Jobs on Design, Everyone Else on the iPod

I’m reading a book called Sketching User Experiences, which is an interesting dialogue on the philosophy of design, filled with many practical real-world examples. The author, Bill Buxton, has been a part of or exposed to many fascinating design projects over the years that he details in his book.

I want to post a quote by Steve Jobs about design from Buxton’s book:

Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But, of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works. To design something really well, you have to ‘get it.’ You have to really grok [understand] what it’s all about.

I feel like a broken record saying this on my blog, but it’s worth repeating, particularly for new readers to this blog. Design is the science of elegant functionality, which is why having a process for design development is so important. Just like research or development—design is also a well defined process.

Jobs’ quote reminds me of what was told to me recently by a friend who is a researcher at Apple’s top competitor. He complained that, more and more frequently on projects, executives at his company were instructing him and his colleagues to, “make it like the iPod—you know, simple and cool.” I’ve heard this complaint elsewhere and it’s obvious that the iPod has become the sole definition of design in many people’s eyes—some Platonic design ideal that everyone is striving to reproduce.

Also because of the iPod, simplicity has become the buzzword of the year, but this is also a misplaced ideal. I hesitate to discuss this, because simplicity has been a mantra of mine since the ‘90s given the unique needs of hearing aid users (my field) and my general philosophy that products should be intuitive. The design success of the iPod is a result of more than just simplicity, just like the business success of the iPod is a result of more than just its design. Perhaps a better buzzword for the future is intuitiveness, from which simplicity is one solution.

My friend’s dilemma was that this demand to mimic the iPod restricted his creativity to the design language of the iPod—he couldn’t treat each project on its own terms with its unique challenges. There’s no surer way to squelch innovation than to tell someone tasked with creative thinking to mimic someone else’s creation. Not only that, the requirements that produced the iPod design may have nothing to do with the design requirements of these other products. The relationship between a product, its use and its user may require a design solution completely different to that of an iPod, but that design solution can still be brilliantly elegant and functional.

While the iPod is currently an icon of design and probably the most written about product with respect to design, I suspect that it may soon become anathema to designers if executives continue to force their design teams to mimic the iPod style. Soon there will be a growing league of ipodoclasts looking to tear down the iPod and force their own design language to the forefront of consumer product design.

What’s ironic is that companies should actually be trying to mimic Apple’s/Ives’ approach to design and learning from his process of iteration and innovation rather than mimicking the product of its/his process. Until they do (and maybe even if they do), Apple will maintain its design lead. Perhaps the iPhone, another product of Jonathan Ives design team at Apple, will be the product to demonstrate that design success can result from intuitiveness rather than simplicity, at which point I suppose executives will be clamoring for products to be made like the iPhone—you know, intuitive and cool.

iPod Listening Safety

There is considerable interest in the amount of damage to one’s hearing that listening to an iPod (or similar portable audio player) can cause. I’ve posted before on Apple’s attempt to prevent harm to hearing from iPods and discussed possible improvements. In the absence of such a solution, it’s important that people understand safe listening levels for iPods and similar devices.

At the recent annual conference of the American Auditory Society, researchers from the University of Colorado and the Children’s Hospital Boston presented the latest data on how long one can safely listen to digital portable music players (Portnuff and Fligor, Output Levels of Portable Music Players).

Firstly, they showed that the danger among all of the players tested (iPod, iPod Mini, iPod Nano, Creative Zen Micro, Sandisk Sansa) are approximately the same. In other words, iPods are no worse for your hearing than any of their competitors.

Secondly, there was no difference in danger to your hearing between different music genres. Believe it or not, R&B music is as potentially damaging as Rock music or Country music. No word on the danger from Opera (although some might suggest that the true danger lies in falling asleep and being exposed to hours of Wagner—or perhaps the danger is in staying awake).

Thirdly, how long you can safely listen to your music player depends on what you are listening with. People choose different earphones to listen to their player: some use the buds provided with the player, some upgrade to expensive insert earphones such as the Etymotic ER6s or Shure E4cs. Some choose to use large headphones that sit over the ears. Depending on which you use, your safe duration of listening is different.

The table below shows the levels calculated by the Boston University researchers that reach the 50% noise dose per day according to NIOSH standards. Exceeding these levels is not a good idea.

