Published here February 2004.


Musings Index

The Voyage of Discovery Project

The Birth of a Project | Customer Requirements | A Problem with the Theory

The Birth of a Project

According to traditionalist project management thinking, once an idea or need has been established it should be possible to proceed in a logical sequence. That is, flesh out the requirements with the customer, convert that to a set of instructions, or specification, get on with the doing of the project and, bingo, the result is a product with a satisfied customer.

Well, as a lot of project managers now know, and as this writer has been at pains to publicize, it is not that simple. But this was dramatically underscored recently in a very personal project. In the overall scheme of things, a $3000 project is not very big -- except when the money is from your own pocket, and the deliverable is a very expensive pair of hearings. It all began like this.

I started my career on a construction site, long before the idea of long-term damage to hearing was generally recognized, damage that could result from high levels of noise. Typical culprits on my construction sites were probably compressors, concrete breakers, pile driving equipment, compaction equipment and the like. The damage is not immediate, but tends to become evident as you get older. The damage varies, but typically leads not to a hearing loss per se, but rather to a condition known as tinnitus, or "ringing in the ears".

This ringing is in the high-pitch range and sounds rather like the constant unloading of sand from the back of a truck. To be technical about it, that's in the sound frequency range of 3000 to 4000 Hz and above. The effect is to shut out or mask low volume sounds in this range. In terms of speech recognition, it means difficulty in distinguishing between the sounds of the high-pitched consonants such as S, T, P, F, D, M, N, and so on. The consequence is a constant need to ask "Run that by me again?" or just "Whadgersay?"

And so this project was born.

Customer Requirements

Given that digital sound is now all the high-tech rage it seemed like a good idea to invest in the latest technology. Literature was researched, optional products investigated, Internet chat groups culled and so on. I should explain that there are various solutions to the hearing loss problem. These include what they call "Behind-the-Ear" (BTE) hearing aids (or HAs), "In-the-Canal" (ITC), "Completely-in-the-Canal" (CIC) and some variants of these, with a variety of makers of each. Each maker promotes each style indicating various technical attributes.

Being something of a techie and if we're going to spend that much money on a pair of glorified ear rings, it seemed like a good idea to go for a variety of features and functionality as described in the available literature or on the Internet. In my case, following examinations by three different audiologists, receiving their recommendations and studying the hearing threshold plots I decided to specify:

  • Situational requirements: TV, music and one-on-one listening; group conversations, public gatherings, in lecture halls, etc.; and telephone feedback suppression.

  • Definitive feature requirements: ITC style (somehow I didn't like the idea of sticking something way down into my ear, but I wanted something not too obvious); three programs with beep alerts (one for each of the three situation groups above), noise suppression (don't want to overload the old eardrums), sound enhancement (sounds like a good idea); phone feedback suppression (don't want to irritate the phone caller); volume control (total command); longer battery life (lower operating cost); and good quality but not necessarily the most expensive (prudent investment).

  • Preferred features if possible: Two microphones for directional control (selectivity); and low battery warning (easy maintenance).

No question, here was a clear set of customer requirements with buyer satisfaction guaranteed -- or so I thought. Well, contrary to expectations, there is an underlying problem and this problem is common to more projects than we are led to expect.

A Problem with the Theory

The fact is, you cannot know how well a particular style, let alone a particular make and quality, will suit you until you order a pair (two are recommended for balanced hearing). A mold is then taken of your ears needed for an exact fit, and the hearing aid is produced and delivered. Then you spend time getting used to an unfamiliar sound environment, which takes several weeks. Then, and only then, can you decide whether the whole exercise is for you.

The story is not finished. In the event: the hearing aids were quite a bit larger and more obvious than I expected. The program switch, press-in type, was a little difficult to handle. More importantly, in a noisy environment you could not hear the program beeps to tell which program you were in, and when talking to someone there is nothing more distracting that watching them repeatedly shoving at their ear. The volume control was also a bit of a hazard. Although variable, there were effectively three positions: Too soft, just right and annoying feedback. The middle position was very difficult to find, even after marking it with a felt pen.

My audiologist, bless her heart, was a nice young lady and very patient. She even allowed me to try a brand new not-yet-released quite-discrete BTE model for several weeks' trial. But it seemed like a completely-in-the-channel model would be a better solution. The CIC is very discrete, has only the programmed setting arrived at by the audiologist, and has nothing to be fiddled with. True, there is some degree of what is known as occlusion, a feeling of being "boxed in" that varies from person to person. However, because the HA microphone is now much closer to the eardrum, feedback squeal is much less likely and evident. So another set of molds was taken and another set of HAs delivered.

At one point I had $10,000 worth of hardware in my possession. My audiologist wanted some assurance that I was not planning on leaving the country so I told her I was not contemplating that, though I was thinking of setting up a hearing aid shop. Fortunately, she didn't take me seriously. Anyway, I find that the feeling of occlusion is not too bad and is something I think I can live with.

Well, every project has its trade-offs doesn't it? But at least I don't have to keep asking my friends to repeat themselves.

Home | Issacons | PM Glossary | Papers & Books | Max's Musings
Guest Articles | Contact Info | Search My Site | Site Map | Top of Page