Can you hear me now? For many people, the answer is no. According to the Centers for Disease Control, hearing loss is the third most common chronic physical condition behind heart disease and arthritis. The National Institues of Health estimates that over 28.8 million adults could benefit from hearing aids but few actually use them due to cost, social stigma, and poor performance. EarGo, a tech startup, wants to enable more people to hear better, through design.
The Bay Area-based company recently launched the Eargo Plus, a direct-to-consumer hearing device that looks nothing like the clunky, robotic hearing aids of your grandparents’ generation. Instead of hanging over your ears, it sits inside the ear canal and is virtually invisible. The company hopes that its product will appeal to individuals in their 40s, 50s, and 60s–boomers and gen-Xers who aren’t in a rush to buy “geriatric” hearing aids, but whose lives could be improved by wearing them. Eargo is positioning itself as the hearing aid provider for people who don’t want hearing aids.
To create an appealing product for this demographic, Eargo founder Raphael Michel worked with the design consultancy Ammunition–best known for creating Beats by Dre’s headphones and branding, Lyft’s glowstache and glowstache replacement, and Square’s register–to rethink the device’s industrial design, user experience, customer service model, and branding, taking cues from consumer tech and e-commerce rather than the medical industrial complex.
“Our biggest competition is denial,” Michel says. “It takes an average of 10 years between when a person becomes bothered by hearing loss and when they buy. They’re not excited about the options out there. Specifically for boomers, it’s price and stigma. Boomers are doers and concerned about vanity. They want to stay in the best shape possible and stay young and healthy. It’s an anti-aging approach. Existing hearing aids make them feel old and sick. Eargo is positioned to make them feel how they want to feel.”
Eargo is based on an idea Michel’s father–ear, nose, and throat surgeon Florent Michel–invented. The elder Michel practiced medicine for over 30 years and became frustrated by patients who experienced hearing loss, but declined his recommendations to buy hearing aids. He took his patients’ complaints and came up with a new concept: a tiny, in-ear design that doesn’t need to be professionally fitted.
The device looks more like a mascara wand or insect legs than a hearing aid. Florent Michel based the form on a fly-fishing hackle. Flexible, silicone fibers allow the Eargo to fit snugly in most ear canals and allow air and natural sound to pass through while amplifying some frequencies. A tiny transparent fiber lets users remove it easily. Other than that, there’s nothing outside of the ear canal–a good thing for users who don’t want the world to know they’re using a hearing aid.
Throughout the design, Raphael Michel and Ammunition tried to simplify as much as possible. There’s no on-off switch and the rechargeable battery is integrated with the product. To adjust the amplification level, users double tap their ears (the acoustic switch senses the rapid change in silence and noise).
Michel was confident that the product would work, but branding and marketing would have to do the heavy lifting for customers to take notice. The product had to be framed in the right way.
“We want people to look at technology as augmenting what they have rather than signaling that they are less that others,” Matt Rolandson, a partner at Ammunition, says. “It’s an augmentation of abilities, not fixing a disability.”
The language and vocabulary surrounding Eargo comes not from medical devices, but from consumer tech–Ammunition’s specialty. Much of the experience centers around the Eargo’s charger, which solves two of the biggest pain points with the product: making sure it has enough power (they need to be charged nightly).
“Many Eargo customers are older adults who, in addition to hearing loss, might also have reduced agility and impaired vision,” industrial designer Steve Lee says. “Throughout the design process, we needed to take this into careful consideration to make the product easy to handle and operate, especially in low-light environments.”
Ammunition designed the case to be a beautiful and desirable object. The charger is slim, contoured like a river rock, and has a soft-touch finish. Users place the devices in a cradle that is contoured like an ear–which maximizes airflow for drying after cleaning–and close the case to charge. Magnets keep the lid closed and make a satisfying snap sound when it closes. When the case is open, LED lights inside automatically turn on to make it easier for users to properly place the devices in the cradles, and easy to find when they need to take them out and use them.
Most hearing aids don’t have a brand associated with them, as they’re marketed to doctors. Eargo comes at a time where it’s now legal to sell hearing aids over the counter, and the experience of buying one had to address this fundamental shift in the technology.
The product comes in a white box that looks like it would be at home in an Apple Store, and it’s emblazoned with Eargo’s logo–a graphic Ammunition made by recording Florent Michel saying “Eargo” and visualizing the sound file. The goal was to give customers a positive association with the product and brand within the first 30 seconds of coming into contact with it.
When customers express interest in Eargo, the company sends a non-working version so that they can touch the flexible fibers on the hearing aid itself and become accustomed to the device. Once they buy one, they’re assigned to a specialist (at no additional cost) to guide them through the on-boarding process. Any questions users have can be sent directly to the same customer service representative over email, they can call the representative, and there are explanatory videos on the site.
The steady consumerization of health care has been happening for years. Instead of going to a physician for questions about ailments, there’s WebMD. Instead of waiting for an annual check-up to learn about your physical fitness, there’s a whole market of apps and trackers that can tell you your heart rate and blood pressure.
“Younger consumers–like gen X and baby boomers–are happening into their health; healthy isn’t happening to them,” Rolandson says. “The time of doctors delivering a course of treatment to a patient and expecting they’ll sit down and shut up is over.”
The venture capital community sees potential in this type of product positioning and approach. To date, Eargo has raised over $38 million in funding. Will it be as big a hit with consumers? The starting price is $1,999 a pair–still a pretty steep investment, though it is less than the average cost of hearing aids prescribed by professional audiologists, which is $4,200 per pair. An over-the-counter hearing aid might not be as affordable as, say, drugstore reading glasses, but Eargo believes it’s a key step toward giving people more control over their health.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Florent Michel was an audiologist; he is an ear, nose, and throat surgeon.