Hip hearing aids as a fashion statement?

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Table of a designer
Photo: didecs -iStock

Eye glasses are available in all possible shapes, models and colors. But when it comes to hearing aids, invisibility is still often the norm. However, good design can also make all the difference to a hearing aid. Where is the Giorgio Armani of the hearing industry?

Let’s look back at how design developed. The design of the smallest devices in the world is no easy task, says Carlos Hinrichsen, jury member of the Red Dot Design Awards: “Designing hearing aids is a complex endeavor. The designer must clearly incorporate the latest technology into a very small area. It must also be integrated into the organic physical structure so that it fits perfectly into the ear.”

What is the process to reach such an intricate design? Mirko Meier-Rentrop, Director of Media Relations at Sonova AG, gives us some insight into how it all works at the company’s affi liate Phonak. It all begins with the users of the devices, he says. “The design depends on demand from the market. And this always comes from the consumer. How do the devices function at work? And during free time? Is the device regularly exposed to noisy conditions?”

Phonak holds sessions with clients of various ages, both experienced users of hearing aids and new users to gain more insights. “We try to find their preferences by looking at various mood boards together. What do they identify with? What provokes their emotions?” The mood boards contain designs from the car and watch industries, for example. They are also shown pictures of various kinds of loudspeakers. Which ones do they find attractive? With cubes of various sizes, they can indicate which format appeals to them. Tactile items help to find out which materials feel good and which don’t. Under the supervision of graphic designers, the people share their ideas and come up with their own design.

“We try to get as close as possible to their ideal hearing aid”, says Meier-Rentrop. Phonak uses the full range of methods to discover the wishes of clients: focus groups, workshops, simulations, and qualitative interviews. “This helps us to work out which direction to go with a design; it’s all input for the development process.”

The main question is, however, not what the optimal solution is. “What we want to know is what the client wants to see. What turns a day in their lives into a successful “hearing day”? A series of prototypes emerges from the exploratory phase we mentioned, and Phonak studies these further. The designers come back to take a peek much later in the process: six months to one year before production can start.

Invisible or personal statement

Is a pleasant look really important in a hearing aid? Or should the device stand out as little as possible? “I think that invisibility is fantastic”, says Richard Zoetemelk, CEO at Sivantos Benelux. “With eye glasses it doesn’t matter, but with hearing aids it clearly does.

Suppose that invisibility was not possible, then that would be an obstacle for some of the people with hearing loss for buying a hearing aid.” But there is clearly a difference between the generations. Younger people are more used to wearing something behind or in the ear. “They are used to technical aids for anything, as multifunctional elements.” He finds that young people enjoy brightening up hearing aids.

“And anything goes. Bright red hearing aids, or orange ones with glitter.” Not only what is visible on the outside. Even if the device is worn in the ear, you can go for a trendy color. “Many young seniors want hearing aids that stand out, not only children. And boundaries between target groups are not so black and white. They are always looking for new forms and may join your target group.” There are clients who like gadgets, and fun apps. For each type of client, there are specific items that are important. Design is therefore clearly fundamental, says the Sivantos CEO. “Color has no value audiologically, it’s just nice. If you’re sensitive to design, you also want an attractive hearing aid. But irrespective of it looking good, it must be comfortable.” This is something embraced by all hearing aid manufacturers. Nonetheless, attention to a high quality finish and offering a full color palette is important, says Corey Banham, Design Manager at Unitron. He also emphasizes the various attitudes clients can have concerning (in) visibility: “We devote a lot of time to the development of a color palette with options for hearing aid wearers who don’t want to stand out, but also for people who want to express themselves more personally.” This group sometimes even does cut-and-paste work, says Mirko Meier-Rentrop. “Some put nail polish on their hearing aids or glue small diamonds to them.”

Incentive to sell

Customization is part of the trend towards hearables and wearables. According to Banham, hearing aids are part of this “revolution”. “There are also other technologies around hearing. This helps to move away from the stigma attached to using hearing aids. We’re likely to see more and more cross-overs between hearing aids and wearables/hearables.” “What will the next generation of hearing aids look like?” asks Mirko Meier-Rentrop. “Will consumer electronics and hearing aids move closer together? We are in a period where the interface between technology and people is increasingly strong, for instance with Google Glass and Google Watch. Youngsters are the ‘look down generation’, who constantly check their smartphones. But in the future, hearables and wearables will increasingly become a part of your body.”

Mirko Meier-Rentrop is also convinced that design can influence sales. As a PR expert, he highlights another point: “Design can be a useful supplement in PR. Our designer has really done us a service these last four years in this area. He was able to differentiate our product range through design. When I started working in this industry over 12 years ago, you could barely see the difference between the hearing aids of the different companies. Now, you can immediately identify where a hearing aid comes from.”

Acceptance

Aside from handsome sales figures, an attractively designed device can achieve a greater goal: it can help with acceptance of hearing aids. “The first impression of a potential user determines whether he or she has a positive feeling about the product and goes through to trying out the device”, says Corey Banham. “Hearing aids are jam packed with amazing technological features. But to be accepted by wearers, the outside of the device is just as important as the inside.”

He believes that the stigma of wearing a hearing aid ensures that the format is one of the most important factors in design. “The outside must look impressive, be of high quality, and reflect the significant investment made. In the design of hearing aids, we can learn from the design of products in other industrial sectors. The car industry, for instance, puts great energy into the design of the lines and details of its vehicles. They’re trying to create real eye catchers. When the sun shines on a well-designed car from several angles, the lines become apparent and spring to life. This ensures that potential clients have a positive emotional reaction. We also put this energy into our hearing aids. When you hold them to the light, all the smooth curves become apparent, giving the illusion that it is carved from one piece.”

Essentials of good design

“The best design is one that is the least intrusive”, says Corey, Design Manager. “Using the latest technologies, it can simply disappear and become invisible, while the wearer enjoys the advantage of the sound amplification he or she needs.” When asked what he finds important in the design of assistive devices for hearing, Corey answers: “Our vision at Unitron is that we want to offer the most seamless solutions, to support users of hearing devices. Users of technology always want an experience that runs flawlessly. Hearing aid wearers are no exception to this rule. And since hearing aids are worn all day, this is even more important.”

The design philosophy at Unitron has three priorities: esthetics, comfort, and intuitive functionality. “The actual hearing aid must prompt a positive emotional experience for the wearer. There must be no sore points, from the first impression to daily use. The more we can create this experience for our end users, the more they will appreciate their hearing aid. Our design team constantly looks for opportunities to improve this experience.” “Good design is simply an expectation of the user”, says Banham. He says that Unitron constantly gauges the experience of users, including their assessment of the design. The client is the focal point, including in design. A principle that other hearing aid manufacturers also strive for.

To discover which recent design prizes were awarded to the hearing industry, read this article on the AAA special AWN issue (flipbook):


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Femke Noordink, editor-in-chief of Audiology Infos The Netherlands