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GERRY SCULLION: Hello and welcome to another episode of This is HCD. My name is Gerry Scullion. I’m a human centred design practitioner based in Sydney, Australia. As this episode was recorded in Cochlear’s head office on the grounds of Macquarie University within the Sydney metro area, I would like to acknowledge the Wattamattagal clan of the Darug nation as the traditional custodians of the land where we met today and pay respect to their elders both past and present.
In this episode, I caught up with Victor Rodrigues, the chief software architect and user experience advocate for Cochlear, one of Australia’s most loved and most successful innovation success stories. For anyone who is unaware, Cochlear produce implantable solutions for the profoundly deaf. And for anyone with their technological finger on the pulse may have seen late last year on all the tech websites a partnership between Apple and Cochlear.
This basically allows people with the device to stream audio from their Apple device directly to the Cochlear device. We discussed how this idea came about internally at Cochlear and how does a good idea enter the business conversation internally and what Victor did over a decade ago to get the design buy-in at the board level and what impact this had to the business overall.
So let’s jump straight in. Victor Rodrigues, a very warm welcome to the ‘This is HCD’ podcast.
VICTOR RODRIGUES: Thank you, Gerry. Thanks for having me. I’m delighted to be here.
GERRY SCULLION: Victor let’s kick off. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at Cochlear.
VICTOR RODRIGUES: I have been at Cochlear for seventeen and a half years now. So I’ve been here, in fact I’ve been here as long as I sort you know I can’t remember jobs before this. I have this sort of vague memory of the past.
GERRY SCULLION: Was the internet around when you joined?
VICTOR RODRIGUES: It was, just about.
GERRY SCULLION: Tim Berners-Lee was still hovering around it.
VICTOR RODRIGUES: But you know that sad thing is that when I left university back in the early ’90s the internet was still not around and my first job was still, email was still like the thing.
GERRY SCULLION: Yeah.
VICTOR RODRIGUES: But anyway we digress. So I’ve been at Cochlear for seventeen and a half years and I’m Cochlear’s chief software architect and as you know Cochlear is an Australian success story. We’ve been around for well over 25 years now in fact and we essentially provide implantable hearing solutions for the profoundly and severely deaf. And in fact it goes beyond that now in the sense that we’re able to give people the hearing even when they’re single sided deaf or they might still have some residual hearing. So the indications for hearing and qualifying for a Cochlear implant has actually expanded quite considerably over the years.
I mean we implant as young as 6 months old as well. And generally it’s really for people that have lost the function of the cochlear and we do offer other implantable solutions, neuro-sensual hearing loss, the cochlear implant that caters for neuro-sensual hearing loss and then we’ve also got our Baha solution which caters for conductive hearing loss; that’s when your ossicular chain, which is your incus, your malleus and your stapes, they don’t work and effectively the bone anchored solution caters for that. And, like I said, we’ve been around for quite some time now; in fact it’s probably been over 30 years that Cochlear has been around. The multi-channel Cochlear implant was invented by Professor Graeme Clark from the University of Melbourne and he’s still very active in the industry. In fact we’ve got a fairly good relationship with that institutional and the individual as well and it’s essentially an Australian success story.
GERRY SCULLION: Yeah no absolutely. A little bit of a disclaimer here. I have worked for Cochlear in the past and I was brought in to design the My Cochlear Experience for the business and that’s how I know Victor. So for anyone listening, you know we actually our friends and we’ve worked together quite a lot over the years and I thought that this was a really good opportunity especially before I leave Australia to get face to face and talk a little bit about the success story and how design sits into the organisation and everything that goes with that.
So let’s start a little bit more, I remember before I came to Cochlear hearing from a number of my peers that Cochlear was quite xxx4.12xxx back at that time and maybe it still is, I’m not sure. That’s what we’re going to discuss. But your presence in the ux scene was being felt at that time. So tell us a little bit about how you became involved with ux and where that appetite came from.
VICTOR RODRIGUES: It is I mean the story goes back probably more than 10 years ago. You know back in the day when I joined Cochlear as a software developer mind you, we didn’t have ux people and in fact the ux trade was probably fairly low key back then across the entire industry. I mean this is…
GERRY SCULLION: 2008.
