I recently took part in a usability study for a large hearing aid manufacturer. I always enjoy doing consumer focus groups related to hearing aids and other hearing technologies. The more feedback we as users provide to the manufacturers, the more likely it is that they will meet more of our needs in the future. Usually I get a sneak peek at a new app that is under development or an innovative feature that is to be added to a company’s hearing aid, which is also fun.
This study was different. It focused on manipulating and cleaning three different behind-the-ear (BTE) hearing aids. Since I have never regularly used a BTE hearing aid — I always have used ones worn in the ear canal — it was all new to me. During the exercise, I learned to put on and remove ear pieces, and take off, replace and clean plastic tubing and domes. Simple activities, but they were not easy to execute. I quickly learned that wearing this type of hearing aid requires a very steady hand.
I consider myself fairly dexterous, but in performing the various tasks, I dropped the pieces a few times and had trouble lining up the threads on the device and detached tube in order to screw one piece onto the other. Cleaning the tube with the thin wire provided for this task was also tough, requiring several attempts before I did it right. And, yes, I was wearing my reading glasses for all of it!
The interviewer leading the study also struggled while demonstrating certain of the activities. It would have been comical if it weren’t so sad. If I, a relatively young and healthy hearing aid wear was having trouble manipulating the devices, I can only imagine how difficult it must be for the elderly, let alone someone with tremors or Parkinson’s disease. This needs to change.
Adjustments in hearing aid form factors have typically trended towards making the aids smaller, which I understand from a vanity and comfort perspective, but usability must be equally important, otherwise the devices will end up unworn in a drawer, helping nobody. I am pleased that this seems to be a concern for the hearing aid company sponsoring the study.
With the advent of over-the-counter (OTC) hearing devices, perhaps this will all change. In the consumer products arena, earpieces are often large and quite visible. They are also usually easy to manipulate, with few small pieces that need frequent cleaning. I welcome the day when there are a wider variety of choices available to people with hearing loss, making hearing devices accessible for all people, regardless of their physical capabilities.
Readers, do you have trouble manipulating your hearing devices?