A Design Revolution Drives Hearing Aid Sales
New Form Factors Raise the Cool Quotient of Hearing Aids
19 March 2019
What do stiletto heels and hearing aids have in common? The answer: Signia’s latest product —the “Styletto”— features a long, slim, fashion-forward look, and just won a 2019 iF Gold Design Award. And they're only the most recent example of a design revolution intended to transform your grandfather's hearing aid into an attractive consumer product that appeals to buyers of all ages.
Signia ads associate Styletto hearing aids with the world of high fashion.
Last summer, industry leader Phonak won a Red Dot design award for its Virto B-Titanium hearing aid. The first hearing aid made of premium medical-grade titanium, it's 15 times stronger and 50% thinner than traditional custom-molded hearing aids. Each Virto-B Titanium hearing aid is manufactured using 3D printing technology to provide users with a completely invisible-in-the-canal hearing solution.
And last fall, Widex won a Red Dot award for its small TV Play accessory that streams audio wirelessly from TVs to Widex hearing aids. The space-age design makes you think of a triangular "flying-wing" stealth bomber. And like those stealth aircraft, TV Play units are meant to go unnoticed, easily tucked out of sight behind flat-screen TVs.
Widex TV Play reddot award winner for 2018.
Hearing aid designers strive for the "Steve Jobs effect"
Signia's Styletto hearing aids are narrower and longer than other behind-the-ear hearing aids. They sit flat next to the skull, easily concealed by a little bit of hair. And, when they’re visible, they don’t shout “hearing aids” so much as “stylish ear accessories.”
Think of it as the Steve Jobs effect: there were plenty of MP3 players before Apple jumped into the market, but it was the cool design of the iPod, with its distinctive white earpieces, promoted by an iconic ad campaign featuring wired millennials listening to their iTunes, that made digital music a breakout success.
Marketing imagery used in the first-generation iPod launch.
And speaking of "cool," try Googling "trendy titanium." You will find links to high-fashion titanium jewelry, super-expensive titanium bikes, titanium eyeglasses for men, and other trendy consumer goods. The Phonak Virto B-Titanium hearing aids may be invisible, but they can still make customers wearing them feel cool.
Great design translates to hard dollars
But the hearing aid brands aren't investing heavily in design just to be cool. There’s a significant body of research that ties great design directly to higher sales in all sectors of the economy.
McKinsey and Company recently published results of a five-year study demonstrating how companies that focus on great design differentiate their offerings and increase market share, revenue, and shareholder value:
The potential for design-driven growth is enormous in both product- and service-based sectors [...] Strong design can be at the heart of both disruptive and sustained commercial success in physical, service, and digital settings.McKinsey Design Index Report
In its survey, McKinsey found that companies with strong design achieved 32% higher revenue growth and 56% higher total shareholder return growth over a five-year period. However, it concluded that while there are more opportunities than ever to pursue "user-centric, analytically informed design" today, "many companies have been slow to catch up."
Hearing-aid technology is finally design-friendly
Until recently, the hearing aid industry players were among those “slow to catch up.” But it wasn’t for lack of trying. Each of the Big Six (now Big Five) hearing aid manufacturers have experimented over the years with multiple new form factors ranging from in-the-ear (ITE) to completely-in—canal (CIC) to behind-the-ear (BTE) to receiver-in-canal (RIC), among others. But all those design variations were constrained by technical obstacles.
For instance, the bulky disposable hearing aid batteries that until recently powered nearly all hearing aids were difficult to fit into a small, attractive hearing aid. A “size 10” hearing aid battery is about as big as a baby aspirin, while the larger “size 312” and “size 13” batteries, used with more powerful hearing aids, are about the size of a hard-to-swallow 500-milligram Vitamin C pill.
And the batteries had to be removable, which required a sliding insert or tiny door with a hinge, adding to the bulk of the hearing aid.
But recent improvements in battery technology—especially with rechargeable batteries—have made entirely new form factors possible. Rechargeable batteries are finally small enough, powerful enough, and long-lasting enough to be provide a full day of power for discreet hearing aids.
And with some slick engineering, the hearing aid companies are finding innovative ways to reshape rechargeable batteries to enable entirely new hearing aid form factors. This is why the Signia Styletto, with its stiletto-heel look, is truly a revolution for the hearing aid industry.
Seeing is believing
For more on the ins and outs of cool hearing aid design, check out the video review of the Styletto hearing aids from Dr. Cliff, AuD, whose YouTube series of videos is a must-subscribe for anyone shopping for hearing aids.
Miniaturization hits critical mass
Another technology trend that’s leading to more interesting hearing aid designs is miniaturization. The long march of “smaller-faster-less-expensive” semiconductor chips has driven numerous improvements in computing and communications over the past thirty years.
Just look at your mobile phone, which packs more processing power than IBM's original room-filling computers. Now those technology advances are finally reaching the tiny hearing aid.
It's taken a while to pack all the processing power today's hearing aids need into form factors that fit inside the ear. But smaller sound processing and communications chips are now so powerful that your hearing aids can nearly do it all.
They can make and receive phone calls, let you talk to Siri, get audio transcriptions of your text messages, and perform dozens of other tasks—all while providing hearing enhancement customized to your personal audiogram.