VICTOR RODRIGUES: Well early 2000s because I joined Cochlear at the end of 2000 and the software that we were developing back then, which is primarily catered for clinicians, audiologists using our software in order to set up their customers, or their patients to have their implant system configured so that they could hear. And that piece of software was actually designed by a bunch of engineers. So you know good old fashioned software engineers designing the software and do you know there’s a sense of pride that goes in with that because at the time you do go into the nitty gritty and the finer details of those interactions.
But it wasn’t something that was schooled. It wasn’t something that people went and got, you know went to university and studied user interaction design and just the entire the user experience. We did the best that we could.
GERRY SCULLION: Yeah.
VICTOR RODRIGUES: Although that was just the software part of it because at the end of the day Cochlear is an implantable hearing solutions company so we make implants that last an entire lifetime and we also make sound processors which sit on the outside of the ear, well the outside of the head, on the ear and they effectively translate sound into electrical signals and that processor has also had quite a journey. It started off as a body worn processor, in fact when we initially started it just used to be this big machine at the back, almost like a mainframe sitting behind you, right? When we had a handful of recipients who were experimenting with us when we were still in the research realm and then slowly but surely once it got commercialised you started to how do you scale this? How do you actually make such a bit of technology that translates sound into electrical signals? How do you commercialise that?
GERRY SCULLION: And this is when you came into the business at that stage?
VICTOR RODRIGUES: Well I came into the business probably when Cochlear was about I would say 10 to 15 years old. So at the time we were already designing behind the ear processes, processes that sit on the ear. But we did have what we called the ‘body worn process’ basically clipped onto your belt and then you had a wire that ran up to a little head piece that actually contained the microphones.
GERRY SCULLION: That’s incredible. Yeah. So at that time, what was it about the software that you were creating that made you think you must be able to do this better. Or how did you have that conversation with other people about getting ux into the business?
VICTOR RODRIGUES: I can’t remember the exact moment when the penny dropped but it was certainly just that interaction with your users. So you sat in these sessions with audiologists driving the software and you realised that a lot of assumptions that you’ve been making all along while you’re sitting there in the room designing the software in the confines of you know your office space and talking to as many people as you can, nothing replaces actually watching your users use it and not only the users that we were actually writing the software for who are the professionals and their interaction with the patients that were actually getting the benefit of that software.
And that’s when the penny dropped. You started to realise ‘hang on, these interactions, there’s a science to this. There has to be a science to this’. And as some point in probably the mid-2000s I thought ‘hang on, let me look at what the industry does and what the industry is doing in his space’. And also remember you’re also a user in many other aspects and you look at the evolution of online shopping, for example, right? And you experience those interactions as a customer yourself and you start critiquing some of those interactions and you think ‘hang on, that applies to what I do at work as well’. And I think I attended the first ux Australia conference, the very first one which I think was in Canberra, I can’t remember the year right now and that’s when I started to explore what, you know the science of ux was all about and that’s my first experience to it and that’s where I brought it into the organisation, from a software point of view. Because I do need to mention that we’ve been designing hardware with user experience methodologies for quite some time now. It’s in software that came in a little later.
GERRY SCULLION: So can you remember the conversations that you had at that time? Because I definitely know there’s people listening to the podcast that are sitting in very strongly engineering focused businesses and they really want to get ux adopted into the methodologies and how they create things. So can you remember the conversation that you had and what maybe you did to get the buy-in?
VICTOR RODRIGUES: You know it’s been a while now so if I reflect on the types of conversations that I was having back then it was largely just you know spurred by this desire to make our software better, to be far more, to be a delight to use because it wasn’t only about just meeting user requirements or end user requirements and exploring those requirements, it was about delighting your user and that’s essentially what drove a lot of the conversation. But then what you essentially came to the conclusion is that there’s a lot of interactions that you learn from that require you to actually sit and document user experience sessions where you essentially get your users to use your software and you expose as many people as possible to that process and you look at you know the critique that you’re given, you look at the things that they say is good and bad about your software. And that’s what essentially spurred it on and then once you start implementing that and feeding it into the software and you look at, you’re reaping the benefits of that work, the penny starts to drop across the place.
