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  • 12.23.09

How Stuart Karten and Starkey Re-Invented the Hearing Aid

The device solves multiple hassles, with a touch-sensitive control pad and a design that hides on the ear.

S Series BTE with Sweep Technology 2

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.

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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.

Old Hearing Aids

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.

battery change
colors

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?'”

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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