The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about packaging on the go is wearing my food. It’s surprising that given how mobile our society is that the food and beverage packaging industry has done little to make eating on the run easier and less messy.

For decades, the food and beverage industry has been driven by manufacturing technologies, line speeds and unit costs. No surprise here. But what is surprising is that, in spite of record levels of consumers saying they have had enough and demanding frustration-free packaging, the brand/product companies have paid little attention to the design for the consumer experience. How easy is the package to use? How easy is it to open? To consume from? Is usability intuitive? Does it eliminate the drips, dribbles and spills of eating on the run?

The price of entry for on-the-go packaging design is eliminating the messiness of eating and drinking on the run. Eliminating this messiness factor requires your package to have a good solid grip, touch points that mimic the human form, and a size and shape that accommodates differences among individuals in terms of hand size and strength.

Get a grip – a good grip

It’s all about the grip. Your package design should allow consumers to grasp it in the easiest, most effective and natural way. Your package’s functionality should be explicitly obvious with cues on the best way to grasp and interact with the design. If the natural grip line in the hand falls at an angle relative to the length of package itself, then sculpting the front and back surfaces of the package to provide fingertip landings is essential. It is critically important that these opposing surfaces are parallel, and whenever possible, textured, to eliminate any slippery wedge action that destabilizes the grip.

Sidewall flexibility of the package plays a key role in the user experience. At present, everyone is thin-walling their bottled water products, to the extent that now when you pop open a bottle of water, the thin walls immediately collapse and you accidentally squirt water – enough that it gets all over you. Thin-walling is an ergonomic challenge. I find the best strategy is to design the grip first, determine its size and location on the package, then start to reverse engineer the package structure and how it can be manufactured to provide the grip. You will find many opportunities to reinterpret structural elements, such as ribs, as ergonomic textures or fingertip treads that improve usability.

We all come in different sizes and shapes. The difference between a small female and large male hand can be as much as 1.7 inches in length and 1.25 inches across the knuckles. Remember that finger, hand and arm strength directly correlates to the cross-section of the muscle, so smaller hands are weaker than larger hands. Additionally, the small muscles that operate our fingers are the weakest but they also provide the highest degree of precision, dexterity and control. 

When precision and dexterity are needed in your packaging, design for the index finger and thumb. Or if more strength is required, design for the thumb, index and middle fingers to create precision grips. These fingers are highly coordinated and can move independently of each other to provide infinite dexterous control. All fingertip landing surfaces should have anti-slip textures and/or materials, and be large enough for the number of fingers required to exert the amount of total force needed for usability.

When strength is required, design the package to promote the use of power grips and hook grips that recruit the larger, stronger muscles in the upper and forearm. I recommend you use fifth percentile female strength data for minimum strength requirements. 

The “kiss”

I call it the “kiss” factor. What did it feel like on your lips when you drank that warm cup of coffee this morning or when sipping scotch out of a crystal highball glass last night? This is one of the most intimate moments between you and your customer.

The shape and form of the package that hits your lips needs to follow lip contours and be sized to deliver the velocity and volume of beverage you want. Consumption behavior interacts with side wall compliance and the size and shape of the cap’s opening. We’ve conducted consumption studies in the sport drink category measuring how many gulps it takes to quench thirst, the volume of each gulp, and determining the importance of the last swig. Typically, there is a two- to three-second pause after the last large gulp that caps off the consumption experience and gives the athlete the “Ahhhh sensation!”

We all know from experience that the slightest dribble down our lip and chin is annoying. This leakage is typically caused by a poor fit between the curvature of one’s lips and the shape of the package where the lips land. Two common culprits include thin walls that do not have sufficient lip surface contact to seal off the fluid before the liquid passes into the mouth, and caps that present a too-wide product stream, which are prone to leakage out of mouth corners.

Usability talks

Good design talks to you through its form, colors, textures and detailing: Grasp me here, then pinch the textured finger tab with your thumb and index fingers and then peel back the seal to open. These visual and tactile usability cues are essential in creating intuitive, no-hassle packaging solutions.

Good design fits the way you think, feel and behave, and it brings value to your experience. Packaging solutions that don’t solve usability problems are doomed. There are few things as disappointing as cool-looking designs that simply don’t work.

Go to the point of authenticity. Go to where your consumers use your products. Observe them, ask them questions and compare what they say they do to how they actually behave – because it’s always different. Mock up ideas in 3D as quickly as possible so people can see, hear and touch your new packaging design ideas. Studying how they handle and explore quick models provides you with potent insight and measures the intuitiveness, ease of use and value your package design offers over competitors.

The devil is in the details

And so is the best design for packaging on the go. There is no substitute for functionality, but there is always room for fun in your package design. Sweat each and every, detail – they are all profoundly important – but remember to have fun with your packaging because it will bring the consumer right along with you in appreciating the value of the brand statement.