GERRY SCULLION: And I remember when I was working there it definitely was the first job that I actually felt emotion working with people who use the products.
So just to zoom back a little bit more, there’s two different personas we’re talking about here, one is the audiologists.
VICTOR RODRIGUES: Yes.
GERRY SCULLION: And they’re like the partners to the business; they buy the product from the factory or are partners with us and they embed or surgically implant the device into the recipient and the recipient is the term that Cochlear use for people that have purchased and received the device internally.
Now I remember that time I was touching on it there, I was doing user feedback sessions in St Louis I think it was in the States and it was actually the first time that I felt an overwhelming sense of good that as in the organisation where I met a five-year-old, a little boy called Patrick Hoffner, and I’m still friends with his mother on Facebook.
VICTOR RODRIGUES: Oh, wow.
GERRY SCULLION: And that’s the type of relationships I formed out of Cochlear and I am still kind of yearning for that in my own career but it was the first time I realised that Cochlear wasn’t just a product, it was actually, it was a service. And it was a service as a sense because it replaces an important sense within the body and it was a type of service design; it was something that was actually replicating human behaviour and was so deep.
So in your experience, how do you think it differs to normal product design because it’s actually replacing that human sense of hearing?
VICTOR RODRIGUES: The one thing I guess about our product or our products and services is that you’re almost, you’re essentially our end users, the recipients of our products are grateful that we’re restoring hearing. They almost get lulled into this ‘you guys are fantastic’ just on the basis that you are restoring their hearing right? And there’s a certain complacency associated with that where you may get yourself into this sort of tendency to go you know we’re doing that so the other things can sort of fall by the wayside. But I think that Cochlear is really, really good at ensuring that doesn’t happen. And I mean I’ve been in numerous sessions where it can be young or old, you know if it’s a young child and they hear for the first time and that reaction that they get when they finally hear something for the first time they hadn’t heard for probably nine months or a year old, doesn’t really matter, and you look at the parents’ reaction and there’s an overwhelming sense of emotion in that room with tears, you know even to the point of tears.
Or a person that’s elderly, maybe in their seventies or eighties that hasn’t heard for twenty or thirty years, or whatever the case may be, and they hear a sound for the first time. It might be birds chirping outside the audiologist’s room and that sense of emotion. It is overpowering, it’s unbelievably overpowering when you sense that and that gives you it certainly emotionally stirring to the sense that you know you just look at it and you think ‘my goodness, I just love the industry that I’m in’, right?
GERRY SCULLION: Yeah.
VICTOR RODRIGUES: But it also compels you to ensure that, and this is reflecting back to the complacency bit, right, you’ve got to make sure that every interaction, our users are getting older, they’re getting older to the sense that they’re becoming teenagers so they’re interacting socially, they’re using social media. So they have the same demands, they have the same needs as what their peers are who aren’t recipients of our device. They’re using the same social tools. They are interacting and doing the same sort of things that their peers are at school because essentially they’re well integrated into society as a whole. And that’s when you start dissecting it; those experiences with using our products needs to be very similar to what they’re already experiencing, if not better. And that’s the sense that drives us to ensuring that user interaction and that user experience, the science of it and everything associated with it is something that we place a tremendous amount of…
GERRY SCULLION: Value on.
VICTOR RODRIGUES: Yes, absolutely.
GERRY SCULLION: Now I remember recently when we caught up, Cochlear were working on being able to broadcast sound from iphones directly to the ear device. Now what I’m really keen to understand is where did that idea come from? And where is it identified in the business? So I guess I’m kind of asking you sideways; how does a good idea enter the conversation at Cochlear?
VICTOR RODRIGUES: That’s a good question and I think there are a number of ways that one can answer that question. Initially I would say that Cochlear is drawn by a strong sense of innovation. There’s lot of ideas that brew inside and we’re kind of always socialising them internally.
GERRY SCULLION: So what does ‘innovation’ mean at Cochlear?
