Everyone has had the classic clamshell nightmare: dealing with plastic tough enough to cause injury after you manage to break into it. Or how about an impenetrable delivery box with rip-stop tape sealing all the seams so that you wonder what might be trying to escape? We reach for screwdrivers, knives, scissors, ballpoint pens, wine bottle corkscrews or any number of sharp-pointed tools in order to wrangle our way into a package. These experiences don’t end well, far too often causing massive frustration and self-inflicted injuries. And even more annoyance lies in wait when we find packing peanuts or an octopus of air pillows within a difficult-to-open box.

When packaging is hard to get into, consumers transfer that negative experience directly to the product inside.

So, consumers may already have a negative opinion about a brand before they even use what might be a dazzling new product—and that opinion is driven entirely by the packaging design. And furthermore, over-packaging signals waste to many consumers and social irresponsibility by both the brand and the shipping company. All of this frustration adds up to a critical pause before consumers buy that brand again.

Unpacking the Frustration

Designing frustration-free packaging means paying attention to how people think, feel and behave. How are hands built, and what are they capable of doing? How do eyes and hands perform the elegant dance of dexterity? What sensory feedback comes from the package? Brands that evaluate and confirm the human factors of a package’s design will create unique and own-able user experiences that produce positive emotional responses in consumers.

1. How We Use Hands

The hand is arguably the second-most complex human structure after the brain. Hands engage in more natural interactions with the non-human world than any other body part. Ninety-five percent of everything we do daily requires some interaction with our hands. Ending packaging frustration means understanding the utility of the five-pronged, multi-hinged tools dangling from our wrists.

It starts with thumbs. Our opposable thumbs drive enormous utility. The amount of force and dexterity required to get into a package must not exceed what our hands are capable of doing. Although this sounds obvious and fundamental, a package design that requires more strength or dexterity than a consumer has or expects is needed to open a package creates an immediate negative experience.

Frustration-free packaging has fingertip landings large enough to accommodate the precise number of fingers needed to deliver enough force to get into the package. Oversizing these touch points or designing entry points allows users to use the larger, stronger muscles in the forearm and upper arm rather than the smaller, weaker muscles in the fingers.

2. Make it Finger Friendly

Variance in hand size is a major challenge to designing frustration-free packaging. Variability in hand size correlates to variability in strength, which compounds the problem. Variability between small female and large male hands can be up to 1.5 inches in length and 1 inch in breadth across the metacarpal ridge. The guidance is to design for hands ranging from the small female 5th percentile to the larger male 95th percentile. In addition, design must accommodate fingernails, which typically project beyond the fingertips and dramatically change dexterity and sensory feedback. This is a key factor for product managers and designers working in female consumer health and beauty packaging.

3. Be Age Agnostic

Any product intended for a broad range of age groups demands a transgenerational packaging design strategy. In addition to the anthropometric (human body measurement and proportion), age-less frustration-free design means considering motor control factors that impact dexterity, precision and control.

Full and complete hand function begins in children ages eight to 12 years. Through exploration and repeated motions, hands learn how to knit together multiple actions. For example, the reason the classic push-and-turn safety pill bottle cap works is because young children can push and turn separately, but they do not yet have the cognitive ability to combine those two actions into one fluid motion. An aging hand easily combines the push-and-turn motions but has reduced strength, range of motion and sensory feedback that erode dexterity and control. So neither the young nor old hands can get into the pill bottle, but for entirely different reasons.

Accommodating age-related dexterity differences to the optimum degree will generate package designs that incorporate less frustration and greater usability.

4. Test the Intuitiveness

If a consumer must pause to figure out how to open packaging, the design has failed. Good, intuitive design provides explicit cues that tell a story. Frustration free package design “talks” a consumer through physical and visual design cues that tell them precisely what to do and in what order: grasp, pierce, poke, pinch, twist, snap, tear, etc. Without strong and unambiguous cues that show consumers where to place fingers and hands, even before they touch the package, they are left to explore, fumble and, in many cases, find an unintended—and usually messy—way into a package.

To design intuitive, frustration-free packaging designers need to manipulate textures, shapes, die cuts, materials and on-product graphics so the user behaves in a specific, intentional sequence that is a logical interpretation of the “how to open” cues made obvious during the initial inspection of the package. Usability testing is crucial for all frustration-free packaging because behavior is more accurate than what people think or say they do.

5. Be Cool

I’ve never yet found anyone who seeks an ugly or bad design. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that humans are hard-wired to seek beauty. The preceding four success factors are the functional price of entry to frustration-free packaging, but the aesthetic experience of the package is crucial. If a package fails to create an emotional connection it frustrates the consumer on a completely distinct level. Frustration-free packaging has emotional appeal designed into every touch point of the package.  Every aspect of the package—from opening the package and all the way through to picking up the instructions for use—speaks volumes about the product itself. 

The Net Results

Every tactile experience is indelibly etched in the human mind, creating templates that fuel the power of touch and the permanence of haptic memory. How a consumer feels about a brand’s package and what it feels like to open that package sticks in the mind. Frustration-free packaging immediately communicates to the consumer that a brand knows what it’s about and that it respects the consumer by investing the time and effort to create the right package design.