Design for hearing as opportunity and loss

Consider your ears. The hearing sense is central for so many aspects of everyday life, from waking up by your alarm clock, moving through traffic, and attending meetings, over enjoying music, and recognizing the voices of your loved ones. Some auditory cues are prompting direct action and navigation, like a honking car horn or your colleague speaking to you; many others remain in the background, offering you peripheral awareness of the surroundings without you having to dedicate direct attention, like the sounds of footsteps, ovens, vacuum cleaners and doorbells provide indirect cues of the activity level of neighbors in the same building.

Imagine if you could turn specific elements of your daily soundscapes on or off, or that you could bring sounds and auditory cues from one setting to another. What if you could access a wider range of soundscapes than what is immediately available through real time embodied experience? Hearing as a design domain is vastly underexplored as compared to seeing and visual culture.

However, 360 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss (loss > 40dB and may consequently experience limited access to services and exclusion from communication. Further, people with hearing loss are sometimes looked down upon and perceived as “being old, cognitively diminished, poor communication partners and generally uninteresting” (Gagne, J.P. et al. 2009). Everyday practical challenges and such stigmatization may lead people with hearing loss to feelings of isolation and frustration.

In response the hearing aid industry have developed advanced hearing aids (HA) that make sounds more accessible through amplification and detailed sound processing, such as highlighting sounds from a spatial region, shifting frequencies, reducing background noise and wind, and highlighting voice. The present range of HAs is generally speaking audio-technologically highly advanced, and with a minuscule form factor making them almost invisible to wear. Through a personalized configuration process to match the type of hearing loss, the lifestyle, and physical form of the ear, hearing aids have become relatively unobtrusive assistive devices for some wearers.

While aiding to make sounds more accessible is the central functionality, the actual artefact will interact with, influence and be influenced by the contextual conditions in which it is embedded in ways that extend far beyond its functional purpose, as codesigner Janet Kelly has pointed out in her PhD thesis (Kelly 2014). This calls for design approaches that take the complex social situations of everyday life as a starting point.

22 codesign students are currently exploring hearing and hearing loss as a design domain in close collaboration with GN Hearing. To kick off this specific codesign project last month, we invited Brendon Clark from the Interactive Institute in Stockholm to lead the workshop Project-In-A-Day. With Brendon we identified key social situations where hearing is an issue, and let our imagination loose to address those.

Through quick loops of ideation, making props and testing them through first hand embodied experience, we quickly propelled our awareness of hearing as both an everyday challenge, and as a promising opportunity space for design. The day was intense, challenging and fun, and ended with a shared reflection session with our partner from GN Hearing.

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