Passion for Packaging Innovation

Blister-packs are evolving in usability


Blister packs are ubiquitous these days, packing products from mints to headsets.  Initial applications for items such as pills and mints generated little usability complaints and issues from consumers. However, the transition over the last decade(s) to pack electronics and similar higher value products in clamshell packages to control inventory shrinkage in the retail sector has certainly produced more than its share of usability issues, and consumer push-back.

Internet retailer behemoths like Amazon, who do not have brick-and-mortar store fronts, are now pushing back on the need to have tamper-proof blister-packs.  Amazon is leading the forefront with their frustration-free package initiative.  A silent revolution has started to ease the usability of these packages while retaining some of the tamper-proof features of the packages for keeping inventory shrinkage under control.

Typically, any package that requires a tool to open rates low in consumer usability studies.  There are many reasons for this:

  • Where you need to open the package, you may not have the tool needed accessible to you.  In the age of heightened security at the airports, not many people walk around with swiss army knives in their pockets.  If the package can not opened, the resulting delay in accessing the product affects consumer satisfaction.
  • If you do have access to a tool, then cutting through the package with a sharp tool creates two separate opportunities to fail.
  1. Injury
  2. Product damage

Either way, the access to the product is not easy.

Looking at it strictly from a package usability perspective, we have three metrics per ISO for measuring usability.  These are:

  1. Efficiency
  2. Effectiveness
  3. Satisfaction

Once you start using a tool to open a package, efficiency, which is a measure for time (i.e. how long does it take to open or close a package) takes a big hit.

Not surprisingly, effectiveness, which measures errors committed (i.e. not being to open or close in one try, or spilling when pouring for beverage packs) also takes a big hit.  The reason for this is that once a tool is required, the tool selection and availability is beyond the control of the package provider.  The tool is external to the controlled consumer-package interaction.  

In addition, the user’s ability to use one particular tool is also beyond control, as the user may be using a one of thousands of choices of tools, that may or may not be suitable for the task.  Hence, a large potential for error is created, and this is one of the reasons why there were 6,000 package related emergency room visits in the US last year.  Apart from large safety issues, there is a significant and easily measurable negative impact on effectiveness.

Lastly, the satisfaction score, which is more difficult to measure in packaging usability, takes a big hit.  This is where a consumer’s like or dislike of packages is expressed in a variety of ways.  Satisfaction scores are at the rock bottom for standard clam-shell packs especially immediately after use due to the recency effect.

We rarely study packages that rate as low on all three measures as blister-packs.  So why then we see such a prevelance of clam-shel packages all around us.  

Unfortunately, package selection decision does not hinge on consumers, as it typically does with high involvement products, but hinges on the manufacturer.  The manufacturer basically assumes that the consumer will be indifferent to the package, and puts vocal inventory shrinkage concerns from brick-and-mortar retailers over unstated consumer concerns.

Unfortunately, as seen in consumer studies for packages time and again, low involvement products are invisible until they fail.  Then they become important decision factors at the POP.  

Think of it this way, if you end up in the emergency room as 6,000 American do every year opening these kinds of packages, would you go back and buy a product packed in the same kind of package.  And even if one does not end up in the emergency room, the prevalent negative experiences with the packages, when aggregated to large populations, do have a measurable negative impact on POP decisions. Beverage companies which pack the same product in a variety of package formats know this well already.

The packaging industry and manufacturers are coming up with solutions in response to these consumer concerns.

Vacuum Formed Front, Paper Board Back

This leading solution forgoes the plastic back-panel (typically welded shut to the front panel) and replaces it with paper-board. This makes it easier to open, by tearing the paper in the back without the use of tools. This approach is as old as clam-shell design itself, it is just that now enjoying a come-back. It is significantly easier to open, and requires no tool.

SennheiserFront SennheiserBack SennheiserOpen


The second approach is making a perforated window in the back-panel or on the edge, to allow easy access to the product.  This approach is newer, and it eliminates the need for a tool while retaining a healthy dose of inventory shrinkage prevention measures. However, our testing showed mixed results. It does eliminate the need for using a tool, but product access is far from easy, with new safety concerns because of the danger of exposure to sharp edges.

Reclosable clamshell

The third approach is to forego the welding and not only make the clam-shell easily openable, but also closable. This is one of the best approaches for usability, with some significant issues. There usually is a tab provided to allow for easy opening, even if it is not very intuitive, or even visible.

While this package is intuitive to use once you know that it is not welded shut, and you remove the tape that holds the back and the front together, it does look like any other blister-pack. So, the benefits are lost due to the lack of any visual cues for the consumer that this is an easy to open package. It essentially runs into a mental-model problem.

Conclusion and Scores

Packages which require a tool to open typically rank at the bottom of consumer usability. We like the efforts that are being made in the blister-pack format, but we still think that there is a long way to go. The ratings we have for the variety of blister-packs discussed are as follows:

Welded (std) Board-Back Perforation Reclosable
Efficiency Star Star Star Star
Effectiveness Star Star Star Star
Attractiveness Star Star Star Star

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