VICTOR RODRIGUES: It really is about making sure that our end user experience is the best that you can construct and if you think about Cochlear as a company who produces both hardware as well as software, they’re on par in terms of the amount of effort that you put into those products to make sure that our end users get the best experience possible out of those.
So for example, for hardware products we look at sound processors, the ones that sit on the ear and in fact today we have a product called the Kanso which essentially is off the ear, it doesn’t sit on the ear, it sits on the head and essentially it looks like a button that has exactly the same technology as the one that’s behind the ear and a lot of our end users prefer it. And it stems from just understanding our end users’ needs in terms of the environment; how they use the products, how they use it at night, where they put it a night, for example, how they wake up in the morning. You know all those interactions you try and understand and you have those conversations internally.
You socialise them internally and talk about it a lot. You share it on systems that we create internally just to try and put ideas out there and they might be various ideas you know that stem out of it, good, bad, doesn’t matter. The thing is you’re actually having those conversations. So I think that’s probably what innovation means to us. Innovation means constantly challenging the norm and challenging ourselves as to we haven’t reached Nirvana yet, if we’re ever going to get there. And going back to your original question about streaming sound directly to the processor, that was actually sparked by some of us who had this incredible love for fantastically designed products and Apple was certainly one of those companies that had design and how their products are built that are just front and foremost.
GERRY SCULLION: That finesse.
VICTOR RODRIGUES: Absolutely, right. That finesse. And that was inspirational to the sense of how do I bring that mindset into the organisation? And I remember more than eight years ago I started having conversations with Apple going ‘how do we get in here?’ How do we actually make this work because your products are phenomenal? Your products are used throughout you know just people love your products. They love interacting with your products and how do we get that goodness and the goodness that we create and kind of do something that’s awesome. And over the years it transpired that Apple has and still has and back then had this very keen sense of in terms of their altruistic sort of nature and in the accessibility space, they’re very, very strong in the accessibility space, and they’d created a program where they’d wanted to sort of enhance the lives of hearing impaired people and that’s where it sort of stemmed from and those kind of conversations transpired not only with us, we also have a hearing partner called Gn ReSound they making hearing aids.
And those conversations between the three of us we sort of collectively, with Apple’s experience into this domain and with our experience of the industry and Gn’s experience of the hearing industry, we created what today we call the Nucleus 7 which has the capability of streaming audio, any type of audio from your iWest device directly into your sound processor. And it’s been a phenomenal success as well and it’s really boiling down to understanding your users and trying to put yourself into their shoes at every opportunity you get. And just taking pride in that thing where you’re creating something and then ensuring that you’re covering through the design experience and having interaction sessions with them. You’re doing user experience design sessions, you know the feedback sessions, all those sort of things, sort of making sure that you’re doing the right things and ultimately create a product which you know you’re pretty proud of and hopefully has met that specific need and you can tick that box and say ‘that thing that we envisaged four years ago has now materialised’. But once again you know still thinking of all the things that you can do in the future.
GERRY SCULLION: Absolutely. Absolutely. So what role would you say design has in the future for Cochlear?
VICTOR RODRIGUES: Oh it’s super important. We’re constantly, I mean design is actually entrenched pretty much into the organisation across the board, both in hardware design where I think it has been strong. And I kind of relate, if you look at our hardware products and our processes and implants over the years, you look back on the products that we developed you know like 15 years ago and they look ‘my god, did we actually design that?’. But it was just, that’s just par for the course, right? It’s hard evolves and how design, new material come of age and you start applying a lot of the technology that benefits the design so to speak and I think one drives the other. There’s no one dominant factor over the other. I mean think back in the ’60s and the ’70s and you look at the cars that existed back then, you look at those cars today. Yeah there’s a certain pride that you feel, a certain attachment that you feel to old car but you look at those designs and you say ‘oh my god, really? Did we design this?’
GERRY SCULLION: But every now and again one comes out and you kind of go ‘that still looks incredible’. So failure is a by-product of innovation. Absolutely the two are entrenched.
