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I recently posted an article – a sneak peak – at GN ReSound’s “Made for iPhone” (MFi) Hearing Instrument LiNX and the Beltone First. It has made a larger market splash than I thought it would. In fact, it has truly been huge. I’m not sure I was expecting such a pull to occur in the market. But, having worked in technology for the past decade, I certainly should have expected it.

You see, I am in a unique position with regards to this project and I am not sure anyone else shares this position with me. Let’s stack this up:

  • I work for GN ReSound as a user interface designer (UX Designer).
  • I have a natural hearing loss that began in my early childhood (one of the reasons I was attracted to the position) and wear hearing instruments.
  • I have worked on the software and designed features that interface with the iPhone application and enable audiologists to manage the settings in the application.
  • I have been wearing the new hearing instruments since the early test phases – for about 3 months now.

I would admit to being biased in my opinion on this product. However, I am actually a pretty tough critic when it comes to technology and while I see areas in need of improvement in the app, I have to say it is a major step forward and fantastic. What I am seeing in the market and with this product is unprecedented in two major ways (and a lot of minor ways).

First, the company has bridged a gap. If you wanted to use your iPhone to connect to your hearing instruments last year, you had to use a phone clip, which essentially acted as a Bluetooth bridge (see photo). I tested the phone clips out (both versions) on two different phones and found them to be only partial solutions to using your phone with your hearing instruments. I had a bad habit of leaving the phone clip somewhere and losing my connection. I had issues speaking and being heard when connected. And the iPhone’s other apps would often interfere with the sounds they made. It wasn’t a perfect solution for me. I’m not the only one who feels this way. CNN put it like this:

“It’s been possible for people to operate their hearing aids via custom remote controls and even link them to smartphones, but that has required an intermediary piece of hardware, most often a small, clunky box worn around the neck.”

While I do think the GN ReSound Phone Clip is not really clunky, it is nice to only have to worry about bringing my phone with me.Beltone Phone Clip

The second item that is unprecedented with this product launch has been the internal communications that have been going back and forth amongst many of us here at the offices and out in the field. The launch of MFi has created a market pull from the end-user, which has, in turn created a market pull coming from the audiologist. This is what is considered a “disruptive innovation” – that’s two buzzwords in a single phrase and thus I apologize. But what this means is that there has been an invention or new product in an industry that is a “game changer.” For example, the iPhone and iPad were both disruptive innovations in the sense that they created a whole new way of looking at mobile technologies. In order to understand how the MFi is a disruptive innovation, you have to understand a little bit about audiologists and the hearing instrument industry.

Audiologists atypically go to school, graduate and get a job like the rest of us. Also like the rest of us, they usually gravitate to the tools used in their first place of employment. The hearing instrument industry has more than a dozen major manufacturers today. Each of them employs a development staff to create what is called “fitting software.” This software communicates with the computer chip in the hearing instrument to program the settings. Yes, hearing instruments today are much like little computers that sit behind your ears and digitally process the sounds you hear (or couldn’t hear before). So, the audiologist fresh out of school gets trained on the fitting software for the hearing instruments their new place of employment uses. Most audiology offices will fit 3-4 different brands of hearing instruments – not all of the brands. The exception is someplace like the Veteran’s Association that fits 9 different brands as of my last count.

There is one other factor to consider here and that is where the customer – the hearing instrument wearer – fits into all of this. Consider buying a car or a house or a new TV. How do you do this? Well you might research, put in some hours on the net and ask some friends. There are lots of routes you can choose. But, the medical industry is a different scene. You don’t always get to choose your doctor, your surgical intervention, what procedure will be done, the tests that will be ordered for you. The same situation exists for the person who wants to buy a hearing instrument.

Here is a typical scenario: My wife may begin getting annoyed with me because I keep asking her to repeat things and keep the TV up too loud at night after she goes to bed because I can’t hear it at lower levels. She does an internet search for a local hearing instrument provider, drags me in, gets me assessed and the audiologist makes some recommendations on both the type and brand of hearing instrument. This is a scenario we often see in this industry. The patient doesn’t really choose a hearing instrument brand like they do a car. It is mostly chosen for them. A colleague I work with constantly asks someone what brand of hearing instrument they are wearing when he spots someone with one. Invariably, they rarely know. This is illustrative of the lack of brand loyalty/awareness in this industry.

The MFi launch is changing that though. We are getting reports that people are going to their audiologists and requesting our hearing aid. This is not just a few people either. The traffic on our external networks has increased exponentially and we even have audiologists calling to request training for the application and hearing instrument. This is equivalent to what the pharmaceutical industry has created in medicine where patients often inquire with their doctor concerning a certain medication or treatment plan. This is truly a “disruptive innovation” we are seeing and I am quite proud to be a part of something this large and this important both because I have been a part of and privy to the design as well as because I am person who has been handicapped with a hearing loss most of his life.

In the following weeks, I’ll both review and provide some video footage of the product in action with the hopes of helping those who are like me and promoting a solid product I have used and fervently believe in.

Further Resources:

Can Apple help make hearing aids cool?

ReSound LiNX

ReSound LiNX Product Brochure

Beltone First