remote control for hearing aids
designing a new remote control for a hearing aid is a meticulous thing. as one can assume, the manufacturer wants it to be highly distinguishable. on the other hand, at the moment most users of hearing aids want to hide it. that said, it is quite clear that, again, the user interface, or rather the interaction design of the new product is a crucial success factor besides the form factor. so the form factor has to serve the users in two ways: firstly, it should visually blend into the world of the users in a way that the people surrounding them do not become aware of their disability. secondly, the form factor should also support the interaction design.
research and analysis to set-up the project
after we had discussed these facts, thought about the usage and observed some users [of course with their consent], we opted for a pen-type solution.
traditionally, there have been two more cornerstones in our generic design procedure: as always we researched the target group, and especially their product world, in order to get a clear idea of what a new product should look like so that it can blend into their world and, moreover, appeal to them. and we developed similar moodboards for the Siemens brand itself, since the product should also convey the brand values and dovetail with the product portfolio, thus adding brand strength.
moodboards to hit the target
here are two examples of the set of moodboards we used to define the above-mentioned two terms of reference. as you might expect, there is not just one target group of customers, there are several.
by using one moodboard for every group, our team, and also the stakeholders at our client, got a clear idea of what shape we were searching for. we also used these images for a focused, efficient discussion of the developed concepts in the decision process. the key is that every concept idea gets scrutinized to see if they more or less match each of these moods.
at that point we knew that we would opt for a pen-like object, and we roughly knew the direction of the form factor.
the first approach was a small cylindrical object that could be opened to make the necessary adjustments.
the client was pleased by this approach, and we started detailing it with the technicians. the advantage of a cylindrical, pen-like shape is that the transmitter coil falls naturally into a — from a technical point of view — optimal position when the user holds the device to make his or her adjustments [we presumed].
the question was: will the users easily understand how it should be operated, and can they do this without looking at the device?
we assumed that users would make their adjustment inconspicuously, e.g. under the table, so they could not look at it. our approach supported that usage. it lets the user pull the end of the pen into a first position to reveal the option to change the volume [which is obviously the most frequently needed one], and they can then pull it another time to a second position to change the programme [e.g. from listening to someone talking to listening to a concert]. of course, the technical implications needed to be checked out before putting lots of effort into this part of the development process. we checked whether the user can really deal with it by starting a usability test.
by the time we developed the test settings we had prepared some more interaction design concepts, so we could offer some options to the test takers.
the concepts got tested
the tests lasted approximately twenty minutes each and asked for past experiences with hearing aids, likes and dislikes of the current model used, and an assessment of the four options we had prepared. how easily understandable are the instructions, changing the volume, changing from programme #3 to #1, using just one hand, etc. finally, we wanted to know where the test person would stow the device when it was not in use and which of the concepts appealed to them most. some questions about their lifestyle rounded up the questionnaire.
we know from research that 80% of all usability problems could be detected by working with 5 to 7 people. we prepared a test setting with 8 people, checked their hobbies and their occupation. four prototypes, one for each concept, were built.
the outcome was astonishing: as we presumed, most of the test persons used the remote control with two hands and, as we had supposed, held the device almost horizontally. from r&d we had learned that this is the desired position for optimal signal transmission to the hearing aid.
we received information about which form factor was preferred and which kind of usage: the user wanted a clear difference between volume adjustment and programme selector.
a majority of the test takers selected a concept because of its shape and convenient weight [prototype C] — but interestingly none of them used it correctly, which proves that design at its original aim is key for product success. nevertheless, the best solution was prototype B, which was further refined in the following stages.
all of the test takers wanted to wear the device close to their body, and stow it away in the breast pocket of their jacket or blazer when not in use. they would prefer a clip, like on a pen. women wanted an add-on to easily find the device in their handbags, e.g. a small ribbon. two of them wanted to be able to wear the remote control like a piece of jewellery.
in addition to this, the test proved that users of hearing aids still feel disabled. this will change progressively in the coming years when people get used to things around the ears of their peers, i.e. head sets for mobile phones, iPods, etc. at the moment, we are in a change process and therefore hearing aid products should indeed have a consumer electronics appeal but should still be hideable to be acceptable for potential customers.
another point was that none of the test takers got the feeling that they were using a remote control similar to one for a television set. so none of them pointed the remote control towards their ear as it is done with tv remote controls. this was intended and confirmed our presumptions.
the outcome of this test was put together in a report for the client.
in the following stages we incorporated the findings from the usability tests and worked closely together with the technicians at Siemens to fulfil the needs of the potential users.
a clip was added as it was proposed in the very first concept. furthermore, we changed from the two-stage-pull method to another concept. in the final version the user opens the pen by pulling it apart and rotating the end to change the volume. to select another programme the user tips a key, which is revealed when the pen is open.
the Siemens ePen™ is another example which shows that the combination of industrial design and interaction design leads to a more usable and more meaningful product. this, one can easily understand, will increasingly become a must in the next few years and might make the difference between a name-brand product with a higher price versus a cheap no-name product.
we are sure that consumers go for quality. and design delivers this quality.
»the great variety of creative proposals by GP astonished us again and again. GP presented out-of-the-box approaches, we had not seen yet. the driver for this was not the urge to originality as an end in itself, but the keen efforts of the designers, to know and to try to understand the target audience.
mr. pauschitz always had the »educated approach« in collaboration with us, the Siemens employees. he did not present just the easy solutions, but also explained their prospects and the possibilities of design issues. i appreciated the very good and flexible cooperation with GP designpartners. which were particularly positive noticed, if we once again wanted the results the day before yesterday.«