Dismal Designs – The Hearing Aid

WHY ARE HEARING AIDS SO BADLY DESIGNED AND OVER-PRICED?

An elderly relation of mine has some Starkey 3 Series hearing aids which cost an extraordinary £2,500 ($3,600)! Apart from the outrageous price, of which more later, this is one of the most badly designed consumer products I have ever come across. Old people’s hands tend to be unsteady, and their eyesight is often poor, so the ‘geniuses’ at Starkey came up with an off switch that doubles up as a battery holder so when you pull it out with shaky fingers the tiny battery usually falls on the floor and can’t be found by someone who has difficulties bending down and can’t see very well. She dropped one of the aids fiddling about with this ridiculous switch and it promptly broke into two because of the brittle and flimsy plastic. The hearing aid centre charged her hundreds of pounds to fix it, and soon afterwards she dropped it again with the same result! Because of the expense she now only uses the surviving one which is very inconvenient.

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Why do you need a loose battery or such a crude switch? What about proximity wireless charging like the Apple Watch? What about having it switch off automatically when it is taken out of the ear? Modern camera electronic viewfinders sense when your eye is against them so it can’t be that difficult. The whole concept and design of the electronics (presumably just a microphone, speaker, and digital signal processor) look like something out of the 1970s. As the case had split open you could see the rather basic looking components and wiring inside, which didn’t look very complicated or expensive, so I found a breakdown of the costs of these things. As I suspected the profit margins are huge!

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The breakdown for a pair of typical mid-range hearing aids is apparently as follows (US dollars):

Cost of manufacture – $250, then sold to a specialist hearing aid centre for $1,000 which includes research and development costs, marketing and $425 profit. The retailer then charges another $2,000 to cover their overheads and profit, selling them for $3,000. The audiologist profession maintain they need this level of profit to cover fitting, cleaning and adjustments, and the ‘personal touch’……!! This is all reminiscent of opticians some years ago selling outrageously priced glasses, which now of course you can get much cheaper from your local pharmacy and high street chain.

There are now some web-based suppliers such as Audicus in the US and Hearing Direct in the UK selling hearing aids for under $500/£340, so hopefully this might force the large manufacturers to come up with innovative modern designs at a reasonable price.

There is also growing interest in more sophisticated alternative solutions to the conventional device using smartphones:

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-03-05/hearing-aid-alternatives-get-cheaper-more-powerful

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