— On May 23rd, Stuart Karten gave the second in a series of AgeTek Insiders Insights Business Education Webinars. These are his followup comments —
Six years ago, Starkey approached our product innovation consultancy to develop a design language for its hearing aids. Technologically, Starkey’s digital signal processing led the market. But the design of its bulky, beige devices did nothing to communicate the advanced technology inside. Though creating a “design DNA” that visually represented Starkey’s technology was our initial objective, we quickly realized an opportunity for design to create a better experience around Starkey’s products, improving the quality of life for millions of hearing impaired people.
Last week, Karten Design Director of Design Strategy and Research Ron Pierce and I presented a webinar sharing what we’ve learned working with Starkey to design hearing aids for 60- to 80-year-old users. AgeTek members asked some great questions and I wanted to take this opportunity to address several areas of particular interest.
OPPORTUNITIES IN THE AGING TECHNOLOGY SPACE
Many growing companies are focused on technology. They’ve developed something with the power to change lives and, consequently, they fall in love with their technology. A mature product has to have effective technology, but then must move into the next stage—applying technology to the human context. This requires a holistic understanding of the user—their behaviors, rituals, ceremonies, preferences, delights, and their limitations. Don’t just fall in love with your technology; fall in love with your end users. Learn what emotions they experience when they interact with your product, or even when they think about purchasing it. Getting inside users’ heads was the starting point for Karten Design’s relationship with Starkey. We quickly discovered that older people associate hearing aids with age, disability and weakness, and as a result they put off purchasing a hearing aid, living in isolation for almost a decade. Many products associated with aging have the same stigma that’s important to understand. At the point where someone needs an assistive product, he or she often already feels disabled. It’s important that technology products empower users rather than making them feel weaker.
R.O.I. ON DESIGN
There are more ways to measure return on investment than quarterly financial gain. Consider also returns like customer relationships. We believe a well-designed product can be a brand ambassador. Good design can help your product to be distributed in new channels and reach new consumers. It also has the potential to strengthen relationships with your existing channels and end users. One of the most exciting results of our design partnership for Starkey’s executives was the improved image that the company gained within its existing sales channels. Each new product introduction has created a stir at international trade shows, building Starkey’s global reputation for design leadership. Audiologists have gone from simply carrying Starkey products to being evangelists for Starkey products. Even end users, who may have initially been reluctant to adopt a hearing aid, have become enthusiastic advocates for Starkey’s products. Building relationships between your customers and your brands is a long-term investment with long-term returns.
Karten Design spent three months in the field conducting design research with hearing professionals and hearing aid users before translating our insights into design for Starkey. During this time we examined all of the factors that would affect a hearing aid’s market impact: manufacturing process, sales channels, and most importantly end users and their ceremonies. Get to know your customers’ ceremonies and habits. As you develop a research strategy, consider whether your product fits in with those ceremonies or requires users to develop a new habit. Successfully implementing a paradigm shift, as we did when introducing the industry’s first gesture control, requires a higher level of research in order to create and evaluate the product’s value and introduce the right metaphor to make it easily understood by users.
SENIORS’ RELATIONSHIP WITH TECHNOLOGY
A common myth persists that seniors are afraid of technology. In my experience, this is not the case. Seniors are ready and willing to adopt technology that provides a benefit in their lives. When we helped Starkey develop a capacitive gesture control for its hearing aids, we were adopting a ceremony from iPhones, which inspired a slew of touch screens in consumer electronics. We questioned whether a modern technological ceremony would be relevant and easily understood by older users and the answer, with a few qualifications, was a resounding yes. Gesture control was relevant to users not because it represented a cool new development, but because it satisfied a need—to control a hearing aid discretely with a simple motion. Our strategy was to focus the technology on meeting the need. When it does this in the simplest possible way, the technology becomes transparent. The iPad is another example of transparent technology that has been enthusiastically adopted by older users. The iPad fulfills an emotional need to connect and engage with family and friends. The product is so easy to use and understand that the technology fades into the background; all you see is the benefit.
There are two areas that technology companies can focus on to improve their relationship between their products and senior customers. For any user, but perhaps most importantly for seniors, a successful product relationship is based on mutual respect and two-way communication.
I find it disrespectful when companies dumb down products either visually or technologically for older users. Today’s seniors have more sensitivity to quality and design than previous generations. Just because someone becomes physically disabled as they age does not mean they become aesthetically handicapped. When we designed hearing aids for Starkey, we leveraged inspiring design imagery from luxury automobiles and modern architecture to create a sophisticated image. Aesthetically re-framing a product this way—respecting seniors’ aesthetic sensibilities and the self-image they’ve built throughout their lives—has done much to chip away at the stigma associated with hearing aids.
Seniors’ relationship with technology benefits from frequent dialog between person and product. Pay attention to the feedback your product gives its user. The success of gesture control hinged in part on fine-tuning its feedback to let users know not just when there were problems, but to confirm that they had successfully made adjustments.