Crying over spilt milk

Most of us would have, at one point or the other, struggled to open a cardboard milk carton, ripping it in the process and resulting in frustrating spillages – that is, once we figured out which side of the container to open! The screw-top cardboard milk cartons are relatively new to our supermarket shelves (on the large scale at least) and to me they provide an encouraging example of investment in user interface design.

It’s not just the quest for better design that led the milk company executives to fund the redesign of the well established milk container. Since early 2011, major supermarkets in Australia have been heavily discounting staple items, such as milk, in order to attract more customers. This caused a significant drop in the sales of branded milk, which no doubt played a part in the decision to redesign the milk carton.

With a design combining two materials (plastic and cardboard), there is no doubt that the improved milk carton is more expensive to manufacture. In fact, Parmalat (a large milk & dairy product supplier) in 2011 spent AUD$2.2 million on the refit of their manufacturing plant to accommodate the new carton design. Adoption of this business strategy is significant for two reasons:

  1. Parmalat have recognised that superior customer experience can provide competitive advantage
  2. They have used this to justify investment in the improvement of the user interface for their product

I find the user interface improvements quite interesting as it is often hard to look at something as familiar and ubiquitous as a milk carton and find ways of improving it. However, as most of you won’t stand in front of the supermarket shelf and admire the milk carton user interface design, I will point out a few of them:

  • improved affordance – no need for the “open other side” label
  • better sealing for improved freshness
  • easier to open – important for the elderly and arthritis sufferers
  • smooth pouring orifice – no more spillages
  • compact stacking for transport and storage (compared to “gable-top” milk cartons)

So, next time you are wondering the supermarket aisles, take a moment to think about the features of the packaging your groceries come in and the effect this has on your brand loyalty and buying habits.

Migrating my old blog to Medium — originally published 18 Oct 2013

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