Interview with Sheena Oliver, Vice President of Marketing, Oticon
Carolyn Smaka: Sheena, it’s great to talk to you. I understand you’ve just come back from the launch of the new Oticon Alta.
Sheena Oliver: Thanks, and it’s always a pleasure to talk with you. And yes, Alta is the most comprehensive launch we’ve ever had as a company. We hosted over 1,000 hearing care professionals at an in-depth knowledge-sharing event held in New Orleans. It was about a week before the Super Bowl and we were at the official Super Bowl hotel, so there was a lot of football excitement that combined with the excitement of the Alta launch.
Alta is our new premium technology hearing instrument and, we believe, it combines the most advanced technology with a revolutionary new fitting approach that’s going to deliver our most exclusively personalized solution.
From a personalization standpoint, we’ve reached beyond the audiogram. We’ve looked at more individualized dimensions of how people hear and developed Alta in a way that enables practitioners to factor more personal dimensions into the hearing solution to cater to each patient’s unique and specific needs.
Alta hearing instruments
Carolyn: The last several years has seen an industry shift away from only looking at the audiogram when fitting hearing instruments, but can you elaborate on why you think personalization is so important?
Sheena: Absolutely. Personalization is something that consumers want - and expect. It is a focus in many industries right now, particularly in health care. For example, in pharmaceuticals you’re seeing personalized medicines meaning not just the type of medicine, but also how the medicine is administered and dosed based on each individual. You’re also seeing a new focus on personalization in overall treatment programs. If someone has diabetes, for example, they may be monitored by their physician using technology such as apps to optimize their individual treatment process.
Hearing care should be no different. When you think about how a person hears, everything about that is extremely personal to that individual, from who they are communicating with, to their listening preferences, to how their perceptual system works, to the environments they’re in. We recognize that personalization has now become the new reality for us. We know that the audiogram is an important starting point, but we’ve now gone beyond the audiogram and designed a solution that can be personalized to each person’s specific listening preferences, as well as to the sound situations that they’re in on a daily basis.
Carolyn: How does the Inium platform contribute to Alta’s performance?
Sheena: The Inium platform is at the core of Alta hearing instruments. It’s designed to deliver exceptional performance and ultra low power consumption in a very small size. Ultra low power consumption is very important, as it is critical for maintaining a high level of performance for the patient. The Inium platform is the most advanced and efficient wireless signal platform that we’ve ever built. It takes vital information, in real time, and exchanges that information between both ears seamlessly so that the patient can have a more natural and authentic sound. Because of its processing speed, we’re able to offer the best speech understanding we’ve ever offered in a product. The benefits also extend to helping to alleviate the stress and fatigue that we know often accompany hearing loss.
The overall outcome that the patient experiences is a truly personal, automatic system that not only reacts to the different situations that patients find themselves in, but does so based on their personal preferences.
Carolyn: What are some of the new or improved features that are available in Alta?
Sheena: The first is Speech Guard E. Speech Guard E is designed to maintain as much integrity of the original speech signal as possible. This enables Alta to deliver a much clearer and more detailed speech signal that’s going to keep voices distinct from one another, and separate them out more clearly from competing background noises. The goal is to provide the least amount of signal manipulation needed for each individual in order to give them what they need to hear better in difficult listening situations. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, but rather truly aims to provide signal processing that is specific to each patient’s needs with the least amount of manipulation to the signal.
Another new feature with Alta is Spatial Sound Premium. Spatial Sound Premium leverages the extended bandwidth of Inium, along with a very smooth frequency response, and real-time binaural processing speed. This enables wearers to better prioritize where sounds are coming from in their environment, especially when there are competing sounds present. We know that people with hearing loss that use hearing instruments struggle in these types of situations, so Spatial Sound Premium really gives patients a more natural interaction with the world around them.
Inium feedback shield is another new feature. Not only does it prevent and suppress feedback, but at the same time, it optimizes and ensures audibility without introducing distortion or artifact. When attempting to reduce feedback, we’ve seen other anti-feedback systems have to compromise in terms of either reducing high frequency gain, which negatively impacts audibility, or introducing artifact into the signal. Inium feedback shield utilizes frequency shifting and phase inversion to suppress feedback, while still maintaining a very high level of audibility for the patient.
Carolyn: Let me go back to the ultra low power consumption for a minute. How exactly does this benefit the patient?
