hearing birdsong hearing loss awareness

Promoting Hearing Health Awareness Through Design: Interview with Tom Woods of Hearing Birdsong

A group in the United Kingdom has re-innovated how to test hearing sensitivity using five bird calls in a forest soundscape. The bird calls are digitized and occupy similar frequencies to that of a traditional pure-tone test. The rationale behind this re-innovation was developed using design-thinking strategies based on a patient’s story of hearing loss.

In this episode of This Week in Hearing, Tom Woods of the architecture and design practice of Kennedy Woods, joins host, Amyn Amlani, in discussing the motivation, and future application and integration of their efforts in humanizing the hearing-test experience.

Full Episode Transcript

Amyn Amlani 0:10
Welcome to this Week in Hearing. My name is Amyn Amlani. For today’s webcast, I had the pleasure of talking with Tom Woods, co founder of Kennedy Woods, a design studio that creates positive social impact through user-centered design in architecture. Thank you for your time and sharing the work from this fascinating project. Tom.

Tom Woods 0:31
Thank you very much for having me.

Amyn Amlani 0:33
So Tom, tell us a little bit about yourself. And tell us a little bit about Kennedy Woods before we dive into the Hearing Birdsong project.

Tom Woods 0:42
Sure, yeah. So Kennedy Woods is a practice that was set up by myself and my co founder, Chris Kennedy. We are we’re actually lifelong best friends, we’ve been friends since we were 13 years old, we met at school, we went down quite different parts in our education, Chris pursued architecture. And I studied product design. We both studied in London and Chris spent a little bit of time abroad. But after, after, however, long held in kind of in in the workplace, after our studies, we came back together to set up a practice looking to learn what are two fields of design could learn from one another. And that sort of interdisciplinary approach and trying to take two different views on all the problems we try and solve as a practice. That’s sort of been the creative underpinning for us since the very beginning. We started eight years ago, we’ve had quite a meandering path as a project, we’ve worked on a really broad range of scales and different project outputs. Our home has always been in southeast London in Peckham. And over the last two to three years, we’ve really started to gather momentum in the education sector. And we’ve done an awful lot of work in early stage education. And we’re now looking to grow that as a capability as a firm. As you sort of mentioned at the beginning, the real interest and underpinning of the practice, to sort of expand on the point of this interdisciplinary leadership has been on trying to bring user centered design principles and methodologies that you’d find in product design, innovation, and sort of migrate those across to the built environment. And that’s kind of what’s led us to the spread of projects that we are currently now working on or have recently delivered, but the Hearing Birdsong out as a great example is. it’s a real outlier for us in terms of the studio’s capabilities, we’ve not actually designed an app before. But we hope that that’s sort of testament to the, to the Design Thinking framework and user centered design, there’s a philosophy which is, if you go in asking the right questions, and being thorough enough in your engagement, that the people you’re trying to serve the form versus function, it doesn’t doesn’t necessarily present the barriers people might anticipate for an architecture firm to design an app.

Amyn Amlani 3:20
Yeah, yeah. No. So for our viewers, just just, you know, the design, the design thinking piece, I think is really, really critical to the whole concept here. It’s different than your typical empirical research piece, right? Where you in a typical research empirical piece, you have a question, and then you have methodologies, and then you solve it. And then you go back and try to re-solve it again. Whereas in design thinking, it’s more interactive. And it’s more nonlinear in the sense that you have these these interactions with these individuals. And that then may take you back to the beginning, as opposed to completing the project. And going back. Can you talk a little bit about the design thinking piece for our viewers, if you don’t mind?

