Designing the Incus by Leah Heiss

A process of problem finding and solution conjecture:

Portrait by Narelle Sheean

In 2013 I was given the opportunity to design the physical form and user interaction for the Incus, Blamey Saunders hears’ ground breaking technology that allows the user of a hearing aid to have complete control of their personal acoustic experience. This technology is, in their terms, an audiologist in your pocket.

This opportunity fit beautifully with the underlying motivations of my design practice – to design therapeutic devices that do not look medical; and to design things that people might love and cherish – their therapeutic functionality becoming a secondary consideration. The Incus was an opportunity to develop a beautiful, discreet piece of technology that users might come to love, cherish and rely upon. And simultaneously to design a technology which consciously discarded the existing language of hearing technologies.

What is wrong with the existing aesthetic languages of hearing technologies? It is one of my beliefs that the primary design issue in the development of new hearing technologies is that new technologies are referring too directly to existing technologies for inspiration. The impact of this is that each hearing aid (or associated technology) simply refines existing aesthetic and user-experience typologies; rather than rejecting or uniquely reframing these.

Perhaps this is due to the reality that much of this innovation is driven by technology or engineering constraints rather than design innovation. As Nigel Cross, in his seminal text Designerly Ways of Thinking, suggests “The solution-focused nature of designer behaviour appears to be appropriate behaviour for responding to ill-defined problems” and that “In order to cope with ill-defined problems, designers have to learn to have the self-confidence to define, redefine and change the problem-as-given in the light of the solution that emerges from their minds and hands.”  (Cross: Birkhauser Verlag AG, Basel, p103 and 24)

The problem-focused biomedical device designer may rely upon the confidence that a well-defined problem can provide. However this constrains the design outcome to one that iterates upon previous technologies that address the problem-at-hand. The solution-focused approach, employed in the design of the Incus, follows a process of solution conjecture. This entails designing a number of possible outcomes (none of which completely satisfy all constraints) but which in tandem allow the team to move closer to the most promising outcome. This approach is then refined in response to a range of evolving criteria, imposed by the manufacturing experts, technology developments and aesthetic refinement. Finally, through the development of many prototypes we arrive at the final outcome.


Iterations of Incus
Image: Iterative models of the Incus draw widely on organic forms including seeds, river stones, crystals and beans.

The design of the Incus involved sketching and physically modelling initial ideas; digitising and modelling these; 3D printing prototypes to allow for feedback; and remodelling to take into consideration the evolving constraints imposed externally (technology, fabrication, engineering) or internally (aesthetic, user experience). The form evolved from initial research into beans, seeds, crystals, stones and other natural precedents into the form that has now been manufactured and is serving a wide community of Blamey Saunders Hears’ clients.

So, at the end of the process – with a functional, beautiful piece of technology that has been through the manufacturing process and managed to retain its organic origins – what have I learnt? Firstly, that it is important to work with visionary companies – BSH have the courage to work with emerging talent and the openness to listen to different or contrary views; Secondly, that where possible these projects need a designer at the table through the manufacturing process to ensure that the aesthetic and user-experience goals of the technology are not compromised during technical refinement; and finally, that a solution-focused approach to the development of therapeutic technologies, which draws widely on non-medical precedents and thinks deeply about the end user, will necessarily produce better health technologies for  people in the world. As I hope the Incus attests.

Image: the Incus.







Nigel Cross, Designerly Ways of Knowing, (Birkhauser Verlag AG, Basel, 2006).

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  1. This is a lovely article; very insightful. The solution-centric approach to the development of therapeutic technologies is very important – but is not easy. As Leah points out, the designer must be at the table from early in the process. The ability to draw from non-medical precedents is also easier said than done, but incredibly valuable. The work by BSH and Leah on the Incus (where did the name come from, by the way?) is important and inspirational. Well done!

    Peter Binks
  2. The incus is an essential connecting part of the IHearYou system that recently won the Social Innovation category of the Australian Good Design Awards. Incus is named after an essential connecting bone in the middle ear between the eardrum and the cochlea. As a scientist working in a team with Leah and engineers, found it both challenging and rewarding to absorb and understand the different perspectives and thought processes that have resulted in this outstanding device.

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