Haptics and Bodies

Face covering and communication

Introduction and Aim

It’s 2020 and we are all wearing face coverings due to COVID-19. While face coverings can help keep us safe, they can also make communication more difficult, especially for people who have hearing loss and depend on facial clues and lipreading to understand spoken messages. According to the Scottish Government (2014), approximately 850,000 people in Scotland suffer from some type of hearing loss. Most people with hearing loss (70%) are over age 70. Through this research, I aim to gain insights and input towards designing a concept for friendly face covering. Particularly designs that could be helpful to members of the deaf community.

Methods and Processes: What I Did, Why, and How

I was interested in two aspects of face coverings: (1) how they feel physically feel to the wearer and (2) how they affect communication. To research these aspects through this study, I chose a combination of phenomenology and sensory ethnography research approaches (Creswell, 2013).


Phenomenology is a qualitative approach to research that examines lived experiences (Creswell, 2013).  This approach can be especially useful in product design because it can describe in rich detail how people interact with objects. By using this approach to developing a face covering design, my study aims to describe the human experience of living with and wearing face coverings.

In this research project, I asked members of the deaf community about their experiences with communication during the pandemic. I was interested in participants’ experiences using face coverings, how participants felt about face coverings becoming a normal part of everyday life, and how face coverings impacted participants’ communication experiences. Participants’ names were not recorded and participants remained anonymous.

Sensory Ethnography

Ethnography involves the study of people in their own environment (Creswell, 2013). Sensory ethnography incorporates the senses in that study. According to Tom Martin (2020), “there is no such thing as ‘non-sensory’ ethnography”; rather, the term sensory ethnography reminds the researcher not to exclusively use their ears and eyes when doing research (especially fieldwork). Other senses (touch, taste, and smell) are sometimes overlooked, yet they can also play an important role in ethnographic explorations.

For this project, I tested eight different face coverings on myself. I sourced and tested face coverings that are available for purchase through everyday retail outlets. In my testing, I analysed how each covering functioned and how it felt. I chose this sensory approach because face coverings come in direct contact with the wearer’s skin, covering the nose and mouth, so it is particularly important to understand how coverings feel and fit.

I also asked members of the deaf community about their experiences with face coverings. Due to pandemic restrictions, I was not able to meet with participants in person to go through the same sensory exercise I did myself. Instead, I used an online data collection tool. I presented 7 images of face coverings (Figure 1) and asked them to indicate the styles of covering they had encountered, their preferences in face coverings, and asked how the coverings they have tried felt on their faces.

Participant Profile

Seven participants took part in the online questionnaire. Of the 7 individuals, 4 identified as hard of hearing, 2 had friends or family that have some form of hearing loss, and 1 identified as not hard of hearing. Of the 4 hard of hearing individuals 3 have partial hearing loss in both ears and 1 has full hearing loss in both ears. Most participants (5 out of the 7) indicated they use more than one form of communication, with the most forms of communication being used by the individual with full hearing loss.

I did not ask the participants for personal details such as their name, sex, age or location they were from. I posted requests for participation in my survey on my social media accounts. To gain more visibility I asked one of my contacts to share this directly on their Facebook as they are actively involved in the deaf community in Ontario, Canada and I knew her profile would have more reach than mine alone. With the limited geographical reach of my network and hers in mind, most or all of the participants were likely from western culture countries, specifically the UK or Canada.

Research Data and Analysis


Findings from this phenomenological study will directly influence my face covering design. I asked participants, “How has the ‘new normal’ of wearing face coverings affected you?” and a follow-up question, “Is there anything else you feel may help this research project that you would like to add about your experiences?”.

Theme: A desire to wear face coverings.

The most common theme was that participants wanted to wear face coverings – even if they were allowed an exemption – for the protection of themselves and other members of the public.

“I could get exempt from wearing a mask but how am I supposed to protect myself when out in public.”

Theme: Current face covering options are uncomfortable.

Despite the desire to wear face coverings, participants indicated that current options among face coverings are not comfortable.

Theme: Face coverings interfere with communication.