Sheena: That’s a good question. The wireless system in Alta consumes about ten times less energy when receiving an audio stream than what you would find in a 2.4 GHz radio frequency system. What we’re saving on power consumption we are able to use to increase our digital signal processing capabilities, which translates to real quality of life benefits for the patient.
If you think about it like a glass of water – if three-quarters of the glass is filled with water due to battery consumption from the wireless system, you only have a quarter of that glass left for all the other digital signal processing that’s needed for the patient. Using that same analogy, for the Inium platform only a quarter of that glass is filled with water that’s being used for battery consumption. The other three-quarters are all dedicated to signal processing to benefit the patient. In hearing device design and development, it is very important to consider how a platform uses power to ensure that it is maximizing the performance for the patient.
Carolyn: Okay. So let’s talk more about the personalization. How do hearing professionals work with this personalization?
Sheena: When we refer to the personalization of Alta, we’re referring to the fitting process, from the initial fitting session, through the evaluation of the patient’s experience with Alta, and then optimizing the solution to the patient’s needs. Alta allows patients to express their experience of sound in general – and enables practitioners to adjust Alta’s performance and sound quality accordingly -- creating the foundation for a new level of patient satisfaction.
We outline Alta’s personalization process using three steps: the initial fitting, active listening and optimizing.
The initial fitting session is an interactive session with the hearing care professional and the client in which the practitioner has an opportunity to specify a lot of personalized information about the client. This includes all of their audiometric information, the types of experiences they’ve had, if they’ve worn hearing instruments before, how much experience that they’ve had, and that type of information.
The active listening session is where we capture patients’ experience with different sound environments while wearing the instruments in their everyday routines. We have two ways to capture that information. One is using the Alta Diary, which is a written, take-home tool that patients use to take notes on their listening experiences with their instruments. The second way is using an app to record feedback right on the spot. The app can be downloaded from the app store, and can be used with iPhone, iPad, or an Android phone. For example, if patients are in a restaurant, at a soccer game or playing bridge, and they’re either having difficulty or having a positive experience, they can make note of that right away. What’s really cool about this is that they can then e-mail the information to the professional in advance of the follow-up session. Hearing care professionals now has a lot of information about how patients are doing while they’re out wearing their new devices, so they are prepared when the patient returns for the follow up visit.
Carolyn: And when the patient returns for the follow up, how does the professional use the information that was captured in the paper diary or the app?
Sheena: The professional then has a tool called YouMatic which is the control system, if you will, of Alta. It’s part of the Genie Fitting Software. YouMatic is designed to match the operation of the signal processing systems in Alta to the personal needs and preferences of the patient. It ties together the personal preferences of the patient and all of the automatic systems that are within the device.
YouMatic gives patients a way to be more proactive in the process. Traditionally our counseling sessions may involve the patient reporting, “Well, this didn’t go well,” or, “I had trouble in this specific situation.” YouMatic shifts the discussion to a much positive and proactive standpoint, such as, “What are you hearing?” “What are you not hearing?” and “What are some things that you would rather not hear?” The feedback from the patient drives YouMatic’s real-time adjustment of how the instrument’s going to respond to compression changes, noise management settings, directionality, and other features -- all through the Genie fitting software.
In the end, Genie creates a unique profile for patients based on their audiogram, the personal information you’ve entered, as well as the patients’ sound preferences based on results of their listening to different sound samples. The sound samples are based on A to B comparisons, similar to when you are being fit with glasses or contacts by an optometrist and asked “Do you like A or B”. The optometrist works back and forth to hone in on your preferences. The same thing is done with the sound samples in Genie to get to the patient’s true preferences for different types of sounds. We build all of this information into the overall fitting of Alta.
Carolyn: I noticed from market data that there is a slight uptick again in custom instruments, compared to a few years ago when slim tube BTEs were all the rage. Tell me a little bit about the Alta custom instruments.
Sheena: Alta comes in a full range of styles from RITEs and BTEs to a line of custom instruments. From our perspective, there are three important things in terms of custom instruments: they have to be discreet, they have to be configurable, and they have to be reliable.
Regarding discreetness, custom instruments have to be small and they have to fit the patient in a nice way and Alta does that.
By configurable, we mean that as a hearing care professional, if you choose to fit a custom instrument you should have as much fitting flexibility with that device as you would if you were fitting a BTE or a RITE instrument. For example, if wireless ear-to-ear technology or even connectivity is available in the BTE instruments then it should be offered in the custom instruments as well. Just because you’ve decided to go to a smaller instrument, you shouldn’t have to compromise on what technology is available in the devices. Alta gives professionals the flexibility they need to configure the devices to best meet the patient’s needs.
