Unwrapping Apple's Packaging Moments of Truth

Regular readers (if there are any left after this ridiculous hiatus) will know that despite my vocational specialism in web user experience, my desire to comment on an array of customer experience issues is a recurring theme of this blog. Something which I have never touched upon until now is packaging design.

Inspired by a Design Critique podcast I wanted readers to consider the experience of owning rather than consuming a product. More often than not User Experience Architects (UEAs) like me will pour insight and design into the choosing and purchasing of a product or service. We sometimes refer to these as ‘moments of truth’. Experience design shouldn’t stop there though, because the experience itself doesn’t.

In the podcast they discuss the packaging of an iPod (the 1st generation Nano as it happens) which I also own. Where this resonates with me is the fact that I didn’t purchase this product, it was a Christmas gift and as such I didn’t have the purchase experience; my first interaction with the product was to unwrap the box. At this point I’ll skip to the end; the box for my Nano sits proudly on my shelf. I haven’t retained the box for some perfunctory purpose to store the Nano again when I come to move house. I don’t keep it so that I can put the Nano away every night either. I keep it because, in itself, it’s a beautiful little piece of design that is worthy of display.

That morning when I received the gift I remember distinctly being impressed with the occasion of opening the packing. The box opens like a book, or perhaps a limited edition CD, the iPod was recessed into the box and encased in a cellophane wrapper so I could see it clearly and see its virginal newness. The tape that stuck the cellophane wrappers down was printed in an established Apple typeface, the whole package (and I use the word literally and metaphorically) was an example of minimalism and lean design. It almost seemed a shame to ruin it by actually getting the iPod out. However, once having done so it remained intact and thus it remains on my shelf.

And I’m not the only one who was impressed. All over the web you’ll find blog posts, flickr photosets and suchlike documenting the arrival and unpacking of their iPods and other Apple consumables. Apple are thinking experientially about ownership, about the loyalty that owning one of their items creates. Hence why so many of their consumers are brand advocates. This is a wonderful example of marketing extending into ownership to create or strengthen a positive opinion of the brand.

Maybe this is not by design, but by accident. Maybe it’s the result of over-design; a marketing and design team that just don’t know when to stop? Who knows how much this packaging actually costs Apple. Is it the most cost-efficient packaging? Does it protect the item better than the usual bubble wrap and polystyrene? Is it environmentally ethical? To answer some of those questions we might well look at the 2nd generation Nano. This came packaged in a polycarbonate case, reducing the overall size of the box but retaining two core factors – clarity (the item was visible and did not require a cover photo - the item’s form factor was immediately obvious) and secondly, durability (the Nano was safely surrounded by shatterproof plastic). I can’t comment on the environmental aspects sadly but I’m sure Apple’s site has the answers.

Now this may seem a bit vacuous, after all we’re talking about the box for an MP3 player, but perhaps the type of device actually goes some way to explaining the effort Apple have gone to. Would you keep the packaging of, say, a new razor, if it was stylishly designed? Almost certainly not. Your MP3 player is not just a device to be used to perform a needed function, it is more personal than that. It reflects your style and your taste, it’s a personal accessory, a luxury item, a nice-to-have. Of course size helps here too – your new 50” Plasma might say similar things about your success and style but it’s a bit more impractical to store the box for that on the shelf. We need to look at items that compare in terms of cost, size and personal association, and for items that are similar we nevertheless find a dearth in experiential packaging.

I find it’s always worth putting a comparison alongside to illustrate the point even more clearly. Consider an alternative packaging style for consumer electronics, the clamshell. These hugely frustrating ultra-sonically sealed packages have no clear opening and require the consumer to cut them open. These are borne out of a fear from the manufacturer that their item, a highly portable and valuable product, will be divorced from its packaging and stolen. Their products are less popular and compelling than the iPod, Apple can afford to solve the theft problem not by introducing a clamshell but by ensuring customers have to ask for their product, they’re generally not left out on the shelf. Asking for the product only adds to the sense of luxury and exclusivity. Once again Apple have solved a problem in a way that enhances the user experience.

It’s certainly worth taking the time to listen to the (albeit lengthy) podcast over at Design Critique where Tim unravels these kinds of issues in some detail. The podcast discusses a fascinating paradigm of allowing non-dextrous patients (i.e. the arthritic) access to their medication whilst preventing the same medication from being accessed by highly-dextrous children. This problem and its leftfield solution is one which would prove to be a great interview question for aspiring UEAs

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