Developing the world’s first modular hearing aid took 130 prototypes but for the researcher behind the revolutionary design, each miniscule change was critical.
The typical design process for a new technology goes something like this. A designer comes in for six weeks to come up with a concept, then the engineers go off and figure out how to make it work. A good while later, the near-finished product is presented back to the designer for some final tweaking.
The design process for Facett, a radically new kind of hearing aid, was a little bit different.
PhD researcher Leah Heiss spent 37 weeks embedded with the company behind the device, Blamey Saunders Hears. Her role? To keep good design always at front of mind.
“There is often a disjunct between design and technology development,” Heiss, a lecturer in RMIT’s School of Design and School of Architecture and Urban Design, says.
“When a concept design is handed over to engineering, a whole lot of technical decisions are made, and by the time the designer returns the technology has a form that can’t easily be modified.
“Because I was there for almost nine months, I was at the table with the engineers and the audiologists. I could keep human-centred design principles in focus.
“As a core part of the team, I could say, ‘this change will have an adverse impact on how users feel about this technology, let’s keep thinking’.”
The result of this deep collaboration is a world-first product that is not only incredibly functional – modular, rechargeable and snapping together with magnets so anyone with dexterity issues can use it with ease - but just as importantly, beautiful.
The perceived stigma of wearing hearing aids is a significant barrier for millions of people who have untreated hearing loss.
In fact, of the four million Australians with hearing loss, three million are doing nothing about it. It’s a major problem, with health implications beyond their struggle to hear.
“Hearing loss can lead to loneliness, depression and social isolation and if left untreated, increases your chances of developing dementia,” Heiss says.
“Untreated hearing loss can also lead to the brain reorganising itself as it tries to cope with limited sensory input. So when someone finally does get hearing aids, their brain doesn’t actually know how to listen like it used to.
“Research shows that when people accept their hearing loss and finally get hearing aids, the feelings of stigma around wearing them decreases. So that stigma is highest before they get the devices.
“This is about helping people get over the line to take up a technology that could dramatically improve their health and wellbeing - to get them past that emotional barrier through great design.”
Inspired by the natural forms of crystals, Heiss spent days with the Melbourne Museum’s mineralogy collection while designing Facett, working through her thinking on colour, texture and form.
All 130 iterative models are currently on display at a special exhibition at the museum, which has acquired the design process into its heritage collection, recognising its significance for Victoria.
The technology is fully home grown - designed, developed and manufactured in Melbourne.
About half of the prototypes were 3D printed at RMIT’s Advanced Manufacturing Precinct, with the evolving models tested by a cross-disciplinary team involving mechanical engineering, electronic engineering, audiology and design, all working tightly together.
The team would take each new model and test it on a special mannequin, examining issues like how it sat on the ear and what effect that had on the microphones inside.
“The audiologist had fitted hearing aids for 30 years, so she could spot straight away where something might rub, where an edge needed to be softened,” Heiss says.
“There were tiny changes every week, some barely perceptible to the eye.
“But actually creating the 3D printed models and having something physical to work with was an essential part of this process.
“Rather than just a concept on paper, we had something tangible that helped draw these varied fields of expertise together around some really complex problems.
“Each prototype brought our nebulous ideas to life, to an actual form that all of us could touch and hold and interact with.”
Heiss brought a deep understanding of the emotional experience of hearing loss to the process, having led numerous focus groups as part of her doctoral research.
“The stigma is closely connected with ageing and all the feelings people have about that, growing more frail or dependent, wanting to avoid giving away signals your body is ‘letting you down’.
“With medical technologies, there is often very little consideration of the emotional impact. The focus is on clinical efficacy and making sure something works, then basic maintenance - is it cleanable, is it wipeable? Just make it skintone, it will be fine.
“Whereas we’re all actually thinking, feeling human beings. We have aesthetic wants and needs.
“I think of them as emotional technologies, these things that we have an intimate connection with. How can we integrate technologies with the emotional needs that are at our core?”
From crystals to river stones, natural forms have long been an inspiration for Heiss in her work and research, which focuses on collaborating across disciplines to improve the design of wearable health technologies.
Crystals also informed the design of Smart Heart, a cardiac monitoring necklace she co-developed with RMIT colleagues while embedded in RMIT’s Centre for Materials Innovation and Future Fashion and working with St Vincent’s Hospital and the Nossal Institute.
For Dr Elaine Saunders, co-founder of Blamey Saunders Hears, the deeply collaborative development process was essential to fulfilling the company’s philosophy of creating health solutions in partnership with its clients.
“One of the challenges in creating a revolution via product innovation is that most people can't detail exactly what they want to see in a product until it starts to take form,” Saunders says.
“By embedding a designer throughout our process we have been able to really connect with clients right from the start and then iteratively evolve our solution based on what works from a human-centred design perspective.
“It's this clinical, design and engineering collaboration over time that has enable such a strong solution that we can see people connect with in a deeply personal way.”
Saunders says universities are in a unique position to support technology innovation by providing “thinkers” who can come into a team and represent a clear, often challenging view, backed by a wealth of knowledge.
“It's this convergence of commercial strategic development and specialist university supported global thinking that creates a cutting edge view, with a real passion for delivery motivated by different drivers.
“Indeed this could present strong possibilities for both industry and universities in delivering innovations through collaboration.”
The Facett hearing aid, and the process behind it, encapsulates what drives Heiss in her work.
“It’s basically design to improve life. Designing to humanise health technologies and really engaging with people’s emotional experience,” she says.
“By working to understand, through empathy, the shame and embarrassment people feel when they have to deal with these medical apparatuses, we can develop things that really people want to wear - and that can be life-changing.”
Story: Gosia Kaszubska