We’re all familiar with what a hearing aid is: A small wearable device that helps people to hear.
Hearing aids are objects that we see frequently, so frequently in fact that we perhaps don’t notice their presence in the world. Maybe they are worn by someone we sit behind on a bus, a friend we know or an ageing member of the family. I don’t remember my first experience of seeing a hearing aid and enquiring what it was. But I imagine this must have happened at some point in my childhood, because as an observer they feel somewhat familiar, unexceptional even.
I think I have pretty good hearing. Selective listening probably, but my hearing is okay. So the wearing of hearing aids isn’t something that I can talk about from a place of understanding. I don’t know the experience of needing, having and wearing one and I can’t speak personally of the benefits or downfalls of the technology embedded within. However as a designer, what I do feel compelled to discuss is the current state of their appearance.
Firstly, I am in no way disputing that the function of hearing aids is anything other than amazing. Viral videos of babies hearing for the first time, grandparents being able to hear their grandchildren’s voices and other incredibly human stories that we share, all serve as proof that these devices are incredibly meaningful both to wearer and the outside world. In fact, something these stories highlight is our intrinsic need to communicate. So considering just how meaningful these devices are, shouldn’t we take some time to consider their appearance?
Hearing aids seem to be easily separated into two categories of appearance. The beige, pseudo skin coloured ones that aim to conceal themselves, yet become more conspicuous in their attempt at invisibility. (And which notably, clearly display the white, male default in their design. Where are the black skin tones?) And the silver, almost robotic designs that seem to take inspiration from 90s consumer electronics and bad science fiction. Generally all of these are plastic, with small fiddly controls that seem counterintuitive to the needs of elderly users. (But that’s a discussion for another time.)
Personally, I think that we can do better.
(A selection of pre-loved NHS hearing aids, given to me for examination by my second supervisor, Rodney Mountain.)