For example, if you use Etymotic ER6s (categorized as “Isolators” in the table below) and you are listening with the music player’s volume control at 80%, then you should not listen for more than 50 minutes a day. The authors of this research report even suggest that “more conservative recommendations may be warranted.” Listener beware.

Safe listening

WSJ, Hearing and the Looming AAAS Conference

The Wall Street Journal today mentioned a conference session for which I am both a co-organizer and speaker. The WSJ article has an interview with Stefan Heller, a professor at Stanford University who is one of the invited speakers in the session, on the damage to hearing caused by such popular products as the iPod—a topic that I’ve posted at length on before. Dr. Heller’s research is on the use of embryonic stem cells to restore hearing to those with sensorineural hearing loss. The WSJ article simply discusses the potential for damage from current audio products and the fact that people don’t know that they are causing damage to their hearing until it’s too late:

WSJ: Can you actually kill some cells just from listening to a single CD on an iPod at top volume?
Heller: There probably are some people that can turn the volume of their iPods up to the limit and never have a problem. But other people might do it once and wipe out their high frequencies. And once that damage is done, it will get progressively worse. But you can only know which group you are in after you’ve lost your hearing.

The conference at which both Dr. Heller and I are speaking is the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the organization that publishes Science Magazine, which is possibly the most cited scientific publication in the world. The meeting is in San Francisco from Feb 15–19, 2007. The theme of the conference this year is Science and Technology for Sustainable Well-Being, and the session that I am co-organizing with Dr. Steven Greenberg is titled Hearing Health—The Looming Crisis and What Can Be Done. (For you loomers out there who found this post after googling “Loom”: Welcome. Please link to me on your Looming site.) Looks like the conference will be an interesting one, see the bottom of this post for a sampling of session titles.

I believe that we’re going to be reading a lot more about prevalence of hearing damage and attempts at hearing conservation over the next few years. A small startup is addressing these issues with their recently launched iHearSafe earbuds that have hearing protection built right into them. This accessory to the iPod and other audio products appears to be designed with a more rigorous approach to hearing conservation than the iPod firmware upgrade last year that purported to address similar concerns about hearing conservation. As further evidence, over 150 scientists and intellectuals responded to web magazine Edge’s new year’s inquiry, “What are you optimistic about? Why?” and among such responses as Nathan Myhrvold’s “The Power of Educated People to Make Important Innovations,” Jared Diamond’s “Good Choices Sometimes Prevail,” and Steven Pinker’s “The Decline of Violence” was David Myer’s optimism towards benefit from hearing aids.

Back to the AAAS meeting: I’ll be speaking at the Hearing Health session about the application of hearing science to hearing technology. Due to an AAAS embargo on releasing presentation material before the session, I won’t be posting my talk or providing details from it until after the conference. This is done to ensure that the conference receives maximum press coverage, I suppose.

The program at the conference is extensive and incredibly diverse. As an example, below are listed the symposia that will occur on Friday at 8:30am:

  • Achieving and Sustaining a Diverse Science Work Force
  • Addiction and the Brain: Are We Hard-Wired To Abuse Drugs?
  • Research Competitiveness Strategies of Small Countries
  • Communicating Climate Change: Strategies for Effective Engagement
  • Science, Society, and Shared Cyberinfrastructure: Discovery on the Grid
  • Smart Prosthetics: Interfaces to the Nervous System Help Restore Independence
  • The New Mars: Habitability of a Neighbor World
  • Tinkerers and Tipping Points: Invention and Diffusion of Marine Conservation Technology
  • The Crime Drop and Beyond: Explaining U.S. Crime Trends
  • Dynamics of Extinction
  • Achieving Sustainable Water Supplies in the Drought-Plagued West
  • National Innovation Strategies in the East Asian Region
  • Mixed Health Messages: Observational Versus Randomized Trials
  • Education in Developing Countries and the Global Science Web
  • Food Safety and Health: Whom Can You Trust?
  • Numbers and Nerves: Affect and Meaning in Risk Information
  • Teaching Sustainable Engineering
  • Anti-Evolutionism in Europe: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid, or Not?

See you there.

