Accessible Packaging and the Best Buy Test

Is that 1-2 Tablespoons, or 12 Tablespoons?
Here’s my problem: I can’t see the damn dosage recommendations on a bottle of children’s pain reliever or any other pharmaceutical packaging for that matter. Worse still, I can’t see the active ingredients, or the disclaimer copy. Regardless of your age, or acuity, I’m sure you have experienced similar frustration.

The Larger Issue
I am in my mid 40’s, and wear progressive lenses (polite word for bifocals) which provide me with otherwise, pretty good vision. I can make out the ingredients list on most food packages, I’m usually befuddled by contents on pharmaceuticals.

While the inabiliy to read packaging is a chronic annoyance, it does presents huge levels of risk when dosage levels, or allergies are concerned. Why are we allowing such a violation of usability principles when there are such potentially dire consequence?

That is the question I have asked myself every cold and flu season and sometimes spent a few moments mapping out potential solutions. Then I’d get distracted–the cat had a hairball, or there’s a good rerun of “Seinfeld” on cable–you know the feeling.

People-Compliant Content
I am former ad guy, working on a graduate degree in educational technology with a minor in special ed. Thus, it’s been something of a crusade of mine to explore accessibility options in all forms of communication.

I believe that the focus of assistive technology should be geared to allowing for flexible content that can be more easily adapted for the needs of the end user. In short, content should be designed such that it is people-compliant. Traditional print vehicles present and accessibility challenge because they are fixed and lack flexibility.

Death of Print Has Been Greatly Exaggerated
Despite what you may heard about the decline of newspapers, print is not dead. Until we get to a point where digital product labels are practical, we live with printed labels that are fixed, crowded and hard to read. Print is not especially people-compliant, thus necessitating the need for assistive technology.

Affordable Assistive Devices
My view is that assistive hardware should pass the “Best Buy test” That is, content should be accessible on devices (personal computers, cell phones, etc.) that you are likely to be found in many homes. This relieves the burden of the user with disability from having to spring for a costly specialized device.

With regard to packaging-usability, I had been toying with some assistive technology scenarios for making packaging more accessible, beginning with RFID technology.

I soon realized many problems with RFID, but most importantly: I would fail the Best Buy test. A consumer-grade RFID scanner? Every see one of those at Best Buy? I eventually circled back to optical-recognition. Most cell phones already had cameras, why couldn’t the phones become scanners?

I have recently learned that the solution has probably been been gathering around me in the development of apps for “smartphones.” All this, while I muddle through the days with “intellectually-challenged phone” (funny that we now complain when the phone ‘only’ has a video camera, calendar, calculator… on it).

Phones That See
As a dumphone user, I had to be made aware of 21st century technology by my printed edition of Newsweek. In the article, I learned about an innovative company , Occipital, that has developed the means of turning an iPhone into a barcode scanner for the purpose of comparison shopping and nutritional planning.

I also learned that they have developed another application that will scan a bar code and compare it against a database of 200,000 products for nutritional planning.
Yesterday, I learned of a Google’s mobile phone app for reading barcodes.

How Can These Solutions Promote Accessibility?
As they used to say in the Six Million Dollar Man, “We have the technology.” Though it’s unclear what these companies are planning in the area of accessibility with their applications.

In looking at my original problem statement, in light of this smartphone technology, the question becomes how do we leverage existing technology to make inflexible media (such as packaging) more accessible to consumers?

Here is a high-level description, of what the smartphones could offer:

  • A consumer would to be able to use a device that will allow the consumer to understand the composition, and risks of what is contained inside the package. Real simply: a user would be given option to view/hear dosage level, disclaimers and ingredients in enlarged text, or audio-video formats.
  • A consumer should be able to set up a profile that will be able to compare their needs, or restrictions, against specific ingredients in packaged foods or drugs. For example: if my profile shows that I am allergic to peanuts I should be able to know immediately if a product contains peanuts (ingredients) or if there is risk to exposure to peanuts during the manufacturing process (disclaimer).
  • A consumer should have the ability to see, or hear, the ingredients, dosages and disclaimer in languages other than the one in which packaging is written.

Benefits to the consumer
Well, being able to read package with the intent of avoiding lethal dosages, or allergic reactions is enough for me.

Moving forward
The technology is here, though there is still much to ponder:

  • What are other opportunities are there to make print vehicle more accessible? I can think of a few. (Don’t limit the thinking to UPC, there are other types of barcodes. And while you’re at it, don’t limit the thinking to barcodes. Think about character- and picture-recognition opportunities as well).
  • What non-technical challenges (information architecture, content management, training…) lie ahead? I can think of a lot, though the payoff will be well worth it.
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