10 Sep 2014

Dr Alaster Yoxall, Principal Research Fellow in Human Centered Engineering, Sheffield Hallam University considers the increasing importance of ergonomics in packaging design.

Hands up if you've ever used your teeth to open that fiddly snack, looked around for the scissors and instead thrust a handy knife into the shrink wrapped cheese or handed a jar of jam to a partner with the phrase 'I've loosened it?'

I suspect a majority of hands have just risen from the mouse or keyboard with the nod of a head and misty eyed look of remembrance of scraping the salad back into the bag after it burst over the table top.

Packaging of course has to do many things. It has to protect the contents and facilitate storage and transportation, provide information on nutrition and weight. It has to 'sell' the product and identify the brand. It also obviously has to enable you to access the contents. That’s quite a lot to try and get right.

There is of course an inherent tension between protecting and preserving the contents and allowing access. Nobody wants their food damaged or going off quickly in the fridge.

However, the issue of reducing or eliminating the frustrating experiences outlined earlier has steadily risen up the agenda with openability being seen as one of several key drivers for packaging innovation in 2014 (although still a long, long way behind cost reduction and brand identification).

Without wanting to bring anyone reading this to tears, ageing results in a loss of strength, dexterity and cognition and with average life expectancies rapidly increasing (the average life expectancy of a girl born in the UK today is over 100 years), the chances or you living with a long term chronic illness and reduced capability for a significant portion of your life is high.

Given that healthy younger adults sometimes struggle to access food packaging without resorting to knives, hot water, towels and their teeth it isn't a big leap to understand that this is a more serious problem for older consumers. What if you live alone and can't hand the jar to a partner? What if you don't leave the house very often? What if you don't have the strength to rip the pack apart? What if you can't see the instructions very well? You may end up living on ready meals, or crisps and biscuits, tinned food or get the delivery man or a relative to open the food for you. All examples of real people and real stories in the UK today. Not exactly the most nutritious lifestyle.

Hence, it's really important to properly understand the capabilities of older consumers with respect to packaging so that we can facilitate better packaging that better meets the needs of all the stakeholders; consumers, retailers, packer-fillers and brand owners.

Much has been done with the development of European and International standards in the area and the launch of 'easy open products' across a number of ranges.

There is, however, still much to do before we can be truly confident that we won't be reaching for a knife to stab away at that cheese block when we get home tonight.


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