Tom Woods 4:06
Yeah, for sure. So we could talk a little bit about the practicalities and a little bit about the mindset. The mindset of internal adopted design thinking approach. I think it’s ideas Tom Kelly, who’s catchphrases embrace ambiguity. That’s the kind of number one kind of mindset as the top priority is, is becoming being learning to be a little bit more uncomfortable with the uncertain nor the unknown. And you’ve just got to have faith and trust in the process that if you if you go digging and you’re inquisitive and curious enough and keep asking the right questions, you’ll eventually if listeners are interested, you can find some great diagrams about the client anxiety curve, which is sort of client anxiety tends to go through the roof during the, it’s like a bell curve through the middle of the project because you’re you’re halfway through the fee. have no answers to any of the questions you’re trying to solve. You just sort of pick in, pick and research. And you’ve got to learn to embrace the ambiguity and trust that you’re going to kind of come out on the other side. In terms of the practicalities of it so distinct from architecture, as a people, listeners might be familiar this or not, but architecture, the complexity of it, and the nature of the projects you’re working on, you’d struggle to find a better example of a waterfall design process, which is, by that, I mean, you can look it up, you’ll find all sorts of diagrams to support what this is. But a waterfall process is something that is highly linear. It’s sequential and broken up into stages. So you complete a stage, you flow down into the next stage, you flow down into the next stage, the metaphor is that water can flow up with uphill. And in architecture, you’re designing something so big and so complicated with so many teams. After completing one work stage, it’s really important to a large extent that the work remains kind of secure and locked in so that you can progress the project through as soon as you start working on in more naturally agile design disciplines. In let’s say, app design. The opportunity for test, prototype and revision is so much more, it’s such much more of a cost efficient process to show people your design, watch them, break it, and change it, you can’t knock the building down and rebuild it, depending on what you learn. So it’s design thinking, by contrast to the waterfall process of architecture is highly highly agile and really celebrates that agility. And yeah, the way that manifests and fields as a design process is as soon as you possibly can, and you have something semi tangible. You’re showing it to people. You’re watching them break it and you’re asking what lessons can we learn from watching the news, this prototype and design thinking as a process really celebrates that it really, it really encourages and sort of… Yeah, it encourages you to sort of loop back round to other parts of the process and revisit assumptions you’ve made or questions you’ve assumed you have the answer for. That’s all kind of part of the process.

Amyn Amlani 7:26
Yeah, and I think that’s important, as we start talking about this Hearing Birdsong project, which actually stemmed from a workshop that you guys were at where I would assume the design thinking process was part of the equation. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Tom Woods 7:42
Yeah, so everyone has a slightly different set of alliterations for design thinking. So it’s the double diamonds process. But universally the first two generally is, is about discovery, and then defining your problem really clearly. And we, I think, as designers, we’re always looking for those amazing discovery moments, and I couldn’t have been more fortunate to participate in the workshop I did. It’s called a soundpit innovation workshop. It was hosted by Imperial College in London. It bought together 60 or 70 people involved in hearing loss, whether that’s industry experts, people suffering with hearing loss themselves, audiologists, ENT specialists, designers, and it was a we were also pushed together, broken into various subgroups asked to address, you know, addressed and thrash out what we felt could be interesting answers to certain questions. But it ultimately was sort of the ultimate discovery phase, because you had patients sat next to designers sat next to ENT specialists. And it was, it was absolutely magical, watching people just ping insight from Industry Insight versus real life experience simultaneously. From as a designer, it was just a dream environment to kind of see and experience and yeah, I think it’s something we’re sort of especially proud of on the project, as it continues to develop is the fact that it did route back to this really pure, real life experience of someone who shared it with us. And that to be honest, even in that she felt comfortable, confident and sort of empowered enough to step forward and tell her really personal really moving story about her experience of losing hearing. So that was credit to the event organizers to curate that as a trust, you know, an environment that people felt prepared to share in. She told us her story and then which I can run you through probably worth me kind of explaining in a moment but you know, having a patient trust us to give that sort of insight and then it just having such potential to be flipped around into a solution and the underpinning of what’s going on to now be a really exciting design concept. It’s very, very satisfying as a designer to kind of see the process unfold in such pure and clean terms. It’s lovely.

Amyn Amlani 10:19
I can only imagine I can only imagine that, you know, this, this conversation then led to, you know, the identification that this person was having some trouble hearing in certain environments. And that then led you guys down this path. Sure, that path with us a little bit of what you guys are creating, because I think it’s really, really fascinating and cool in my from my perspective

Tom Woods 10:44
Well thank you. Should I should I tell the story quickly about Angela’s experience to give a bit of context to the design or that’d be of use?

Amyn Amlani 10:55
Absolutely. I think it’ll give the viewer some context as to, you know, what drove the premise behind the the Birdsong project that you all have here

