How can convenient packaging comply with sustainable development?

Focus on greater convenience for elderly people

The convenience of a product can be a key differentiator. Today, this is also true for packaging. The specific needs of elderly and handicapped individuals are starting to be integrated in packaging design. In order to better identify the needs of these groups and to understand their sensitivities, it is important to involve them right from the initial design. At the same time, the impact of this packaging upon the environment must also be considered. 

What is convenient packaging?

The convenience of packaging includes all of the various aspects that make the use of a product easier for consumers.
‘Such packaging provides a service. It makes life easier for consumers,’ explains François Jégou, eco-design expert at Strategic Design Scenarios. ‘For instance, convenient packaging can be easy to open, enable an accurate dosage, provide a good grip, and contain clear instructions that are easy to read.’ 

‘The convenience concept covers everything that makes the experience of using a product positive for a consumer,’ adds Remco Lenstra, Knowledge Development Coordinator at Flanders in Shape. ‘Such a positive experience is essential because it encourages consumers to renew their purchase.’ 

Involve the target group right from the design stage

‘Designing convenient packaging requires carefully observing the behaviour of consumers and integrating this behaviour into the design of both the product and its packaging,’ adds Lenstra. ‘This is what we call user-centered design.’ A proven technique to put this concept into practice is to bring together groups of elderly consumers and have them test packaging prototypes. The greater the importance of the packaging for the product, the more critical it is to rapidly develop prototypes and obtain early feedback from the target group. Even though such an approach is relatively easy to organize, as well as being extremely instructive, companies often overlook it. 

‘When developing convenient packaging, the collaboration between designers, sociologists, marketing specialists, and packaging technicians is essential,’ notes Jégou. ‘This is true right from the beginning of the development process. The various functions of packaging must be approached as a whole: the packaging must provide sufficient product visibility and enable its optimal conservation. At the same time, it should also facilitate its use and minimize its environmental impact. Are all of these aspects always compatible? Should one aspect be favoured over the others? These are all questions that need to be answered as early as possible.’ 

 

Good to remember

  • Convenient packaging integrates a single or several functions that simplify the use of the packaged product for consumers.
  • The early involvement of the target group in the design of packaging increases the chance of success of a product.
  • It can be a challenge to ensure that a valueadding packaging has a minimum environmental impact.

Certain mass consumption producte enable both an easier grip and opening procedure for the elderly or those with motor handicaps.

Fostering the independence of elderly consumers

‘Companies that wish to integrate the social dimension of sustainable development into their packaging must take into account the specific needs of the elderly,‘ observes Jégou. ‘For instance, the elderly generally do not like to be perceived as such. They like to see themselves as active and independent. They tend to reject any product and/or packaging that classifies them as being old. However, they do not refuse some form of assistance regarding packaging, as long as this preserves their self-perception of independence.

‘ Another important element to take into account in the pharmaceutical sector is the fact that an elderly person wants to control the situation when they are taking medicine. Small containers that are difficult to open do not provide this control. Similarly, a new packaging, a new shape, or a different dosage, all constitute factors that are likely to stress them. In other words, any changes - including adaptations in their favour - must be supported by appropriate and clear information.

Does convenience imply greater environmental impact ?

What about the environmental aspect of convenient packaging? The challenge is not to increase the environmental impact of packaging that boasts a benefit in terms of its use. Individually packaged portions are a good example of this. Many elderly people live alone and tend to buy foodstuffs daily and in limited quantities in order not to have to carry too much. Individual packaging as a service increases the quantity of packaging. However, the global environmental impact of the product tends to be lower. This is because individual portions can considerably reduce the amount of packaged food waste.

‘Respect for the environment and improving convenience can sometimes be at odds,’ according to Jégou. ‘The capsules on drink cans, for instance, are an example of convenient packaging since they require only a minimum quantity of material, but opening them demands a double movement of the finger. This movement can be difficult to accomplish for certain elderly individuals or those with motor handicaps. The alternative of employing ergonomic bottle caps, however, usually requires a greater quantity of plastic.’

For additional information

  • Flanders in Shape. This competence centre for industrial design and product development provides knowledge to companies in all sectors. www.flandersinshape.be
  • Strategic Design Scenarios. This innovation laboratory for sustainable development has focussed for more than 20 years on modifying user behaviour through products and services. www.sustainable-everyday.net- www.solutioning-design.net

 

Beyond the traditional roles of packaging

Making packaging more convenient for the elderly

In addition to their primary functions—protecting the product and facilitating its transport—packaging provides an increasing number of useful services. These range from simplifying the use of the product to supplying information. Examples include providing a better grip, greater ease of opening, and/or clearer instructions for use. Often however, these improved functions are insufficient for elderly or handicapped individuals.

 

An increasingly broad target group

The number of elderly people is growing continuously. Persons aged 64 years or more account for almost 20% of the population and this percentage is projected to grow further in the coming years. Companies are therefore developing more and more products suited to their needs. However, this trend rarely extends to packaging since it often requires considerable investments in order to achieve a slight improvement. One must admit that packaging designed for all consumers is not yet common practice.

Clearer instructions, greater simplicity in taking medication

‘There is still considerable room for improvement in terms of the ease of opening products and the clarity of the instructions, particularly in the medical sector,’ explains Remco Lenstra, Knowledge Development Coordinator at Flanders in Shape. ‘In this area, producers tend to make fewer differentiation efforts because consumers do not freely choose prescribed medicine as they do with other products. Certain types of packaging can be very difficult to open for elderly people that have conditions such as arthritis, rheumatism, or reduced mobility.’

‘Over the past several years, a change in mentality can nevertheless be observed within the pharmaceutical sector,’ explains François Jégou, eco-design expert at Strategic Design Scenarios. The MediFile is an example of packaging that meets the particular needs of elderly people. It comes as a two-page booklet. The left page contains clear and distinct instructions on how the medicine should be taken. The right page holds the blisters containing the medicine, as well as information on the sequence in which it should be taken.

Good to remember

  • Consumers expect packaging to make life easier for them and to provide clear information, in addition to preserving the freshness of a product and protecting it during transport. 
  • Companies pay growing attention to user-centered design: better grip, easier opening, clear instructions, et
    cetera.
  • Much remains to be done to make life easier for elderly people as well as those with motor system handicaps.

 

The MediFile is designed to make it easier for elderly people to take medicine. Its format and instructions also make it easier for patients of all ages to correctly follow a medication regimen.

Easier opening, better grip

Companies are paying growing attention to user-centered design (see also Feature article). As a result, the food sector in particular has benefitted from many improvements. One example of a packaging that is easy to use by everyone is the Ketchup flask. Compared to the older glass bottle that had a rather small metallic cap, the new flasks have a large cap that is easy to open and that remains attached to the flask. In addition, they are made entirely of plastic, which enables to extract the sauce more easily. Moreover, their ‘upside down’ design reduces product loss.

‘Other efforts focus on grip,’ notes Remco Lenstra. ‘Certain plastic bottles containing milk products, for instance, have an ergonomic shape. Beer trays equipped with a single central handle are another example of packaging providing greater ease-of-use to consumers. The handle enables to carry the tray more easily while keeping one hand free. In addition, it is designed to provide a better grip than two handles placed on opposing sides of a tray.’

Extending practical functionsto the rest of the population

‘Too often, packaging is still designed to simplify the production and/or packaging process. It is not designed to make life easier for consumers,’ adds Lenstra. ‘Consider the packaging of sliced meats or cheese, for instance. These often require scissors in order to be opened, especially by elderly or disabled people.’ 

The particular needs of elderly people alone rarely justify the development of a new opening system. Modifying the size of the cap on a flask of washing product, for instance, requires costly adaptations to the production chain. Only when the majority of the population is bound to benefit will companies proceed with such transformations. One example is packaging for some medications with the days of the week indicated to help consumers remember when to take the medicine. This example, however, remains relatively isolated since dosage often depends upon a doctor’s orders and therefore cannot be integrated in advance into the packaging. 

The trend towards a packaging with multiple functions continues in certain areas, primarily that of ready-to-eat meals. In the United States, for instance, new polypropylene packaging can be used for product preservation, for cooking, and even during consumption. Sometimes, these types of packaging are also equipped with ergonomic handles to avoid any risk of burns after cooking. The sector is thus evolving towards ever-greater packaging convenience.

For additional information

  • Flanders in Shape. This competence centre for industrial design and product development provides knowledge to companies from all sectors. www.flandersinshape.be
  • Strategic Design Scenarios. This innovation laboratory for sustainable development has focussed for more than 20 years on modifying user behaviour through products and services. www.sustainable-everyday.netwww.solutioning-design.net