For us, reliability has always been top of mind, and especially so when we’re designing custom instruments. There have been a lot of design enhancements to ensure that the microphone and the receiver are still extremely well protected. We’ve done some things internally as well to improve the overall structure and stabilization of the instruments to reduce the likelihood of internal feedback.
We have also equally weighted the importance of discreetness, configurability, and reliability in the design and development of Alta. There wasn’t a compromise or a focus on one at the expense of another of these critical aspects.
Carolyn: When connectivity was introduced years ago it was cool but we weren’t seeing as much of an uptake among patients, but now it’s 2013 and times are different. How important is connectivity to the patients that professionals are seeing today?
Sheena: One of the things that we’ve learned from the Kochkin data is that when patients hear well in a lot of different listening environments, then they rate satisfaction with their hearing instruments as high. Hearing instruments have evolved over the years and they’ve definitely improved, but there are still challenging listening situations that aren’t effectively addressed by the device alone, and this is where connectivity comes in.
The Oticon ConnectLine takes an inclusive design approach that uses Oticon’s People First philosophy as the foundation. People are the starting point. We wanted to have a better understanding of the different types of situations in which end users need to communicate. From that starting point and around that perspective, we designed our connectivity solutions.
One of the things that you’ll see with the newly updated ConnectLine is that we are offering patients more connections, more convenience, and more personalized connectivity than ever before. ConnectLine is the perfect partner to Alta and allows patients to connect wirelessly and seamlessly to landline phones, cell phones, office phones, television, GPS devices, and more. They can do video, online chatting, as well as FM and teleconnectivity. These solutions resulted from our inclusive design approach that considered how, where and when people need to communicate and looked at the best ways to make that happen.
Carolyn: The personalization of Alta seems that it would facilitate the interaction between the professional and the patient.
Sheena: Oh, absolutely. You know, one of the things that we’re seeing in our industry is how some consumers are going online and bypassing the hearing care professional. With Alta the hearing care professional becomes an integral part of the personalization process. While Alta is by far the best instrument Oticon has ever designed, it’s what the hearing care professional brings to it that is going to ultimately result in the best solution for the patient.
Carolyn: My last question is regarding the marketing and business support. What does Oticon offer in terms of business support with Alta?
Sheena: We have developed an extremely comprehensive toolbox for both business and marketing tools. There is a new section on MyOticon, our business-to-business portal, that’s dedicated to the fitting process, and it includes step-by-step videos that explain and demonstrate each step of the personalization process.
From a marketing perspective, we thought about how Alta offers a personalized fitting for the patient and recognized that it made sense to also offer more personalized marketing for the hearing care professional. We know that hearing care professionals brand themselves in different ways and market their practices in different ways. So, we’ve outlined three areas or three different approaches to marketing.
The first one is what we refer to as a contemporary approach. It goes back to the idea of the underlying emotions that people with hearing loss have and it uses metaphors to depict some of these deep feelings. We coined this metaphor approach about six years ago and it continues to be very effective in generating new user traffic, according to the tracking and measuring we’ve done.
While some hearing care professionals love the metaphors, some told us that they also wanted to be a little bit more aggressive in their approach. For these professionals we developed a more direct response approach where you’ll find stronger calls to action. It allows practitioners who want to incorporate price or perhaps, do some type of giveaway in their advertising, a vehicle that enables them to do that.
The third approach is our lifestyle approach, which is a traditional type of advertising that you tend to see across most hearing instrument manufacturers. We introduced this approach with the Intiga launch, but we’re now taking lifestyle to a different level. Now, we’re looking at the modern consumer and providing not just one lifestyle image, but a collage of some of those important moments in the user’s life when they need to hear best, and depicting how Alta is able to deliver in those situations.
We’ve come up with a very comprehensive marketing tool kit that includes conventional pieces like newspaper inserts and ads, and direct mail, but also tools for new media. This would include electronic banner ads, e-newsletters, social media postings, as well as a new 60-second television commercial that will be showing at AudiologyNOW! We’re really excited about all of the marketing opportunities that we’ve created for hearing care professionals with the launch of Alta.
I encourage anyone who is interested in getting started fitting Alta or accessing many of the tools we discussed to contact Oticon and speak with their inside sales representative.
Carolyn: Thanks for your time today, Sheena. Best wishes for continued success with Alta.
Sheena: My pleasure, thanks Carolyn.