The Science of iPods and Hearing Loss

After having had a lawsuit leveled at them for claimed hearing loss resulting from iPod listening, Apple has responded by upgrading iPod firmware to allow people to reduce the maximum volume level in their iPod. Great response from Apple, right? Wrong. Infinite Loop asks whether this may be an admission of guilt regarding the lawsuit, as does Lifehacker, and and one definitely has to wonder whether this insufficient solution is simply a quick response to the lawsuit.

Apple’s response provides so little guidance on how to set the limit that it is near useless to concerned parents of children who use iPods or to concerned iPod listeners. Here’s why.

First, Apple provides no guidance on what level to set the iPod and what it means for how long someone can listen to their iPod at that level. Consider that whether a sound is damaging depends on both the level the sound and how long the sound is heard. Listening to a sound for twice as long is the same as doubling the power of the sound with respect to hearing damage. What does this mean? To properly set the level, you have to know how long the iPod will be listened to in a day; equivalently, after the level has been set, you need to know how long you can safely listen to that level in one day.

National standards by OSHA and other groups have guidlines for sound exposure and hearing protection. A sound at 85 dBA can be safely heard for 8 hours. Great, so what level is that for an iPod? Well, it depends on what you are listening to your iPod with, but for now let’s assume you are using the iPod earbuds. According to Harvard doctor Brian Fligor, 85 dBA is just below the 60% mark on the iPod nano volume control (indications are that it will be at an even lower setting on larger and more powerful iPods). So, at a 60% volume setting you can listen for  8 hours, but that time will halve for every 3 dB increase in sound level (that’s a doubling of power). Again according to Filgor, a volume setting of 80% on the nano produces a 98 dBA level, producing a safe listening duration of 23 minutes! What about full volume? 111 dBA and 1 minute of safe listening. Complete data is shown on the right and is from this paper in The Hearing Review.

The case is even worse if you listen to your iPod (like I do) with insert earphones like the Etymotic ER-6is and Shure earphones. Acoustic measurements indicate that levels are approximately 7 dB higher at the eardrum with those listening devices. This means that for the same volume setting, insert earphones cut the safe listening time by 4.

So, you can now see where the firmware upgrade is inadequate. It does not ask whether the person is listening with insert earphones or earbuds–Apple’s software should tell people that limits should be set lower if inserts are used. Secondly, they don’t give any guidance at all as to how long the iPod can be used at that maximum setting. Right now, providing the volume control limit ability is like being given medicine with no guidance on dosage or how often to repeat a dose. If Apple wanted to, they could design firmware that would embed a sound level meter inside the iPod and beep when the daily safe limit of sound exposure has been reached.

The latest Hearing Review issue has several excellent articles on music and hearing loss, including "Portable" Music and Its Risk to Hearing Health and The Medical Aspects of Noise Induced Otologic Damage in Musicians. The articles are easy to understand by the average person. One researcher offers the following evidence that portable music players cause hearing damage. Dr. Fligor saw a 15-year old patient who had significant wax in his right ear. After removing the wax, hearing thresholds were measured in both ears. The ear that didn’t have the wax showed a 20 dB hearing loss at 4kHz while the ear with the wax was normal. The teenager said that he listen to his portable music player at full volume, and Fligor concludes that the most likely explanation for the loss in the one ear was the music player–the ear with wax didn’t have loss because it was protected by the wax which naturally reduced the loudness and protected that ear. The audiogram for this child is reproduced on the right, and the yellow highlight shows the 20 dB difference in ability between the two ears at 4 kHz.

Concerned? Data suggests that you can listen to your iPod at 50% volume indefinitely, and at 60% volume for over 4 hours. You will be tempted to go well above that if listening in an already noisy place, like on a subway or an airplane, but consider the consequences if you do and maybe leave the iPod off until you get to a quieter place.

iPods Converge with Hearing Aids

The hearing aid world converges with the iPod world, and consumer electronics in general, as described in this article from the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The figure shows hearing aid earmolds attached to iPod earpieces, providing a comfortable and secure fit, reducing interfering sound from outside, and reducing leakage of low-frequency sound with the tighter fit. Small, low-power audio earpieces definitely have a market, and the possibilities here are interesting.

(Disclosure: I work for the company discussed in the article but am not working on the consumer technology described. I did that gig at Sound ID).