Inspired by research that showed users' difficulty operating hearing aid controls, industrial design firm Stuart Karten Design (SKD) and Starkey Laboratories, Inc. have developed the first hearing aid to bring touch technology, which has revolutionized the consumer electronics industry, to a medical device.
For hearing aid users, adjusting volume and digital listening modes has been a daily frustration. As advanced technology allows hearing aids to shrink, many users-especially those with impaired vision or dexterity-fumble with tiny buttons and dials.
"It seems like a small problem at first," says Ron Pierce, SKD's Director of Strategy and Research who lead the ethnographic study, "but it took a huge emotional toll on users. They felt disabled by their inability to operate controls that were not created with their needs in mind."
Fueled by this discovery, SKD's design team developed solutions for Starkey's next-generation hearing aids that would make user interaction more comfortable and intuitive. This exploration lead to the development of Starkey's S Series behind-the-ear (BTE) with Sweep Technology, which allows users to adjust settings with the subtle sweep of a finger.
The hearing aid's smooth, touch-activated surface occupies the entire bottom half of its spine-an area 10 times larger than traditional volume controls and five times larger than the traditional memory button. An upward sweep of the finger along this surface turns the volume up; a downward sweep turns volume down and a quick touch switches between digital listening modes.
SKD tested the gestural interface extensively with potential users to ensure that it was a valuable, intuitive addition to Starkey's product line. The research team relied on interviews, surveys, observations and video documentation of users interactions with a prototype device to refine the interface until it was universally easy to understand and use.
"User feedback has confirmed that the gestural interface is more natural and accessible than traditional buttons," says Pierce. "By giving patients more control over their hearing aids, I hope we've given them a greater sense of freedom in their lives."
The new S Series builds upon the success of SKD's Zon hearing aid for Starkey. With a smooth, dynamic design language that transformed the hearing aid from a medical appliance to an object of beauty, Zon has garnered international attention, including the Smithsonian's 2008 People's Design Award. The S Series adapts this award-winning design language to a powerful BTE device-the world's best-selling hearing aid style suitable for users with moderate to severe hearing loss.