Arnold doesn’t need his ears to work. He does most of his work alone, and he communicates mostly via email. Which is fortunate, because he’s turning deaf.
Astrid uses her ears to listen to the people she makes things with. And she listens even more carefully to the people she makes things for. And she uses her ears to listen to podcasts while she runs.
Ears are used in many ways. And they are not used in many ways as well
Many people told me they use their ears for listening. Stefanos, a cook, needs his ears to listen to orders, and to listen to the sounds his food makes. Many people use their ears to listen to the people they work with. Their colleagues, their clients, the users of their products, their students. Willemijn added that listening is not enough: you have to observe as well. What people say they do is often not what they really do.
Quite a few people I spoke to are hard of hearing, and in some cases even completely deaf. Marie calls herself Deaf, with a capital D. She was born deaf and she uses her eyes to read lips and to read sign language. Arnold has been turning deaf over the years. This doesn’t affect his work, it does affect his private life though. It gets harder to communicate in crowded places. Since Joost’s one ear is completely deaf he can not hear direction. Some of his students know this and use this to tease him with in class.
Quite a few people do not need their ears for making. They work alone, on their own products, and the things they make don’t use sound. These are people like Kiki who makes things from stuff she finds on the street, or people like Titus who is a programmer, or Arnold who has been researching old Greek manuscripts all his life.
A few people told me that sound does play a role in their work, while they don’t really need it. Joke listens to the sounds of the surroundings while she collects the stones and thingies. Later, when she is making her jewellery, she hears the sounds of the waves. It’s not an essential part of her work, but it’s there.
Diek is a sculptor. When a work is done it somehow has its own sound. All his sculptures have their own unique sound. Not literally. You don’t have to knock on them to hear it. They look like they have this sound. But this is something that happens after the fact, a side effect. It’s not something he creates on purpose.
Hearing, not ears
Dave and Harold, the two musicians I portrayed surprised me. They both told me they had never thought of their ears. For them it’s not about the ears, it’s about the hearing.
Conclusions and questions
Hearing is used in many, completely different ways. Here are some questions that pop to mind. When I think about user interfaces on the web, how can I use these findings? Here are some conclusions
- Some people are deaf. Interfaces should not depend on sound.
- Some people listen to music while working. Sounds might be annoying.
Here are some questions that I want to investigate further
- Objects look like they have a certain sound. I’d love to investigate this further.
- Can we use sounds to enhance interfaces?
- Are there sounds that are not annoying?
You’d think that his ears must be most important for Dave, since he makes sounds. But he told me he had never really thought about his ears, the physical things. So no, it’s not about the ears, it’s about the hearing.
Diek doesn’t use his ears for making his art. But every work he ever made does have its own tone, and its own sound. But this is after the fact, it’s not something he puts into the work deliberately.
Harold never really considered his ears to be a part of his making process. Hearing is important, but not his ears themselves. Not for making. Ears are an erogenous zone, he says.
Irene doesn’t use her ears that much when she makes things. Of course she needs to listen during lessons. It would be nice and quiet in class if she didn’t have to though.
Joke doesn’t really use her ears for making things, but she does listen to the sounds around her when she walks around, collecting things. She collected stones recently on a beach in France. She hears the sound of the waves while she works with them.
Joost is deaf in one ear. He believes that this may have contributed to him becoming a frontend developer, someone who works on a computer, alone. Fun may be another contributing factor. But his partial deafness doesn’t prevent him from being an impassioned teacher. Students do tease him every now and then in class when they find out he can not pinpoint sounds.
Kiki doesn’t really use her ears when she makes things.
Maarten uses his ears for listening to his clients and to his employees. But, he adds, his employees listen to him more than he listens to them.
Marie doesn’t use her ears for making. She’s completely deaf in one ear, and almost completely deaf in the other. She considers herself to be Deaf, with a capital D.
Marrije is a very good listener. She listens closely to her clients, to employees, to the freelancers she works with, and to the people she designs for. Her hearing is not that good though, so she does have some difficulty following a conversation in a crowded place.
Robert Jan uses his ears for listening to people. To his clients. To the people who will have to use the final product. To his fellow designers.
I never realised how important hearing is in the kitchen. According to Stefanos all senses are important here, not just seeing, smelling and tasting. When Marijke calls an order from the shop, Stefanos hears it and reacts. When I distracted him for this project he jumped up the second he heard the hissing sound of something burning.
He doesn’t use his ears for making. But he does listen to music all day. A while ago he started on this project to listen to all songs that ever entered the Billboard Top 100. That list started in 1958.
Vasilis doesn’t really use his ears to create. His creations usually don’t use sound. Except for his podcast. But postproduction is almost automated, and he prefers to read the transcript. He likes to listen to music when he’s doing stuff though.
A large part of designing is understanding the people who need the thing you’re making. And one of the ways to understand them is by listening closely. Willemijn is a very good listener. But she also knows not to blindly trust everything people say. Listening is not enough.