Tom Woods 11:06
for sure. So, yeah, Angela, she was one of the participants at the Imperial soundpit workshop. She was a early, early years teacher. And so she walked daily to her local school that she taught at and she made as part of her kind of daily walk, she went through this beautiful little glady bit of forest on her on her commute. And it was the moment that she went on that same walk and realize she couldn’t hear birdsong. That was the moment for her. She tweaked that, you know, her hearing health wasn’t where it had previously been. And it was the moment that inspired her to seek help get access to, you know, to a diagnosis, she had hearing aids fitted. And as she would now testify, it’s completely changed her life and in measurably improved her quality of life through her social connection and everything that comes with it. So, yeah, Angela shared as Angela shared this story with us. It was said, again, against the backdrop of the soundpit and you know, not every moment was quite as romantic and human centered where there was some quite techie stuff going on. And so it was, you know, she just, she just piped out and told us this amazing story, and was really brave to kind of share that in front of a room 15-20 people. And I literally had the idea in the shower. I know that sounds a bit corny, I went home that night, and there’s all I could think about was this walk in the forest, and I was just he was running around in my head. And I got, I literally had the idea in the shower on my way back to this on the second day of the soundpit workshop. And the idea ultimately was, how can we take you know, what is it about Angela’s story, it was so human, it was so visceral, you could picture it so vividly that experience for her but also the sound that she had lost the ability to hear, it can really hit people hard in the room. And it seemed a really powerful force. And if we could recruit that, or if we could find a way to sort of flip it around and turn it almost as a force for good, then it seemed like a sort of idea with huge potential and real sort of the ability to create real human resonance. So hearing as we kind of continue, as the conference continued, and we were learning more about traditional Lord audiometry. And what that experience means to, you know, the absolute antithesis, the kind of clicks and the beeps, and the harshness of that as an experience that is so dehumanized. And it’s so far removed from our real world experience of sound. That that was the sort of penny drop moment is maybe we can inspire people to engage with their hearing health with hearing testing, if we can create a test that is ultimately more human centered and can tap into a more powerful sense of the experience of people taking, taking that test.

Amyn Amlani 14:42
So to that end, to continue this wonderful story that you’re telling you guys did something interesting. And what was that? I mean, you went out and you created this, this this this new kind of test using birds. Can you share that with us a little bit?

Tom Woods 15:01
Yeah, of course. So at this stage, I’ve got to be a little bit careful about calling it a test. Because we haven’t had, we’ve not actually had the technology academically verified yet. So we’re flying under the banner of a hearing loss screen for the time being. But that is certainly the aspiration in the direction of travel. So what we’ve done is, in simple terms, we’ve taken the we’ve taken the white noise, the clicks and the beeps from pure tone audiometry. And we’ve replaced them replicated then using real world sounds. Now that’s, we’ve actually partnered with the Dyson School of Engineering on this. So there’s a bit of digital magic really happening under the hood. And what the technicians on the on the team we partner with have done for us is it taken those recognizable British songbirds, and they’ve digitally compressed and modulate the frequencies in each song to only occupy a very narrow band of frequencies. So instead of hearing, white noise, and a beat playing maybe a two kilohertz frequency, in Hearing Birdsong you’ll hear the sound of a stream passing by, so water flowing, that will be our white noise. And then you’ll hear our Blackbird sing out across the sound of the forest in the river. And that will be our test frequency.

Amyn Amlani 16:25
It’s really, really cool. And you have you have these from, from low frequencies to high frequencies, I believe I read, there are six different frequencies in which you’ve been able to characterize these sounds, is that correct?

Tom Woods 16:37
We got our cost of birds is five at the moment. We’ve got five birds, we had the opportunity to, we’re piloting that the app in the UK, so we had the opportunity maybe to go more international and create something more unusual, maybe a rain forest or a desert, or it could have been anything from anywhere in the world. But I think we took the fact that we’re going to be running this as a pilot in the UK, we’ve created. It is just so nostalgic, it’s so evocative, when you listen to the sound of British forest, the sounds, the call of different birds, they’re all sounds you will have heard before, if you grew up here, or you’re from the UK. So I think, again, in trying to address that, you know, that initial apprehension about climbing into the to the earphones and having to experience all that sort of alien sound, we’ve aim to make the frequency almost the experience almost as local as possible to people testing using it. As we as the app hopefully continues to be developed, we would love to be thinking about soundscapes from other locations and other parts of the world think that could be a real sort of strength to the idea longer term. Each bird has been picked on the fact it is highly recognizable, and a very sort of common species of birds. But also the song, it seems, is already in a fairly narrow melodic pattern, so that the compression that takes place is less noticeable.

Amyn Amlani 18:20
That’s really fascinating. And so you’ve, you’ve created this, I’m assuming you’ve tested this too, right? So I read something about an event that took place where you installed the project at St. Mary’s Hospital, and you had several folks come by you talk a little bit about that and what the outcomes were.

