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The importance of usability

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Product usability is important in any product category. For high involvement products like computers and cell phones, product usability can make or break a company’s future.

As a company long obsessed with product usability, Apple is a great example. Similarly, the lack of proper product usability can put a company out of business. Consider the usability of a car or an airplane. Mistakes in usability end up costing lives. An airplane cargo door that looks closed, but has not actually closed properly, may lead to a crash. (This indeed happened. See the cargo door problem section in this McDonnell Douglas DC-10 Wikipedia entry.)

Between these two extremes, there are millions of products that consumers touch everyday, with a variety of results. Food packaging is a high volume product category that makes billions of consumer impressions on a daily basis, and yet its consumer usability is typically ignored by the industry that it feeds.

There are many misconceptions in the industry:

Problem 1: Consumers Will Learn How To Use Our Packages

If consumers need to learn how to open a package through adaptive behavior, then it has mental model issues. There is a gap between the cues on the package and the actual interaction required.

Problem 2: We Will Print Instructions On The Package

This is a poor solution for Problem 1. It does not address the problem, but instead creates a host of new issues. Consider the reduced visual acuity of aging populations, for example.

Problem 3: Consumers Can Use A Pair of Scissors Or A Knife To Open

If you need to use a tool to open a package, it is definitely a show stopper. See our article on blister packs.

Problem 4: It Only Leaks When Placed On Its Side

When you sell billions of packages, you have the entire spectrum of consumers interacting with your products. Some will put it on its side. You need to design proper features depending on the category. A milk package that leaks on its side and makes a mess in your refrigerator while it looks sealed is not acceptable. See our article on Family Packs: reclosability vs. resealability.

Problem 5: An Egg-Crate Does Not Need Sensory Appeal

The ISO description of usability has three elements. These are efficiency, effectiveness, and satisfaction. [Editor’s note; in our articles, we often substitute attractiveness in place of satisfaction.] We wholeheartedly believe in the satisfaction / attractiveness component of this definition. See our article on the egg-crate death-match.

Root Cause: It is Easier / Cheaper to Manufacture it This Way

The packaging industry sells packages to packers (often referred as co-packers) and brands. For example, a package format may be manufactured by Company X, packed by Company Y, and branded as Company Z, and sold at retailer K.

Typically, the packaging company is only concerned about pleasing its customer, but not too concerned about the consumer who is at least two steps removed. Therefore, in this Business-to-Business (B2B) view, consumers exist only as a distant concern. From the package developer’s point-of-view, consumer concerns are left to the brand or to the packer, both of whom interact with the consumer.

In the B2B interaction, cost is key. But in an industry where package costs are quoted in tens of dollars per 1,000 packages, any consumer centric feature that improves usability on each package may cost a few cents, if that. But if consumers are dissatisfied with a package (noting that dissatisfiers drive package selection), then they opt for another. Eventually the consumer demand for a particular packaging format may evaporate, consequently eliminating B2B sales. Since it takes many years and tens of millions of dollars to develop new packages and their packaging machines, consumer concerns should not be taken so lightly.

A packaging company is responsible and accountable for implementing good package usability. However, brands buy into packaging formats with a heavy emphasis on cost and branding, with everything else taking a back seat, including package usability. As an additional barrier, all consumer insights and complaints regarding package usability are collected by the brand, which acts as a firewall and creates an information gap between the package manufacturer and the consumer. This gap is largely responsible for the packages with poor usability that we see around us everyday.

Conclusion

Usability is very important from the consumer’s perspective, as negative experiences drive decision making in low involvement products, like packed food. We encourage packaging companies to engage consumers as a strategy for success. We also encourage them to measure usability by utilizing the techniques covered on this web site.

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