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Packaging Lessons From the One-handed World

Kelley Styring
Hand holding a tube of red lipstick
  • With the amount of multitasking today’s consumers do, this article’s author sought insight on how one-handed people and two-handed people interact with packaging for a variety of products, including beauty products.
  • Creating packaging that can be used one-handed offers novelty, convenience, increased ease of use and a range of other benefits for all consumers.
  • Packaging that only requires one hand to use and/or operate also inspires innovation—packaging that becomes the product, for example.

What can arm amputees tell us about tomorrow’s beauty packaging needs? According to the results of the latest study from InsightFarm, this extreme user group provides a preview of the changing way humans interact with a wide variety of products and packaging, forcing marketers and brand owners to adapt.

Inspired by the dramatic rise in smartphone usage, InsightFarm investigated how arm amputees interacted with—and were challenged by—nearly 250 everyday products and their packaging across 18 different categories. Two-handed consumers were then also surveyed, exploring how they spent their days and how they fared with the same items.

Among the findings: Two-handed consumers actually spend the majority of their waking hours, 40% of their day, with one hand occupied. As a result, they attempt to interact with a variety of other products and packages using a single hand or finger. While multitasking isn’t a new activity—we eat while we drive, open doors while holding a child’s hand, make dinner and talk on the phone—this dramatic surge in smartphone usage is driving a permanent change in human behavior that product designers and manufacturers simply can’t ignore.

Why Amputees?

People are on the go and trying to get more done in less time. They desperately need items designed to accommodate that lifestyle. Yet precious little that we interact with on a daily basis has been designed to operate with only one hand. Basically, we are all living in a one-handed world, and who better to teach us than those who live with one hand than arm amputees?

Studying an extreme user population such as this can yield insights that benefit a larger universe of consumers, because they learn to improvise and make products work that weren’t designed for their particular situation. In market research, this is called a compensatory behavior, one critical element in identifying next-generation products.

Surely beauty industry members remember the rise of metrosexuals, those men in the 1990s who were deeply invested in personal grooming and used products made for women? At the time, that was an extreme population studied. As a result, beauty companies were inspired to create a new category of skin care and styling products aimed at men, an entirely new market. Today, very manly sports figures are pitchmen for men’s grooming products, which are often made by companies that used to only make products for women.

By understanding the challenges of living in the one-handed world, this research could look at some of the solutions and compensatory behaviors, as well. And that could lead to the better design and creation of products and packages for everyone.

In the one-handed world study, it was also discovered that studying this extreme user population could go a step further. While most market research captures the consumer’s past, this study provides a glimpse into the consumer’s future—in a word, foresight. With this study, smart packaging and product designers have the opportunity not only to understand where consumers are headed in the future but also to get there first with new designs to meet consumers’ rising needs.

Opportunities for Innovation

Overall in the study, one-quarter of amputee respondents found everyday items difficult to operate with one hand, with the degree of difficulty increasing with the complexity of the task. However, the number of items two-handed consumers reported difficulty opening or using, even when both hands were fully available, was also surprising. In some cases, two-handed respondents reported more difficulty than the amputees.

Of the top 10 categories identified as difficult, nine of them were identical between one-handed and two-handed people. That means the issue isn’t with the consumers, it’s with the items they are trying to open or use. And personal care and beauty ranked in the top 10 most difficult categories for both one-handed and two-handed consumers. Beauty products and packaging are all ripe with opportunities for brands to differentiate themselves from their competitors by being easier to use with one hand.

The vast majority of cosmetic products are two-handed. Try opening a foundation clamshell with one hand, or a lipstick or mascara. It’s incredibly challenging. What about shaving with one hand? Or brushing your teeth? Nail care is impossible with one hand. In fact, one of the study’s participants sported a stunning manicure on her one hand. When asked about it, she said that she gets her nails done at a salon because she couldn’t possibly paint them herself, but the salon charges her full price (for two hands) even though she only has one.

Beauty rituals could be greatly enabled by making items easier to use with only one hand. Imagine how things start to clash in the morning, when people are trying to get ready for the day while checking their messages on mobile devices. And we know many women do other things while putting on makeup—driving to work, for instance.

Truly, convenience is the killer app. This study found one-handed convenience creates delight and engenders loyalty in consumers. A product that is easy to use with a single available hand creates a tremendous advantage for itself in the marketplace and can boost profits, because consumers will pay a premium for convenience. Additionally, it can encourage them to use a greater variety of products.

Frequency of usage could also drive volume of this type of pack by enabling more on-the-go usage occasions. Consider hand lotion. What if we could reimagine its application? What if you could put lotion on one hand at a time?

Finding Solutions

In addition to providing data on individual products and packages within specific categories, the one-handed world study identifies innovation platforms product and package designers can use to innovate better and easier-to-open packages.

Design matters. Predictable and intuitive design becomes inherently easier to manipulate. Dispensing can be a design parameter, negating packaging. How can the package become the product? For example, the “one-handed stabilization and manipulation” platform identifies products that require one hand to do two different jobs: stabilize an item and manipulate it at the same time, such as opening a jar. In the one-handed world, a product like that is a failure for the consumer.

Another platform is “toothiness.” Despite the objections of dentists, many consumers use their teeth as a sort of third hand and this, when employed safely, also can be a beneficial tool.

Essentially, it’s all about facilitating usage. People are changing, and there are opportunities to increase usage, loyalty and sales. Those companies and brands that look ahead and change their designs with one-handedness in mind can win big.

Kelley Styring is an insatiably curious, fearless and passionate innovator. Her firm, InsightFarm, helps her clients discover new opportunities for growth through consumer insight. The Procter & Gamble and Frito-Lay market research veteran also is a marketing industry speaker and has authored several studies and books on consumer behavior and trends. For more information, go to

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