I was in the offices of a major
accessory company last summer, looking at its upcoming products. One
of the first things that struck me was that the boxes the gadgets came in were more tasteful and better made than this particular company's ever used to be. I learned that its new American CEO was putting heavy emphasis on improving what's known in the consumer tech business as Out Of Box Experience, or OOBE.
As I opened each box, I saw what he'd done. Newly missing was that hard, thin, cheap-looking moulded black plastic interior material that 90 per cent of manufacturers use to cocoon the product inside
the outer box. Whatever that unpleasant stuff is, it degrades the image of a gadget you've just bought by a crucial per cent or so.
Unfortunately, the perception of what I was about to receive dived a per cent or two down again when I got to the cables, which were tied with those cheap little twisty black wires — another staple of nasty, offputting packaging.
Now that OOBE has become a buzz concept in technology, a lot of companies are trying hard, but still narrowly failing. There's an excellent new wireless stereo speaker on the market by Braven, for instance, whose hard plastic box looks beautiful, but so stubbornly refuses to part company with its contents that Braven had
to put up a YouTube video explaining how to open it. (Search for 'Unpacking a Braven speaker'.) It has since redesigned it.
Packaging is like a first kiss —
a brief encounter, but one that is disproportionately influential for the rest of a relationship. If
I were the only person so affected by it, to the extent that I can never quite love a product that comes in naff packaging, I'd shut up. But
I know I'm not alone.
Every year or so, when I buy a new MacBook, the 'unboxing' — yes there's even an official word for this type of geek striptease now — lasts perhaps a minute, and that's with me spinning it out because it is truly quite pleasurable. Apple specialises in making it so. In the year that follows, I will spend perhaps 4,000 hours using the contents of that
box. But once a week or so,
I will see the pristine white packaging up on a high
shelf — nobody throws Apple boxes away — and register backdated pleasure at that first kiss moment.
At some point in the year, and I can't believe I am confessing this publicly, I may well get the box down and open it to re-experience my now beaten-up MacBook's 'birth'. This little, thus far secret, ritual is disturbingly similar to getting out your grown-up child's first Babygro, except
I fondle the MacBook box more often.
Nobody, so far as I can
tell, has quite explained the psychology going on here.
Best of breed OOBE is mostly associated with Apple. Steve Jobs had a spooky, instinctive insight into how consumers like me think, but great packaging is not just an Apple thing. Jawbone, maker of the wonderful Jambox portable wireless speakers, has exquisitely sexy packaging. Amazon boxes its Kindles in a more subfusc and eco but equally loving way. And luxury phone brand Vertu's boxes
are a work of art.
Great packaging is such
a subtle business, though,
that few tech manufacturers really understand it. And you do rather get the impression that in some organisations, packaging people are
forced to do gross things by aesthetically illiterate engineers above them — the same dullards, I suspect, who think gluing slightly crooked and unmovable labels for Intel etc on the fascia of a PC laptop
is appealing to consumers.
There's a brilliant video on YouTube (search for 'Microsoft iPod packaging') showing the dogs' dinner Microsoft might make of packaging an iPod. The funniest thing is that the clip, dating back to 2005, was made internally at Microsoft, revealing a level of self mockery few would expect.
such as Braven's first attempt are frustrating, but don't cause bodily injury. But there's a breed of bubble pack we
all know, of course, which
actually rips flesh. I imagine
the packaging guys who graduate summa cum laude from stupid school specialise
in these. Funny how they invariably team up with their soul mates who majored in infuriating instructions — usually a flimsy folded sheet with instructions in 12 languages crammed on in unreadably small type.
The last word goes, inevitably, to Apple via chief designer Jonathan Ive, who told Steve Jobs' biographer, Walter Isaacson: "Steve and I spend
a lot of time on the packaging. I love the process of unpacking something. You design a
ritual of unpacking to make the product feel special. Packaging can be theatre,
it can create a story."
Jonathan Margolis's daily tech updates can be seen at twitter.com/SimplyBestTech.
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