Facett: celebrating Melbourne biotech innovation and design

We recently entered Facett into the Melbourne Design Awards because we feel it’s a true testament to Melbourne innovation. It was made with input from Swinburne and RMIT universities, and it’s manufactured in Victoria.

Here’s a sneak peek of our application:

Facett is the world’s first modular hearing aid. It was co-designed with real hearing aid users to reduce barriers to hearing aid usage. One in 6 Australian adults have hearing loss but 80% risk secondary complications by not using hearing aids because they consider them expensive, hard to use, and associated with old age.

Facett is divided into two components. The core contains the settings, and magnetised modules contain the battery. Everything clicks easily into place, simplifying daily maintenance tasks and empowering people who have visual and dexterity problems with independence.

This unique modular form enables a cost-effect way to upgrade technology, and it makes it easier for users to connect to a device that allows them to personalise their hearing aid settings using a smartphone.

Facett’s aesthetics turn a commonly stigmatised medical device into a precious personal artifact —like jewellery, in order to encourage crucial early hearing aid uptake.

Project Brief

Until Facett, hearing aid design remained fundamentally unchanged for decades, despite persistent usability flaws.

Years of clinical research and client feedback showed us that many people find changing batteries too fiddly, and don’t want to change them in public. And people still worry about the appearance of hearing aids and whether they make them look old.

The brief for Facett was to create a beautiful hearing aid that people would be proud to wear while simultaneously solving key usability issues—particularly for those with visual acuity and dexterity problems, and reducing ongoing maintenance costs.

Project Innovation/Need

Untreated hearing loss can lead to isolation, depression and even early dementia but millions of Australians refuse to purchase hearing aids because they consider them expensive and stigmatised.

Most people delay hearing aids for 7 years, citing stigma as a barrier. And many who own hearing aids aren’t using them because they find it too hard to change batteries on their own, or can’t bear the prospect of being seen wearing them. Enter Facett with its design brief to make hearing aids simple to use and desirable.

Our pilot trials showed that participants were able to change battery modules easily, even in the dark. A rare immune disorder caused Dr Elisabeth Banks to lose fine movement in her hands. She said, “I thought I would never be able to replace batteries myself. But Facett is perfect.”

Facett could potentially save individuals an estimated $9280 a year in financial and wellbeing costs (Access Economics, 2017). Inspired by crystals in Melbourne Museum, Facett’s aesthetics foster an emotional connection, destigmatising hearing aids, and lowering resistance for new users. Pilot-trial participants reported feeling what they coined ‘deaf pride’.

Moreover, Facett is the first rechargeable hearing aid that can be used while a battery is charging; drained modules can be swapped for a charged backup pair in mere seconds.

Modules allow users to upgrade technology without buying a new hearing aid. New features will be released in interchangeable modules that work with the original core.

Design Challenge

Our challenge was to bypass attitudes about hearing aids among an audience largely reluctant to reveal ageing signals. We had to detach the idea of the body in decline from a device that makes one feel alive and empowered in a social context.

A designer was hands on throughout the entire project, working closely with engineers and audiologists to ensure human-centred design was applied. She consulted extensively with hearing aid users in order to understand the emotional experience of relying on a medical device, and to pinpoint their wants and needs. As a core part of the team, she could say, ‘this change will have an adverse impact on how users feel about this technology, let’s keep thinking.’

Another challenge was ensuring ergonomic fit, ease of use and mechanical functionality; the modules had to be magnetically strong while still easy to manipulate for those with dexterity issues. Over 130 3D printed prototypes were iteratively used, fitted on a special mannequin, and assessed by engineers, audiologists and the designer.

Sustainability

Facett is manufactured in Australia, strengthening the local jobs market with a sustainable design that cements a future for biotech developers in Victoria.

Hearing aids typically require 6-8 batteries monthly, and 97% of hearing aid batteries go to landfill. Facett uses fully-recyclable rechargeable batteries that last for more than 400 charging cycles, saving costs and environmental degradation.

All Blamey Saunders hears clients are encouraged to return their unwanted used hearing aids so we can donate them to Recycled Sound, a partner charity that reconditions hearing aids and donates them to people in need in the community.

Watch this video to see what went into making Facett: https://www.youtube.com/embed/RBeMTuDqV7k

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