Ear Trumpets and Bionic Superpowers

“You’re lucky,” said Mr. Pelcek, my elementary school guidance counselor. “At least they’re not bigger. When I was a boy, hearing aids were huge boxes people wore around their necks, with cords running up to their ears.”

Was I also to be overcome with joy that I wasn’t lugging around an ear trumpet, like the elderly characters in Saturday morning cartoons? No one everwants to wear hearing aids, especially not a ten-year-old.

Wearing hearing aids and admitting you even have hearing loss are two different things. Determined to act just like the other kids, I kicked off a decades-long campaign to deny, ignore, and cover up any evidence that I couldn’t hear. Instructed to sit in the front of the class so I could hear better, I scorned the front-row dwellers, those unfortunates branded as nerdy, and defiantly sat in the back. I kept my hair long and avoided wearing attention-getting earrings. And I honed my skills in pretending I could follow. Even when I couldn’t.

I initially believed in minimizing people’s awareness of the challenges I faced—gave myself a simpler front-end interface. It took years, but I finally accepted the inherent complexity of hearing loss. I learned that people were even willing to work harder to communicate with me if only I’d let them know what they needed to do and why. My goal should not be to hide my use of hearing technology. It should be to find ways to make it appropriately visible.

As designers, we obsess over making technology easy to use and intuitive. But now I appreciate interfaces that are appropriately complex—technology that makes its challenges visible in the right way, at the right time. What elevates our profession from merely smoothing out the rough edges to making a meaningful—even transformative—difference in people’s lives is our ability to wisely decide how and when to communicate complexity.

The Invisibility Cloak

Our profession has a mantra: no one wants to use technology. People merely want to achieve their own goals, complete their own tasks. We’re judged successful if we remove any unpleasant friction; create a pleasurable, seamless interface to the mysteries that lurk within; and make technology invisible.

Ask an audiologist, and he’ll tell you: People want invisible hearing technology, too. People seek out the tiniest, most unobtrusive hearing aids. It’s a form of magical thinking: If no one can see it, then I don’t really have hearing loss. In recent years, as I’ve become more open about my hearing impairment, I frequently hear this response: “Really? I had no idea.” I’m ambivalent about this reaction. I’m proud of myself for passing, for successfully playing the part. Yet I now know that maintaining my facade came at a price. The cost I paid was pretending to understand even when I didn’t.

Conversation has a thread. During an evening out, you lose it and pick it up again in the encompassing din of roaring and clanging and buzzing. It’s all just noise until a robust pair of consonants springs forth: a th or ch or gr. Suddenly you have your arms around that thread, grab hold and follow that digraph down into the structure of the language beneath. Now you can grasp it—one sharp sound opens the door to an hour of conversation. But it’s exhausting. No matter how hard you try, you will eventually tire; your mind wanders for a second, and you’ve lost track. You struggle to maintain but eventually let go and just let the raw sounds and syllables wash over you. Language devolves into guttural noise, meaningless utterances, like that of the adults mumbling in Peanuts television specials.

How often can you ask someone to repeat herself? I’ll tell you. Three times. The first time, you offer a casual, quizzical look and say, “Excuse me?” The second time, you look a bit more serious, and ask, “Say that again?” The third time (and this is when things get real) you sit up straighter, stare the person in the eye and invest in a full sentence like, “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”

If you’re lucky, she repeats herself more clearly. Restates the point using different words. Turns and faces you directly, so you get the full impact of watching her face move, feeling the air currents hit your ear drums. Praying all the while that someone else picks up the conversation, ideally a braying man with a loud, low voice.

Failing that, you’re in trouble. The wheels of conversation grind to a halt, caught in awkwardness and bewilderment.

Better to fake it. Smile and nod. Learn to mirror facial expressions, become a spot-on mimic of someone who can hear. Laugh a half beat too late at jokes you don’t understand. Be considered a great listener because you hang on to a person’s every word, lean across the table, focus intently on her face—as if she is the most important person in the room, or the world.

But in a conversation, the point of listening is to communicate. And I wasn’t succeeding.

I hid the fact that I had hearing loss because I feared that the interface to mewas frustrating. Who would want to engage with me if extra effort were required? But instead of helping people become aware of what I needed, I hid my challenges and glossed over the difficult patches. I put a simpler front-end on the experience of talking to me, one that made a difficult task seem easier. But by doing that, I only made it harder.