Participants indicated that current face covering options inhibit communication, which can lead to misunderstanding. Participants noted that:

“A huge chunk of ASL communication is lost because we can’t see mouths for modifiers and grammar. And when I am listening to people, because it is muffled, I often find I am mishearing certain words.”

“Hard to hear what they [people] are saying as the mask creates a barrier”.

Theme: An added layer of stress.

The emotional effects of the ‘new normal’ of face coverings were also apparent in the data. Responses varied from a simple “highly stressful” to “I feel being hard of hearing or deaf is the hardest thing ever through these times”.

Sensory Ethnography

Personal testing

Table 1 summarises my testing of eight different currently available face coverings. For each covering type, I have provided each a short description, an illustration, and my observations.

Ref.TypeImagePersonal Observations
Item 1Fabric Buff

Can be difficult to breathe through

May be too warm.


Major drawback that these are fully opaque so are not ideal for lip reading or seeing facial expressions.

Item 2Standard disposable mask

Have a hard piece of metal around the nose to adjust, which is not comfortable.

Light material but irritable after prolonged wear.

Major drawback that these are fully opaque so are not ideal for lip reading or seeing facial expressions.

Creates waste

Item 3Cotton mask – flat design

Cotton fabric and shape is comfortable on the face and doesn’t require a metal or hard structure around the nose.

Adjustable straps make this design more comfortable.

Major drawback that these are fully opaque so are not ideal for lip reading or seeing facial expressions.

Despite being poor for communication this design is my personal favourite to wear because it is the most comfortable.

Item 4Cotton mask – accordion design

These are easily sewn out of materials around the house. Cotton is the most comfortable, no adjustment in the straps but still relatively well fitting. Can become distracting after long wear time due to the folds sitting on the face.

Major drawback that these are fully opaque so are not ideal for lip reading or seeing facial expressions.

Item 5Lower face plastic shieldThis was very uncomfortable and didn’t feel like it fit my face properly. I did like the nose rubber but overall, it fogged up and didn’t feel like something that could be worn for long periods.
Item 6Transparent Face shield (plastic support)

This design was extremely uncomfortable. The plastic against the chin was hard and not well moulded. The lower portion of the clear screen also touched my nose on occasion, which was irritating. The loops on the ears were tight. The material was rough, although there was some stretch to it.

The design is very poor for preventing airborne spread of droplets. When speaking, the shield lowered below my nose, which limits effectiveness. The material also started to fog and get mucky.

Item 7Transparent Face shield (fabric support)As item 6 was uncomfortable on my skin and the shield too low, I subsequently tried a modified design. Unfortunately, item 7 was also uncomfortable. It puts pressure on the chin, which affects mobility to speak. This mask also sat too high on my face and consequently fogged up so much it restricted my vision.
Item 8Cotton mask with PVC screen

The cotton surround on this mask provided more comfort compared to the other transparent versions I tested. However, the screen got visually fogged up and looked dirty.

Aesthetically these are very poor. I feel much less comfortable with the visual effect this style has on my face due to the rigidity of the rectangular cut-out and how it sits.

Table 1: Testing Face Coverings

Feedback from online data collection tool

Among data on the sensory experiences of wearing face coverings, a couple of participants who wore hearing aids mentioned that the design of the ear loops on face coverings were particularly troublesome.

I hate masks as they break my hearing aids

“All masks are hard to wear the elastic round the ears, too much going on back there with 2 hearing aids/glasses and elastics.”

One participant commented that they liked the accordion style face covering because it was easier to pull down.

“Easier to see lips to lip read and for accordion fabric easier to pull down and not have to reposition much after”

Figure 1 shows how participants rated the comfort of their face coverings, using a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is not at all comfortable and 5 is very comfortable. As the figure shows, only two out of seven people indicated their face covering was very comfortable.

Figure 2 shows how participants rated how easy they found it to communicate with someone wearing a face covering, using a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is not at all easy and 5 is very easy. As figure 2 shows, none of the participants rated it “very easy” to communicate with someone wearing a face covering, and six out of seven indicated it was difficult to communicate with someone wearing a face covering.