VICTOR RODRIGUES: Spot on. Spot on. So in hardware I think we’ve always been pretty strong and look it’s been a journey, right? It’s always a journey. You learn from the mistakes that you make and I think that that’s probably one of our strengths is you look at the things that you sometimes didn’t get quite right and you’re critical about them but you have those conversations internally. And today we’ve got, user experience design people entrenched in the organisation across the board, whether it’s building software products for audiologists or building software products for our end users, our recipients, even building internal products in fact because you know there are certain software products that we build just for internal use, you still apply the same principles that you would apply to external users as well.
And it’s an evolution, you know you sort of grown with it, you learn from your mistakes and once again it’s making sure that you keep those conversations going.
GERRY SCULLION: At the board level as well?
VICTOR RODRIGUES: Absolutely. Even at the board level. I mean if I reflect back 10 years ago when we were looking at user experience design as a discipline as such and it was always like ‘okay, but do we really need it?’. And then ultimately you start getting those wins and reflecting on the journey that it took to get that product up there and how much of role user experience actually plays in that. At a very high level you’re actually talking about these things at the board level. It all of a sudden becomes fait accompli, you know you always have to have that level of interaction design, you know human centred design into everything that we do. And I do think that we’ve got pretty broad coverage of that across the organisation.
GERRY SCULLION: Alright, Victor, we’re coming towards the end of this episode and we ask three questions to every guest that’s on the show. I’ve given you a little bit of heads up just before we started recording so I’m still going to be getting a natural reaction. So, Victor tell us what’s the one profession skill that you wish that you were better at?
VICTOR RODRIGUES: You know I’m an engineer by trade. I’ve actually got an electrical engineering degree and I haven’t done much of that but I think that probably the one skill that I wish I was better at is user interaction design. It’s something that I’ve always loved. It is something that I’ve always felt passionate about but I’m not schooled in it and I think that one thing that I would always caution anyone is don’t think you know something just because you feel passionate about it. There are a lot of assumptions that you’ll make that are just wrong. And I guess that’s probably one of the things that I would want, other than being a pilot.
GERRY SCULLION: Which you’ve successfully done in the last couple of years.
VICTOR RODRIGUES: Well, to a certain degree yeah.
GERRY SCULLION: To a certain degree. I won’t be letting you fly my plane on the way home. That’s for sure.
Second question, Victor. So what’s the one thing from the industry that you’d like to be able to banish?
VICTOR RODRIGUES: Parking metres, the industry.
GERRY SCULLION: Not society.
VICTOR RODRIGUES: There’s not anything specific that comes to mind but I mean if I reflect on, I don’t know just bring it back home to the user experience design, you know there’s lots of tools that one uses, mood boards, for example, and lots of tools that the industry uses internally in an organisation and sometimes getting people to actually understand what they are used for and what they are I think has always been a challenge. And there’s always been a relative amount of success and sometimes failures and how those tools get used and I know I’m being critical a little critical of the industry itself and I’m not saying that we should get rid of them but I certainly think that how they’re used is probably something that we need to change.
GERRY SCULLION: Okay. Alright, so the last question, Victor, is what advice would you give to design talent for the future? So people who are studying design at the moment or they want to get into design, what advice could you tell them?
VICTOR RODRIGUES: That’s another interesting question and there are times where I’ve actually thought about this and I think the one thing that I would say to a young high school or even university student, whatever it is that you’re going to do, always look at the things that you interact with in your life, whether it’s shopping or whether it’s going to a parking garage and paying the parking ticket. Anything that you do, always look at that interaction and see how frustrated you are with it or how awesome that experience is and bring it home.
GERRY SCULLION: Yeah.
VICTOR RODRIGUES: Understand what it is that you can do in order to make the thing that you do, the thing that you’re qualified for or the thing that your company pays you money for how would you improve that just based on your day to day interactions with everyday objects, people, whatever it is; just keep asking yourself how can I improve the life or the quality of the work or whatever it is that you’re doing based on the things that I’m learning on a day to day basis?
GERRY SCULLION: Brilliant. Victor, thank you so much for your time.
VICTOR RODRIGUES: No worries. Thank you.
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