Through the eyes of silence

31 May 2012 5min read

Team Discussion

Multiple authors

As a designer, I know too well the importance of designing products that connect with multiple senses, however, as a deaf person I also know first-hand how difficult it is to use products that rely on sound. The majority of designers place a great deal of emphasis on sound as part of the product ‘experience’ but how do people without the sense of sound (or an impaired sense) manage?

Sometimes it’s frustrating not being able to use some products to their full potential, for instance, an alarm clock. I’ve had a lot of people come and ask me “how do you wake up on time in the mornings?” and I explain that I use a vibrating alarm clock. Luckily, there’s solution to nearly everything nowadays.

Personal products (like the alarm clock or a phone) can be adapted and re-designed to the user’s needs but some products that are used publicly can’t be. For example, door intercoms! They are every deaf person’s nightmare and have such an impact on confidence and people’s perception of you (especially when trying to make a good impression on the first day of work). You are left saying ‘hello’ repeatedly into an intercom until the annoyed receptionist comes to the door. A very embarrassing experience and one that has happened to me on a few occasions.

Deafness means that people have a heightened sense of sight and touch. I always think of my eyes as my ears as I rely on them for everything that goes on around me and in my life. Specialists acknowledge that deaf people have a wider angle of peripheral vision and tend to look around three or four times more than the average person (the actual figures vary significantly, but everybody accepts the fact). So I’d say we have super sight.

As a designer, if there’s something that makes the sound, I would position it where people can see or feel when it makes a noise (such as vibration or flashing). For example, a baby monitor uses amplified sound to alert a parent, as well as bright lights that indicate volume. This sounds like it is ideal, however the baby monitor sits on a table or in its stand. A much better solution would be to have a detachable part that the person could clip on or wear and that vibrates when there is activity.

Some deaf people can hear with a hearing aid which makes people assume we can hear normally. However, in reality hearing aid users can only hear 20% compared to an average person’s hearing (it varies), we can’t detect/ pinpoint where the sound is coming from and the majority of the time is just background interference. Therefore it doesn’t help resolve the issue or dilemma for the designer if they want a truly universal product.

The impact of hearing loss is also considerable (even critical) with medical devices. For example, some auto-injectors and inhalers click during operation to confirm an action. This is a simple solution for the designer, but it doesn’t help me. We don’t tend to have large product families with medical products all aimed at different user needs – imagine the regulatory process! So as a result that one device needs to cope with a wide range of users – young, old, deaf, blind, etc. That’s why it is so important for a designer to empathise with the eclectic mix of users.

Thanks to the rapid technological evolution there are more products that break down the barrier and I’m curious to see what lies ahead in the next decade. My dream product would be digital contact lenses with in-built subtitles, but this might be annoying if it includes background noise e.g. ‘BEEP-BEEP-BEEP- BEEP’ spread across my line of vision.

Patrick studied at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in Innovation Design Engineering in conjunction with Imperial College, London where he gained his Double Masters (MA & MSc) in 2011; and he graduated with a BA (Hons) in Product Design from Central Saint Martins in 2009. He is currently working with Team as an intern to gain further experience in the industry.

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