Findings and Design Considerations

The design of face coverings needs to consider many factors, especially when considering individuals who are hard of hearing. Face coverings are worn on a particularly sensitive area of the body (physically and emotionally) and can have a direct effect on interpersonal communication. What’s more, for coverings to achieve the primary purpose of limiting airborne transmission of viruses, they must be worn. We might expect better compliance with wearing face coverings if those coverings are designed with lived experiences in mind.

Key design considerations include:

How well does the covering stop the airborne transmission of viruses?

  • How does the material feel?
  • How well does the covering fit?
  • Is the covering affordable?
  • How accessible is the product, is it easily available to members of the public?
  • How well can the wearer communicate?
  • What effects does long term wear have on the individual?
  • How could the product be adapted for use in a medical environment?

As a designer, it seems a transparent face mask would be an ideal solution. In my testing, I observed the problems of PVC-type masks fogging and quickly getting dirty. Participants in my online study noted similar problems with PVC style face coverings.

As a result of this research, I propose the following design considerations for face covering designs:

  • Use fog resistant transparent fabric
    • PVC is not suitable, it fogs up, appears dirty, and is rigid.
    • Fabric coverings were preferred for comfort but poor for communication
  • Make available with both loop ear or behind the head attachments
    • An attachment method of elastic material around the head could be better for individuals who have hearing aids, but this style is not particularly popular perhaps because they are difficult to remove and/or put pressure on the nose.
    • Consider creating two versions of the covering, or a transformable option.
  • Incorporate cotton around the nose and chin
    • Nose and chin are the areas of the face where the closest contact is made
    • Cotton can allow colours and patterns to be personalised, which was indicated as one of the positives of the currently available coverings

Next Steps and Improvements

Designing a Face Covering

I began prototyping some covering designs for the RSA brief and I believe it would be beneficial to continue with this research design process. I have also produced a rendering of a proposed design; however, the lack of available materials is a major barrier to creating a prototype for my design. Through my online research for source material, I found it difficult to find a commercially available fabric that is transparent and fog resistant and also prevents the spread of droplets. Tulle is one available option and I used tulle in one of my design iterations. However, in its unmodified form, this fabric raises concerns about its efficacy to prevent droplet spread. Further research of new materials is needed, and the invention of a new fabric not commercially available may be required.

Additionally, future design iterations could consider design promotion and education of the public. The design and making of the product would not be sufficient to ensure successful consumer uptake.  Even though clear PVC masks are currently available, they are not commonplace. As one participant in my study noted “I have not yet seen anyone wear a see through [mask].” Ideally, a marketing and educational campaign would include buy-in from health officials, sporting officials (such as F1), and more.

Research Reflection

I appreciated the opportunity to try two different approaches and two different data collection methods through this Haptics and Bodies research. I found value in hearing about the lived experiences of people who are hard of hearing. And I found the sensory ethnography particularly insightful. For example, I had not considered how the design of ear loops on face coverings might interfere with earing hearing aids, and how wearing the two (ear loops and hearing aids) could be uncomfortable.

Due to the current pandemic restrictions, I could not meet with participants in person. I did feel fortunate to have seven people participate in my online data collection tool. While the online tool was useful to collect data on how participants described how face coverings felt, ideally I would have liked the opportunity to have participants available in person. With in-person testing, in addition to hearing their feedback on face coverings that they personally had access to, I would run a series of tests using the eight (or more!) styles of masks that I tested on myself. Also, interviews instead of online feedback may yield more in-depth responses to the questions as interviews would allow me to ask probing questions and dig deeper into areas of interest.

A possible future iteration of this research would be to mail participants a package containing a variety of masks for them to test, then conduct the testing virtually using a platform such a zoom, Webex, or skype. While this method of testing would yield richer data, it would also involve considerable costs, take longer to conduct and be impossible to maintain participant anonymity (although all participant data would be kept confidential).


Creswell, J. W., 2013. Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches. 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Martin, T., 2020. Sensory Ethnography. [Online]
Available at: https://www.academia.edu/43840571/Sensory_Ethnography
[Accessed 15 11 2020].

Scottish Government, 2014. See Hear: A strategic framework for meeting the needs of people with a sensory impairment in Scotland. [Online]
Available at: https://www.gov.scot/publications/see-hear/pages/7/
[Accessed 15 11 2020].