‘Hearing Birdsong’ is a project exploring people’s relationship with the health of their hearing. Tom Woods, co-founder of Kennedy Woods, an architecture practice that creates positive social impact through user-centred design & architecture, created the concept which was awarded a grant by the Design Age Institute to develop it into a working digital prototype. Studiomade won a competitive tender to partner for both the design and development build of this exciting product.
Hearing loss: a hidden UK health crisis
Hearing loss curtails working lives and exacerbates critical age-related problems, with strong links to increased risk of dementia and cognitive deterioration. Addressing hearing loss is a huge untapped opportunity for long-term cognitive health, productive extended lifespans and improved quality of life. Yet social stigma and fear made worse by a mechanical clinical process mean this critical issue goes unaddressed for many, leaving an estimated 9 million age-related sufferers undiagnosed in the UK.
“By 2040, the 1.6 million dementia sufferers in the UK will cost the economy £94.1bn – 60% of which is borne by families, drastically increasing health inequity.”
Hearing Birdsong looks to humanise the approach to screening for hearing loss, providing users with a more natural and familiar way to protect their hearing health and long-term wellbeing.
Testing through nature
When experiencing Hearing Birdsong, the mechanical, abrasive sounds of a pure tone hearing test have been replaced with a richly detailed forest soundscape. Familiar birds call out amid rolling thunderstorms, swaying trees and flowing streams, blending into a dynamic yet calming audio-experience. Sophisticated audio engineering underpins this tranquility. Each of the five British bird calls have been carefully selected to occupy a narrow band of frequencies matching those examined during a traditional test. The soundscape provides users with performance indicators across their entire hearing range.
We needed to ensure that the product appropriately supported people as they progressed through the screening and received their results. The experience was intended to provide a less abrasive option to the traditional hearing test and so we needed to ensure that people weren’t left feeling isolated or afraid of any potential issues presented to them.
The language we used within the script needed to be both accessible and feel natural to as many as possible. We made decisions throughout the process based on interviews with key stakeholders to adapt the language in a way that would most likely resonate with our audience. For example, we chose the word ‘woods’ instead of ‘forest’ as it was felt that a forest could conjure up images of a dark and intimidating setting.
Design accessibility was a key requirement for our audience. We looked closely at typographic choices, colour (contrast accessibility and legibility), and the size, clarity and consistency of interactions.
We wanted the world to feel immersive and calm, and so we used soft colour transitions, simple shapes and movement to create a playful world inspired by children’s storybook illustrations.
We worked with a control group to test our design and development iterations throughout the project which gave us many insightful observations. How would users with hearing aids interact with the tool? What elements were visually distracting? What language was inaccessible or off-putting? We were able to fold all of these observations into our work on the product as we progressed and built a refined experience that would meet our audience’s needs.
Pairing visual design and audio
This audio soundscape required a visual and illustrative approach for the product that supported the user in their journey, but maintained a focus on the audio experience. We settled on the idea to softly blur the background illustration at the moment we asked users to tell us what they hear. We wanted to reinforce the idea that they should be focussing on the sound at that point and not on the scenery around them. All illustrations were crafted by Studiomade through a series of design explorations, resulting in the chosen visuals adopted within the Beta product.
The results screen presents a key element of the user flow within Hearing Birdsong. We needed to ensure that explanation language was clear and concise, and any ‘graded’ results were not confrontational or judgemental. We provide clear feedback for each chapter and include links to other helpful resources where users can follow-up. Over time, as the product is used and feedback is gathered, we’ll be able to gain further insight and tailor the results to effectively support those that need help.
Hospitals without walls
Consumer appetites for digital health solutions are growing. Digital health technologies are hoping to lead to a ‘hospital without walls’ approach that can blend in-patient care with alternative models including community and home-based support. Practitioners, researchers, engineers, designers and people with hearing loss have all helped to get Hearing Birdsong to this point as a working digital product that can form a foundation for future expansion and development.
‘Hearing Birdsong’ is to be exhibited as part of the Design Museum’s ‘Future of Ageing’ exhibition in July and August 2022.