Tom Woods 18:39
Yeah that is interesting. So the original idea of hearing birdsong actually wasn’t a tape wasn’t to deliver the experience through an app, we actually hoped to create more of an ambient soundscape that would be brought into spaces by loudspeakers. So and I guess our vision for the project was to say maybe this is something that could exist in hospitals, in GP waiting rooms, you know, when you have a sort of semi captive audience, we love the idea of someone coming in to their GP appointment, and the doctor being able to say, hey, you know, what were your experiences of the forest soundscape out in the waiting room or something as a real sort of soft screen to engage people with their hearing health. Pandemic struck, inviting people into public spaces to congregate and stand close to one another while they listen to our soundscape became quite frowned upon. We actually the last event we ran was it was a couple of weeks before the the lockdowns things got announced in the UK. So a pretty big pin got stuck in progress fairly fast as locked down sort of descended on the UK. I then actually through a contact work, I got introduced to the design age Institute, which is a new department at the Royal College of Art as part of the Helen Hamlyn center. Their strategic goals, as an organization have aligned perfectly with them with our age related hearing loss mission. And we’ve got speaking with them, and they basically, through a bit of back and forth, we agreed as a team that actually, the transition into an app, not only would overcome the, the challenges we’re facing about exhibiting the design, but actually, we could be, you know, the reach of the project could be an order of magnitude bigger, because it obviously won’t be so geo located in where we activate. So yeah, to to good outcomes. Really, we’ve we’re gonna, we’ve been we’ve been able to continue developing the project through the pandemic. But we also now are in the process of designing this product that we will be able to, at least prototype far more widely and catch away wider prototype test results set from from the app.

Amyn Amlani 21:09
Yeah, well, that’s, that’s really, really cool. And I’m assuming in maybe you can correct me if I’m wrong here. Your particular platform, given that it’s more real world is actually breaking down barriers for individuals who otherwise might be hesitant to go get their hearing tested. Is that would that be a correct statement?

Tom Woods 21:34
Yeah, that we have a we have a serious social stigma issue around hearing loss in the UK. And to get a hearing test is such it comes with such a different set of Social Triggers compared to getting your eyes tested, people would not dream if you need if you know, you need spectacles, sorry, I’m talking in very general terms. In general, people who know they need to wear spectacles to get through the day, wouldn’t dream of trying to do that, because they know how much detail of the world they lose. And they know how many, how much that can affect experiences. Of the 12 million people living in the UK with age related hearing loss. And that’s 25 dB reduction. Only 2 million have hearing aids. So it’s 10 million people living with reasonably significant hearing loss and there is less either completely undiagnosed, or that’s after a diagnosis and just the refusal to get hearing aids fitted. So I guess if I had to describe what I what I feel success looks like for our project long term, really, really long term. The transition from us societally talking about hearing loss, to try to reclaim hearing health as something that is we all should aspire to, and we should all celebrate. And my poor old dad, I’m not sure he’ll ever not sure he’s part of your target audience. He couldn’t have been a better case study for our project, who’s someone who has struggled with quite significant hearing loss for a very, very long time, experienced significant size, social isolation from my mom and from and his now grandchild and all the rest of it. And it’s only very recently he’s taken that transition to getting a hearing aid fitted. And even he, when pushed would admit, you know, the transition and the difference in quality of life has been so significant. So battle, it takes us quite nicely back to Angela’s story. I don’t think we’re ever going to build anything necessarily aspirational about traditional audiometry the experience of it. I don’t think anyone comes out of that experience saying it was particularly pleasant, or they enjoy doing it. The aim of Hearing Birdsong if we can humanize that, and turn taking the hearing test into something aspirational, tranquil, almost meditative, something that highly relaxing pleasure was something you would almost look forward to doing or something that someone’s telling you about saying ‘God, you know, I had this fantastic experience testing my hears the other day at the GP, you should go and get the same thing done’. It feels like a great starting point, change that discourse and discussion.

Amyn Amlani 24:40
Well, 100% – 100% and you guys have also been fortunate as a team, that you have been recognized at the 2020 world hearing day for the World Health Organization. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Tom Woods 24:57
Yeah, so that was a very generous We got a little bit of financial support the project from the World Health Organization. That was actually that was the sort of the key tipping point from the physical installation we’ve been working on was the first sort of migration more into something new experience in a pair of headphones. And it was when the, it was when this sort of the project started getting really exciting. Lorenzo, who was our he was our technical lead at Dyson at the time. He introduced us to the idea of being able to use binaural audio or spatialized audio. So rather than just left, right, in each year, Lorenzo was able to create these forest soundscapes for us that really feel like a wrap around the user. And where that got really exciting was, as people go through the five to 10 minutes of the Hearing Birdsong screen, we are going to be introducing various real world sounds around you. So as I said, at the beginning a stream to replace white noise, we’re also going to have moments where thunder and rain storms roll in overhead. And so the rain begins to fall around you and you, you hear birds calling out across the water landing on different surfaces and things. It’s going to be rich, immersive. We could go so far in just stereo but Lorenzo’s I said that the World Health Organization grant funded our first step into binaural audio. So we’ve got these sort of amazing moments with weather fronts rolling in, you’re walking closer, you know, you’re approaching various landmarks and your adventure through the forest finding campfires or streams flowing or whatever it is. So it’s yeah, it’s really exciting.

