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Memo to vendors: Stop helping, you're making us crazy

As I nearly cut myself this morning trying to pull/persuade/yank the tab from a new carton of half-and-half, I am reminded that we have entered a new era.  Product vendors read health, environmental, safety regulations and stats – and they try to ‘help’ us with packaging that protects product quality, makes the car safer, lowers the cost of production, or…is what they think we want, maybe because it is what the innovator wants. But trying to help us is hurting, frustrating, and scaring an older population. Please save us from some of this ‘helpful’ innovation that tells us we are not up to the device, the package or the car like:

Vehicle safety features that are too smart.  You may have seen the AARP Bulletin article about the features being designed into cars. New cars now offer flashing lights and bells if you’re too close to another car, GPS direction screens that are large and bright distractions, hands-free cell phones integrated into the dash, and even TVs in the car that you can’t watch while driving, not to mention Ford's in-vehicle health and wellness (?) additions. I am reminded, way back, when BMW introduced iDrive (an iTechnology way ahead of its time), of the stories about older and wealthier drivers turning around and returning the car to the dealer because iDrive was too daunting?

Dangerous packaging that is tamper (and user) resistant. Tamper proof often means people proof. And it applies not just to cartons but to can pull tabs, blister and clamshell packaging, and prescription bottles. Note a somewhat dry comment from the linked article: "You will need to exert some force before you can open a blister package, given the way the plastic is held by the strip of aluminum." Yeah, dude, some force. And tight shrink wrapping with no labeled ‘open here’, warnings and instructions too small to see, and my all-time favorite, a water bottle that begs for pliers to turn the top. How do these packages of food and necessary supplies look to a person with declining vision, diminishing strength, and dwindling physical energy?  They look like personalized invitations to say you need help.

The device with too many tiny screen options.  There was quite a bit of excitement last week because of Apple’s Siri enhancement to the iPhone, which enables spoken commands for many of its functions. While Android phones have had this for some time, as I peer nearsightedly at my Droid, on nearly every crowded menu screen and app there is an option to speak versus type. But the symbol – a microphone – is so small (next to an inch-wide spacebar) that it can only be accessed with the edge of a finger tip, assuming you can see it at all.  

These frustrations feel increasingly personal to older adults.  A device, a car, a package that frustrates the user, an interface that makes them feel stupid, clumsy, near-sighted or weak, these are not designed for all, they’re designed to solve one problem as they generate side effects of multiple other problems and barriers. Gee, maybe market testing of packaging, products, and car gadgetry with older age demographics, not to mention published results, would could be very revealing.


Knowing that "frustration-free packing" translates into happier consumers, Amazon's been working on this problem for a while now (http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=200285450). The NYT story about it says that there was a huge reduction on negative feedback on times for those offering this packaging...still a mystery why the big box retailers won't carry these alternately-packaged items.

But I'm with you on involving seniors in focus groups and market testing. Vendors and companies would save themselves a whole lot of headaches if they'd just take the time to listen.

an oldie of mine from 2006:



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