Miguel Campos explains some common ergonomic errors in packaging design and how they can damage the consumer experience
About as useful as a chocolate teapot. We’ve all heard the phrase — probably from a disgruntled spouse when we’re being a little uncooperative.
However, the colloquialism points to a surprisingly common issue with modern food packaging, poor ergonomics.
The concept of ergonomics is simple. The term describes the relationship between humans and the products they use.
For food products, it would be a mistake to dismiss packaging as a simple selection of trays, bags and boxes.
Most of us will be familiar with using our teeth to rip the wrapper off a fiddly snack, using a knife to cut straight into plastic-wrapped cheese or trying copious techniques to open a jar – before admitting defeat and handing it to our partner.
Ergonomics should perfectly marry a product’s design with its intended use, providing a friendly and hassle-free experience for the user.
For food packaging, the design should not only be intended to protect and encase the product during transportation, but should also make for an easier user experience for the customer.
So, what should manufacturers consider before choosing packaging for their products?
Today’s consumers want packaging that they can place directly into the oven, without the need to remove the product and place it into a separate tray or container.
As a result, aluminium packaging has become increasingly popular.
Consider straight-to-oven trays as an example.
These foil containers are unaffected by extreme temperatures. In fact, Advanta’s aluminium trays are capable of withstanding temperatures as low as -40˚C and as high as 400˚C. This temperature capability means the product can go straight from the fridge or freezer and into a roasting hot oven.
Not only does this eliminate the need for consumers to handle raw foods, but also saves precious preparation time for today’s time-strapped customers.
A common issue with plastic packaging is that it can split or crack under freezing conditions. Similarly, paper and cardboard based containers often become brittle and lose rigidity when frozen and subsequently defrosted.
Choosing aluminium ensures the material will not shatter in extremely low temperatures, which is particularly advantageous for customers who want to freeze their food.
While not all products are designed for home freezing, busy schedules mean that many families need to freeze products to avoid food going to waste. When choosing packaging, consider temperature resistance as a necessity.
Getting the size right
Portion size is at the forefront of every food manufacturer’s priorities — it enables them to set nutritional guidance, raw material orders and the prices of their products.
But, what about the size of packaging?
Simple considerations, like whether the package fits into a standard domestic oven, can sometimes be overlooked, but can lead to disastrous consequences.
Let’s say you have launched a new ready meal to the market. This product has been designed to be baked in the oven in twelve minutes or microwaved in as little as four. However, customers are complaining. When cooking in a small-sized microwave, the tray gets stuck on each rotation.
As a result, the food inside is not being cooked correctly and thoroughly.
A lukewarm microwave meal might be a first world problem, but this design flaw can damage the customers trust in your brand.
Let’s face it, if the consumer purchases a meal for its microwaveability, but can’t efficiently microwave the meal, it is unlikely they will choose the same product again.
Fit for purpose
A common mistake that manufacturers make is assuming the same packaging will be suitable for every product, but that is not the case.
Let’s say a manufacturer is releasing a range of three meals for oven baking. If one contains heavier ingredients, such as meat, it is likely that the meal will require sturdier packaging than the others.
While straight-to-oven trays would be ideal for this range, the convenience of this product would be diminished if the aluminium bends and splits under the weight of its contents.
Manufacturers should also consider how the rigidity of the tray could change during cooking.
For example, if the tray weakens after exposure to high temperatures, it may need to be made from stronger material to avoid breakage when removing it from the oven.
Ignoring this flaw could not only create an awful mess for the customer, but could cause injury if hot contents were to splatter from the tray.
Packaging suppliers should be able to advise on weight restrictions of packaging to avoid this problem. It’s also worth asking about additional options that can alleviate these issues, such as reinforced aluminium or the addition of handles for steadier handling.
Good ergonomics can be the difference between a product’s failure and success. Despite this, poor packaging selection is all too common in the food manufacturing realm.
Manufacturers would be foolish to believe that the taste of their product is the only factor consumers care about. In fact, today’s consumers want ease-of-use during the entire cooking process — from picking up the product in the supermarket, to serving it onto the plate.
Before selecting packaging for your next product range, contact an expert supplier for advice. Regardless of the taste and quality of your product, impractical packaging could render your efforts as useless as a chocolate teapot.
Miguel Campos, export sales manager at food packaging supplier Advanta.