A year and a half ago, when Starkey approached Stuart Karten about redesigning their hearing aids, they had a fairly serious, albeit superficial problem: Given that almost all their competitors are based in Copenhagen, and the designers are all Danish, their devices are all surprisingly good looking. Starkey's? Not so much, and they wanted to finally be able to compete on looks. "They wanted something invisible on the ear, but beautiful in the hand," says Karten. But his firm gave them more: A hearing aid firmly rooted in cutting-edge interface design.
The S series, which finally debuted in October, is dead simple. Towards the back of the device, there's a "landing strip" of rubber, which allows the wearer to adjust the volume by sliding their finger along its length. Tapping the landing strip cycles through the various setting modes, which are tuned to different environments, such as at home or outside. And that's it.
Which would be cool even on a high-end Bluetooth headset, but to appreciate why that's a revolution, consider how hear-aid buttons are usually designed (as in the image to the left). "Imagine the types of hands working with these. A person might have arthritis or weak muscles," says Karten. "So there was always a lot of monkey business, to tell people what controlled what." That usually meant pointy, shard-like buttons, aimed at increasing tactile feel. Moreover, during field research, Karten realized how bad it was to have any buttons at all: "Anything with a button, people want to take off and look at," says Karten. That saps the functionality of the headset, and only makes them more of a hassle.
Other "pain points" emerged, during exhaustive field research involving dozens of focus groups and interviews. One particularly difficult one was changing batteries. One interviewee showed Karten what was involved—and what could go wrong. He had to cradle the device in two hands; if the battery fell out, he couldn't hear where it had rolled off to. Karten solved that with a battery slot that flips out. To change the battery, you lay the device on a table, and drop the battery in, with one hand.
The final pain point: Wearing the device. And more specifically, being seen wearing it. Karten's design sits behind the ear, with a low profile. The gestural controls allow adjustments that can be played off, without drawing attention to the hearing aid. But the colors do most of the work. For those with hair, the S series comes in various shades of grey and silver; for those without, it comes in various skin tones.
Karten worked with a hair colorist, to understand what makes hair natural—it turns out, real hair is multi-colored, but cheap hair is single-colored. To create that effect on the headset, the gray colors are done in a metallic paint that refracts different shades. Meanwhile, real skin looks real because of the translucency of the top layer. Karten addressed that with a clear-coat, to replicate the layers and depth of living skin.
It's too early to tell if all those design choices have resulted in increased sales, but Karten has some anecdotal evidence. "People have said that usually, at the European tradeshow, you can hear crickets as the Starkey booth," he says. "This year, there was a swarm. And the other companies were saying, 'Why didn't we think of this?'"