A dual-use hearing device for people with hearing loss.

How might we develop an inclusive product that is affordable, useful, and appealing to people with hearing loss?

Estimated reading time
6 minutes

Hearing loss can make in-person communication difficult and frustrating, and most hearing aids don’t mesh well with the smartphones that most of us depend on. We wanted to see if we could develop a more adaptive wearable device that is more than "just" a hearing aid.

I led the UI design, my teammates Jacky Gonzalez, Elvin Chu led the industrial design, and we all contributed to the research.

6 weeks (Mar 2014 - Apr 2014)
Understanding the problem
We started off this project by determining what it actually means to have hearing loss. Based on our research, we able to come away with a few characteristics that really stuck out:

1. Trouble hearing high frequency sounds and speech discrimination.
2. Must be extremely attentive while communicating; issues with communication in noisy environments or while in a group.
3. Problems with wearables interfering their hearing aids (phone, glasses, etc.).
4. Issues with speech and intelligibility.

We continued our research by looking at the different types of hearing aids, and determining how they're worn in or on the ear. We discovered that there are three main types of hearing aids: 
Based on our first round a research, we noticed that the theme of "communication" really stood out. We held a mind mapping session, using "communication" as our central theme, in order to see what other associations we could make that might be worth researching further.
In thinking about some opportunities for a universal design solution, we started looking products, like earbuds and headphones, that are closely related to hearing aids, but serve different markets. From here, we were able to gather some data about music consumption based on different demographics.
We jumped back into our research on hearing loss and started reading through a lot of forums for people with hearing loss.
On one of the forums, we were able to get in touch with a 58 year-old man named Jim, who agreed to share more with us via email.
While we were corresponding back and forth with Jim, we were also able to get our hands on several documents that covered statistics on hearing loss, which revealed that only 1 out of 5 people who could stand the benefit from wearing a hearing aid actually wears them. 
Based on our research so far, we were able to make a few assumptions about the reasons for this. We understood that people with hearing loss often feel like other perceive them to be "slower", and that they than require special attention. They also often feel burdened and embarrassed about having to wear hearing aids, because they are typically associated with old age and are can be quite visible. Hearing aids are also very expensive, costing upwards of $1000 per device. Why?
This cost breakdown immediately highlighted two key areas for design opportunity:

1. Remove the absolute need for storefront audiologists.
2. Broaden the target market.
Solution exploration
Based on these pain points, we set out did some brainstorming with the goal of generating a lot of ideas in a short amount of time. After putting some ideas down on sticky notes and getting them up on the board, we did some affinity mapping and grouped our ideas based on common themes.
From here, we were able to come up with a few design principles that would inform our design decisions:

1. Lives in harmony with the user’s everyday devices and products.
2. Supports improved communication.
3. Discreet. Is either unseen, or seen with elegance.
4. Adapts to the different stages of hearing loss.
With these requirements in mind, we sat down as a team and started sketching out the physical device. We then used sticky notes to make quick edits and suggestions on the fly.
As we delved into our research into different technologies, we learned that speech recognition technology and smaller hearing aid components provide an opportunity for the development of a more adaptive hearing device. We also learned that leading brands have already started to develop devices with Bluetooth capabilities to appeal to the modern user. However, they are neither universally adaptable, nor are they economical.
While Jacky and I continued to do some research into the different technologies and power sources that we could implement...
...Elvin continued to work on refining the physical product design.
Sketches by Elvin Chu (elvinchu.com)
Sketches by Elvin Chu (elvinchu.com)
Because there are so many different types of hearing complications, there are a lot of different fitting tips to accommodate those issues. In order to make the VIVE hearing device adaptable for not only people with hearing loss, but also for people who just want to listen to music, our proposed design supports the ability to change out the fitting tips according to the wearer's needs.

While designing the product, we also worked to define some feature details and requirements:
From here, we were able to rough out the IA and sketch out some ideas.
After we reconvened and shared our sketches, I started to work out the user flows and UI design. We were able to mockup some screens, create a medium-fidelity prototype, and do a combination Wizard of Oz guerrilla testing and manual testing to quickly identify usability flaws.

Mid-fidelity prototype

Based on the feedback we got, we made some adjustments, and I finished fleshing out the UI. We weren't going to have time to do a second round of testing, so I just prepared high-fidelity mockups for the final review.
VIVE tests your hearing in each ear and uses those results to act as a personalized, adjustable amplifier. Users can calibrate sound settings based on different environmental factors, which trains the device to adjust in real-time based on context and environment. VIVE also offers speech training for those whose speech has been impacted by hearing loss.
There's so much to be learned from having access to potential users and attempting to see the world through their eyes. This doesn't come as a surprise to user researchers, but I still think it's worth mentioning for those designers who don't always prioritize getting involved in exploratory research as part of their workflow. If anything, this project strengthened my belief in the importance of conducting user research (and doing your best as a non-researcher!), as it led to greater discussions and collaboration, and it opened to door to lots of opportunities for innovation and design.

Looking back, though, there are definitely some things I would have done differently. Namely, I would have spent more time on immersive research techniques (ex. spending a day with simulated hearing loss), and I also would have allocated time to testing our concepts. I also wish that I had taken the time to get in touch with a practicing speech-language pathologist (my sister was studying SLP at the time of this project, so her input was still helpful) or a language expert, so we could have done more to draw the connection between sound and speech. There was also an opportunity to explore sound design more closely. The list goes on.

In any event, at the end of this project, I came away with a much stronger interest in and respect for inclusive design, as well as the considerable efforts that go into conceptualizing and building inclusive products and experiences. I eagerly await future opportunities where I can explore that realm of design even further. I do as much as I can to apply its principles to my day-to-day work. 

Additional work:

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