed a patent to expand their multi-touch interface into a host of other uses including copy, cut, paste and other common editing operations.  Get ready to start seeing more of these gesture-based interfaces introduced into Apple’s product line.

It will be interesting to see how these new soft interfaces will change the way we all conduct every-day PC-related tasks once they go beyond the hipster iPhone crowd and into the mainstream.  It’s already clear that software-driven interfaces (like the iPhone) will soon be replacing the clunky hardware of the present.

And, as these interfaces become more widespread there may be a host of new user experience issues to consider, especially for older users or those handicapped with arthritis or other muscle ailments that affect dexterity.  Will people be divided into those who can “pinch” and glide their way through an interface and those how are stuck with that old mouse and keyboard on their desk/laptop? 

Sources/Fun and Games:

Why get a Macbook Air to start using multi-touch on your PC?  Try it remotely on your Windows or Linux PC – for free (works with iPhone and iPod Touch):
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mWnbFZ-N-gU&eurl=http://hackedgadgets.com/page/2/

See CNN’s “Magic Wall” (and watch Jeffrey Toobin try to impress the ladies!):
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ybkidUnbjcE&feature=related

Microsoft Surface – “the coffee table that will change the world” !!!: but when can I use it on my PC?
http://www.microsoft.com/surface/index.html

Design guru Bill Buxton explains it all: a multi-touch history
http://www.billbuxton.com/multitouchOverview.html

Jason Harris at Gigaom gives you the 411 on new soft mobile interfaces, including Google’s Android:  http://gigaom.com/2008/02/29/why-2008-is-the-year-touch-will-revolutionize-the-mobile-market/