Challenge = Improvement

Working at the Stanford Research Institute in the 1960s, Douglas Engelbart led the team that designed and developed NLS (oN-Line System), a revolutionary computing platform. The project goal was “augmenting human intellect.” NLS is known for being the first to implement many conventions now familiar to us, including the mouse, hypertext links, and multiple window displays. These innovations made their way through Xerox PARC and into the Apple Macintosh graphical user interface, and in many ways are the features we think of when we call a modern computer “easy to use.” But NLS itself was not easy to use, nor was it easy to learn. Why? Engelbart’s philosophy was that to truly enhance human intellect and collaborative work, the interface needed to be powerful. Operating this powerful system would require trained users committed to learning a new interaction model, in support of a greater goal.

In the fifty years since NLS was in development, our values have shifted in the opposite direction. Ease of use is paramount, ease of learning reduced tointuitiveness. Consumer apps are expected to divulge their mysteries within seconds, lest they be abandoned in favor of something more obvious. A toddler’s ability to operate an iPad (so easy a child can use it!) is held up as the ultimate example of discoverability, the interaction paradigm for our new generation.

Designs that make technology completely seamless to the user often deserve admiration. But can we balance our desire for intuitiveness with a wider recognition that some tasks are complex, some interactions must be learned, and sometimes the goal isn’t invisible technology but appropriatevisibility? I yearn for more respect for Engelbart’s ethos, in which computers are thought of as tools that harness our collective intellectual capacity to solve the important problems facing humanity—powerful tools that merit the investment of time required for mastery.

Communicating with me can be more difficult than talking to people with normal hearing. By treating that as my failure, a problem that needed to be hidden, I missed out on opportunities to connect with people. When we seek obviousness above all else, we’re doing the same thing. When interfaces that must be learned are considered failures, we miss out on opportunities to create more powerful, meaningful engagement.

Powerfully Unsexy

In a 2010 SXSW keynote, Evan Williams of Twitter stumbled in response to a question from Umair Haque. After an uncomfortably long pause, he grabbed me with the most meaningful statement of the whole interview: “We want Twitter to reach the weakest signals. We want it to be inclusive, and by using SMS we can reach anyone.”

We may set our aim on dazzling the very consumers who already have too many options. But sometimes it’s the boring old unsexy technology that can reach people in new ways, make something out of nothing, make a thunderously transformative difference in people’s lives.

Back when I worked for a big-name agency, back when I worked on giant teams with resources and time and money at our disposal, I lusted after high-profile projects. I wanted the marquee names for my portfolio. I fought to win the media and fashion and consumer product brands, the clients I could name drop, the projects that would impress my peers.

Then I started my own firm, and my definition of a great client changed. No more boardroom presentations at giant corporate headquarters or large-scale redesigns. I wanted more intimate relationships, with clients who didn’t need a huge account-services cushion to help manage their internal strife. Instead, I made sure I had clients who hired me solely for my expertise and respected me for it. They were companies with problems I knew I could solve. I’d be working with nice people. And they would pay their bills on time. Household name was meaningless to me now. I wanted to be able to make decisions that would benefit people.

I learned to love the unsexy projects. I grew fond of places where I wasn’t trying out something perched on the precipice of the bleeding edge but rather was executing small, incremental, meaningful changes. Even if it was routine, it could still be exciting. And almost always more important.

My friend Stephen runs UX for a large financial services institution. I guarantee you they’re doing challenging and innovative work. Yet he told me once, “What we do might not seem very sexy. But we make a huge difference in people’s lives.” Enterprise applications often spill their guts—seemingly at random. Each is a giant database explosion of fields and inputs—screen after screen of layouts and workflows that make no sense. The challenge these designers face is not to sweep all that away but to find out how to communicate it at the right level for the user, improving the quality of a worker’s day-to-day life. These applications might not always be immediately intuitive, but they can be powerful and useful.

I love the idea that even if all we do on a project is create simple, nuanced changes, the results can make a significant difference in someone’s life. I know digital technology can achieve this because I’ve felt it myself.

