A few years ago I was asked to help design a remote control for a medical hearing device. Due to the nature of the project, I have had to leave out some information and results.

Brief

Create a new and improved remote control for a medical hearing implant.

The controller is used to change volume, adjust directional microphones, equalize sound and connect with other hearing services such are hearing loops.

The processor part of the device rests behind the ear and is connected to a plate implanted under the skin at the back of the head and a wire is fed deep into the inner ear canal to deliver electric pulses which the brain translates into sound.

The core team for the project was made up of 2 designer and a project manager. The team had direct access to in-house developers, designers and industrial engineers throughout the project.

Define it

1. Understanding the technology.

A short training course was provided to the team to fully understand the current technology and science behind how the implants worked.

We were able to ‘test’ the device by wearing a processor that was modified to work with standard in ear headphones. This gave us some extra context on how the device was controlled and changed the hearing modes.

We wore the device for a day to get a real feel for what it might be like using it day to day and allowing us to get a good idea of how it is used in certain situations, such as loud restaurants, shopping, outdoors and at home.

At this point, we also spent some time to fully understand/research what other companies and competitors were doing and what had succeeded/failed for them.

2. Understanding the audience.

One interesting part of this project was that the users could be anyone. The only connecting factor was that the user suffers from some sort of hearing loss (generally profound hearing loss).

We met with users aged from 6 to 80 years old, male and female of various ethnicities to conduct interviews and gather thoughts and information based on their experiences using the original device.

We were able to speak directly with these people via various clinics in the area, who worked with the company closely.

We designed a set of questions to best understand their daily habits and pain points caused by the original controller.

Due to the large age difference between the users, it was interesting to see how people used their devices differently, from kids having their parents control it, average users, power users and older folks, who had their children teach them the main features and didn’t worry about the rest.

Another interesting experience was people having their devices turned on for the first time. To see the sheer joy of being able to hear again or potentially for the first time ever is really quite amazing.

Ideate

1. Sketch it

Cast the net wide.

We threw out every idea we could think of no matter how ridiculous or unfeasible it was. This was done in brain storming sessions with lots of post notes, white boards and markers.

This included all sorts of concepts. Interfaceless, voice controls, motion gestures, wearable. While many of these technologies are becoming much more main stream, at the time there was still some way to go before these were common place and accessible.

Once we believed we had a solid set of theories, we set out to validate those theories.

This consisted of creating prototypes and other tests, generally trying to minimize the amount of work required to either validate or in-validate a hypothesis. This allowed us to focus on the most promising theories moving forward.

2. Prototyping.

We set up creating some point and click type prototypes using Flowella, an Adobe Air based, hot spotting, prototype platform (think vintage InVision). This was chosen for its ability to work on some mobile devices as it was not so common at the time.

We started out with wireframe prototypes. This helped us validate our theories further without visual design getting in the way. We were able to validate concepts in their most basic form. Most of our mockups were created in Balsamiq and then later with Microsoft Expression Sketchflow (A Silverlight prototyping tool).

During the wireframe and sketching stage we repeatedly continued to validate our ideas with users we had regular access to.

We also needed to consider hardware. While we considered making an app for the controller, due to the medical nature of the device, it proved extremely difficult and not worth the effort to pass required regulations to install such an app on an every day device (iPhone or Android).

This left us with the option to design the remote from scratch. This approach did however allow a whole different level of control of the project from a design point of view.

Designing various button/screen layouts, we worked closely with the industrial design team to come up with a few 3d molded prototypes.

We also had to consider what chips and controllers had to be included for certain features, thus making the device potentially bigger and heavier. While major phone manufacturers have the ability to design new chips with all sorts of controllers built into them, we did not have that luxury (expensive R&D) at the time, so we had to stick with what was available.

3. More user testing!

After we had 3 solid prototypes that we considered workable solutions, we conducted face to face (monitored) user testing with 6 people. The tests were around 45 minutes to an hour long.

The tests generally consisted of an interviewer and 2 note takers. All tests were filmed.

The tester would have a pre set script to avoid skewing the results by changing the instructions. Each prototype was shown in a different order to help avoid bias between the first and last prototype.

We organized all user testing interviews in to 2 groups with a break between the first and second group to allow us to fix any issues we noticed early on.

The prototypes were shown to the users on a device that was as close as possible to how the real hardware would look and feel (I believe it was a Nokia touch screen device). While this helped a little with getting a better feel for how the device would be used, we also used the 3d models to help users understand the final product better.

We learnt some very important things from these tests, such as ensuring the user was unable to accidentally turn up the volume on their device, whether it was in their pocket or handbag, or simply an accidentally slip of the finger on the touch screen. We were required to try to find a perfect balance between simplicity but not so easy you can accidentally do it.

We added in various safety features to make sure the features which could cause harm were protected from accidentally usage while more harmless features were easy to use.

This created an interesting hierarchy of controls for the device as many of the possibly harmful features were the most commonly used while other, harmless features were not so important and shouldn’t be to prominent.

Various solutions were devised and retested. In the end it was a mix of locking controls, warning dialogues and delaying actions to avoid these problems.

Another issue we found was issues with the size of the device. While it had some fantastic new features, we needed to know if it was enough for people to want to carry around a larger device.

At this point we were met with issue from the stakeholders who felt uncomfortable releasing a new device due to some hardware issues, even though we had received a great response from users regarding the new interface and features.

The pivot.

We took a step back and reviewed our work over the last few months and applied it to the current remote control as a quick win. We redesigned the current remotes interface and made some very slight changes to the hardware.

This pivot resulted in the company winning 2 design awards based on their remote’s refresh.

The newer remote control design was shelved for the time being until the technology advancements required to build a better device were available.

In the end.

It was one of the first big UX project I was involved in. The 3 months spent on this project was incredibly invaluable to my progression towards UX design.

Major highlights included:

  • Working with seasoned UX veterans with incredible amounts of knowledge to share
  • Experience with hardware and software design in one project.
  • Working with interesting demographic.
  • Ability to conduct tests and design with the full support and understanding of the company behind the UX team.