Amyn Amlani 26:54
It’s really, really cool. And in what’s interesting to me is you’re now moving into the area of virtual reality. Is there any any is there any thoughts on moving into that platform in the future? Have you guys ever thought about that yet?

Tom Woods 27:12
Well, it’s interesting. So we’ve, we’ve we’ve been approached by a few people for the project for other more specialized applications. So one that we’re particularly excited about is that is potentially testing hearing of children with autism. So the question is arising around? How can we make the experience how can we tailor the experience to maybe be more engaging to different user groups like how to hold concentration, whatever it is. And I think the combination of audio and the visual element could be a really exciting part of that to explore. So I it’s very, very, very early days, I don’t have any concrete decisions we’ve made on that. But I think if we are going to tailor the experience to different age groups, or to engage specialist user needs, whether that’s could be anything, I think that simplify and just say, for example, children to adults, to elderly users, the visual component for that could be completely different for those three users. While the sound could be quite consistent. Or style of animation or voiceover, maybe there’s a the working prototype at the moment has a narrator that is actually a sort of companion with you, taking you through the the experience. So that could look and feel very different for children as it could for adults. But that’s all slippery, early stages at the moment.

Amyn Amlani 28:45
It’s very, very exciting. You know, as we move into this new realm of hearing healthcare and look at hearing in a more positive light, the things that you guys are doing are so tremendous, and it’s just really, really cool to see those kinds of things. So we really appreciate what you guys are doing and any any last thoughts for our viewers?

Tom Woods 29:09
Yeah, so if anyone would like to stay in touch on the Hearing Birdsong project specifically, they can visit hearingbirdsong.com and sign up to our mailing list. We’ll be sending periodic updates. And if anyone would like to learn anything more about the practice at Kennedy Woods, you can find details about our site Kennedywoods.co.uk

Amyn Amlani 29:28
Sounds wonderful. Tom, really, thank you for all the information that you’ve shared. I really, really appreciate the way you guys have used Design Thinking I think it’s it’s going to be a new way for us in hearing health to start looking at how to help people and and get their perspectives on how they’re feeling and maybe tear down some of these social barriers, which will then result in some some outcomes and, you know, hopefully, as you guys continue to develop, we’ll have you guys back on the show. You can share with us where you are and where you’re going and all the fun things that you’ve developed in between.

Tom Woods 30:05
It’ll be amazing. We’re we’re going to be looking to show the work. It’ll be a quite a resolve level by the summer. And we’ve we’re very excited. We’ve been approached by the design museum to as well be curating the first cohort projects where the design age Institute is going to be exhibiting at the design museum in the summer. So we should be in a really good position then to share some more of the work with you.

Amyn Amlani 30:33
Sounds wonderful. Thanks again, Tom for your time, and we’ll see you guys down the road hopefully

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About the Panel

Tom Woods is a founding director of Kennedy Woods, a multidisciplinary architecture and design practice that helps organisations achieve innovative, sustainable development through architecture, design strategy and storytelling. Based in London, the firm is the UK’s first architecture B Corporation. Having graduated from Central St. Martin’s in Product Design, Tom is a versatile design thinker with a focus on improving communities’ quality of life.


Amyn M. Amlani, PhD, is President of Otolithic, LLC, a consulting firm that provides competitive market analysis and support strategy, economic and financial assessments, segment targeting strategies and tactics, professional development, and consumer insights. Dr. Amlani has been in hearing care for 25+ years, with extensive professional experience in the independent and medical audiology practice channels, as an academic and scholar, and in industry. Dr. Amlani also serves as section editor of Hearing Economics for Hearing Health Technology Matters (HHTM).


About HHTM

HHTM's mission is to bridge the knowledge gaps in treating hearing loss by providing timely information and lively insights to anyone who cares about hearing loss. Our contributors and readers are drawn from many sectors of the hearing field, including practitioners, researchers, manufacturers, educators, and, importantly, consumers with hearing loss and those who love them.

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