Zeroes and Ones

I’d say to anyone whose job opportunities were opened wide by the web, whose friendships have been enriched by Facebook, whose finances have taken on a whole new twist with online banking and bill payment, or whose ability to solve the nightly dinner-table debate is now flavored by Wikipedia: Nothing in yourdigital life has changed even a fraction as much as mine has. Google’s power to answer questions or deliver information in an instant has nothing on the power of digital hearing aids to change the way hearing-impaired people communicate.

My friend Joe once told me a story about a mutual acquaintance who needed a wheelchair to get around. “She wants to get one of those new iBot wheelchairs,”—the gyroscopic, stair-climbing, all-terrain wheelchair which innovated many of the technologies inventor Dean Kamen eventually used in the Segway. “But it’s really expensive.” The iBot supposedly handled better than other wheelchairs and would even raise her up so she could sit at eye level with the person she was talking to. Was that worth $25,000? I replied, without hesitation, “To feel like I was on equal ground with everyone else, I would payany amount of money.”

And then it hit me. Obviously I wouldn’t. I’d been scraping by for years with cheap, antiquated, analog hearing aids. I told myself they were good enough andhad a few more years in them and would do for now.

I scheduled an appointment with my audiologist the very next day. I told her, “I want the best hearing aids money can buy.” Since I’d last purchased a pair of hearing aids, the digital revolution had swept this space as well.

A couple weeks later, I picked up my new digital hearing aids, had them custom-programmed, and went out into the night. I asked my friend Randy to meet me for dinner, and we met up at the bar at a crowded restaurant in a fashionable Manhattan neighborhood, a place I’d always wanted to go but never had. We sat close together on barstools and started talking. At least I did. “It’s so LOUD,” he said. “You have to SPEAK UP. I CAN’T HEAR YOU.”

Hey, that’s my line!

Years of struggling to participate in social occasions were replaced—through digital technology—with a clear, focused, intimate conversation, one that I didn’t have to strain to hear. Analog hearing aids amplify everything equally, so conversation and background noise move in lockstep, and the voice of the person I’m talking to gets drowned out by the roar of the crowd. Digital sound processing algorithms strip out the background noise, focus the microphone on the voice of the person next to me. The droning hum of other people’s conversations: Gone. The roar of the airplane engine, the buzz of the crowd at the baseball game: Gone. The endless asking people to repeat themselves: Gone. I could hear. I could hear well. I could hear superhumanly.

I felt like Helen Keller suddenly grokking the sign for water. Randy and I made the rounds of a few more bars that night, so I could drink it all in andhear it. Finally allowing myself to believe it all true, I headed home on the 6 train sporting a wide, irrepressible grin. As I walked through the door of my apartment, I burst into tears. Tears of joy, to be sure, but of gobsmacked amazement too.

My hardware purchase was a life-changing event. Parties, noisy restaurants, conferences, meetings, movies: All open to my participation in a way I’d never before experienced.

No one was jealous when I purchased these prosaic devices. I gained no geek cred from showing them off in a high-powered meeting. Imagine the designers who created this product: No one fetishizes it, their friends aren’t wowed, it’ll never be a Trending Topic. And yet its impact on my life brought me to tears.

Digital Superheroes

If I had a magic wand to wave that would enable me to hear like a normal person, I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t need it. Hey‚ if you had a volume knob for your life, one that didn’t shut the sound off altogether but just turned it down‚ you might not want to give it up either. Because I’ve mastered making what’s hard for me appropriately visible, I’m able to mitigate the downsides of my dependence on technology. Where I used to see only pain points, I now see the upside of a quiet hush where I can focus, my own private space where I can think clearly. What I used to think of as a disability, I now sometimes think of as a superpower.

Do you have the ability to grant your users superpowers? If you do, it might not be because your designs are simple, intuitive, or make technology invisible. A powerful interface might take time to understand; people might need to stretch a bit to learn it. Rather than striving to erase the parts of the technology that are difficult or challenging, you might seek ways to make them appropriately visible. Sometimes it’s only through communicating complexity that you can empower people.

These designs likely won’t get you written up in TechCrunch or on the leaderboard at the iTunes Store. But you just might profoundly improve the lives of a few people. Remove the daily frustrations that grind away at them, offer them meaning or whispers of love or a fresh chance, take pain and make the absence of pain seem like pleasure, or crack open the world and bring them right to the center of this great conversation of life that by all rights belongs to us all.

Superpowers, indeed.