There is a word that you have probably heard and experienced called usability. Usability simply means how easy it is for someone, typically the intended population, to use something. Anyone who has tried to open a jar of pickles, or tried to pull off that thin yet very durable plastic on your favorite cheese, has experienced the frustration of poor usability. I know I have thought on a number of occasions, ‘Who designed this thing?’ when I finally got the jar or package open! Those items are quite large and easy to hold, even if they are not easy to open. But what about when the item is something much smaller and complex; something that a user is afraid to break like a …you guessed it…a hearing aid. You might not have thought much about hearing aid usability. I mean hearing aids have a button or two, a battery door, earpieces, and accessories. A hearing aid that has all of these pieces is good to go, right? Not at all! At Bernafon, we do not consider a button just a button or a battery door just a battery door. We wanted to create a device that not only looks good but is easy to use, easy to handle, and that sounds great.
When we develop our instruments, the user is in the forefront of our development. Why do the size, shape, and location of a button matter? Hearing loss effects all ages; however, the average hearing aid user is over the age of 60 years old (NIH, 2017). You can imagine how difficult it might be for your parents and/or grandparents to handle something so small, with small parts and small buttons. The aging population will begin to experience reduced vision and tactility, making finding small buttons more difficult. Arthritis is also a common issue experienced by this population, which makes the hands or fingers less flexible and makes handling small items more difficult. Our goal is to make a device that is easy to use by all of our users. To do this, we need to keep them in mind and account for the various aspects of their daily lives that affect
hearing aid use.
With all of these ideas in mind, we set out to create Zerena. But, how did we learn to incorporate style with usability? The answer is simple; we aged our design team and developers 30+ years. Not to worry, we haven’t all of a sudden invented a time machine or at least not one that bends time and space. Instead, we trained our teams by using an age suit. Step into an age suit and feel immediately 30+ years older.
An age suit allows you to experience simulated difficulties with hearing, vision, tactility, and mobility often experienced by the aging population. If our engineers all try on the age suit, within minutes, they will all feel much older. They wear hearing protection to simulate poorer hearing, goggles to simulate poor vision, layered gloves to simulate reduced tactility, and braces to simulate reduced flexibility in the joints .
We then give them different types of hearing aids, batteries, cleaning tools, and accessories and ask them to perform typical tasks for any hearing aid user including changing the battery, cleaning the sound opening, changing filters, using a remote control, etc. I can tell you, after sitting for a few hours and working through the age suit training, most people are ready to throw all the size 10 batteries into the recycling and good riddance! Often, just finding the battery door and opening it is considered a feat in this training.
Performing typical hearing aid user tasks including changing the battery, with parts of the age suit.
What’s the outcome? Designers and developers who understand that what they create affects how our end users interact with it. That a poor design could mean a hearing aid in the drawer simply because it is too difficult to use, no matter how good it sounds. Filled with understanding, we return them to their correct age and sent them back to work to create a hearing aid with a meaningful design for those who need it. And just to make sure they were successful, we have end users test the hearing aids in our usability testing. The result is a meaningful yet elegant design that is easy to use, and sounds great. It’s Zerena. Click here to learn more.
National Institutes of Health (2017). Age related hearing loss. Accessed from