Creating medical gems

In the age of Fitbits and Apple Watches, RMIT researcher Leah Heiss combines design, engineering and medicine to bring health tech into a new era with Facett—the world’s first modular hearing aid.


I think of emotional technologies as wearable health tech that resonate with us emotionally, but also keep us healthy. Central to creating emotional technologies is engaging deeply with the people who are going to use the device—understanding what they would really like in their lives, and tailoring the technology around that.

All too often, health technology is created with efficiency and hygiene in mind, with little regard for how the wearer will feel using it. This eventuates in clunky and uncomfortable devices that are downright embarrassing for people.

I’d like to change perceptions of wearable health technologies so they become part of our self-identity—sitting alongside a favourite brooch or a childhood memento rather than stored discreetly in the medical cabinet.

In designing Facett with Blamey Saunders hears, I sought inspiration in biological and geological forms occurring in the natural world. Facett’s crystalline geometry is inspired by topaz specimens in Museum Victoria’s mineralogy collection.

The form seeks to shift stigma—moving hearing aids from disability to desirability. Facett also works differently—the intuitive magnetic connector bypasses the need to change tiny batteries, an ongoing frustration for people with arthritic fingers.

Through the process, I spent time with over 25 hearing aid users to understand what it’s really like to depend on a technology to live and work.

Recently, Facett was awarded the Good Design Award® of the Year and the CSIRO Design Innovation Award. The judges agreed that “this product has incredible potential to make a very positive impact on people’s lives who suffer from hearing loss. The use of rechargeable batteries and magnetic coupling is highly innovative.”

I started my ‘design for health’ journey in 2007 when I was the designer in residence at Nanotechnology Victoria. They had around 40 nanotechnologies on the go at that time across many different fields, but I was drawn to the breakthroughs in healthcare.

I worked with the nanotechnologists to create Diabetes Jewellery—it administers insulin through the skin for diabetics via NanoVic’s trans-dermal patches—effectively bypassing the use of syringes. I was excited about this project as it helped to shift the stigma away for people who had to administer insulin every day.

I want to de-stigmatise medical technologies and give people the choice to wear something they actually love. Today, technology is so advanced that we have the potential to create beautiful things that people are happy to wear. Unfortunately, manufacturers of wearable health technologies are still fixed on medical-looking designs.

A young woman who wears Facett hearing aids recently told me that “to me they’re more of a fashion accessory and they can now be part of my jewellery collection”. This shift of the hearing aid from something that supports a disability to an element of self-expression is exactly the point of designing to address stigma.

I hope my work will help to lower barriers that stop people from using hearing aids and other health technologies. A good example is with hearing loss—if left untreated it can lead to loneliness, social isolation and depression, not to mention Alzheimer’s disease and neural rewiring as the brain restructures itself to deal with limited sensory input. An increasing number of studies demonstrate the link between hearing aid use and delay in cognitive decline, but people still postpone using hearing aids due to the stigma.

I spoke at an event recently and met a woman who has Multiple Sclerosis. We had a great conversation about how awful many assistive devices are for people with disabilities. The perception seems to be that if you have a health condition you no longer have any right to aesthetically pleasing or nicely designed things. Through thoughtful design, it’s possible to shift this perception and decrease the stigma of these life-changing technologies.

My ideal retirement

I like the idea of staying engaged in cultural and intellectual city life while having a counterbalance —amongst a very green space or near the sea. It’s not very original! I’ll likely continue to do design consultancy and education as I enjoy the challenge of translating what I know and communicating it to others, particularly with human-centred design. I might even write a book about all this when I’ve retired!

Read more articles in Super Informed: