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My iPhone accidentally dialed Apple’s emergency service; here’s what happened…

Last weekend I vowed to take a complete break from work, and instead got a hands-on demonstration of problematic UX design.

I was having a great dinner with friends at a remote restaurant in the Oregon countryside. My phone was stored away in the purse of my friend. I thought it was off. There would be no checking the phone today!

Suddenly a waitress walked up to our table.

“Are you Amber Case?” she asked. My party looked at me. I’m not super recognizable in daily life, although this happens sometimes. But then she added: “There’s a call for you.”

How could I get a call at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere? Who knew I was there? I slowly walked up to the front of the restaurant, where the receiver was waiting for me. I was even more surprised when I found out who was on the phone.

“This is Matt.” A worried voice came through the receiver.

“Amber… are you safe?”

Who was Matt? Oh gosh. Matt! A boyfriend from 4 years ago.

Wait, why was he calling the restaurant?

“I don’t know if it was a butt dial or not, but your phone called me through the emergency service feature,” he explained. “I didn’t know whether it was a prank or whether to take it seriously.”

My phone had dialed my emergency contacts by itself, from my friend’s purse.

“I decided to take it seriously when your phone sent me information about how your location had changed,” he went on. “I called the business closest to your location and asked them to check in on you.”

We laughed about it a little, but it was still pretty awkward.

“I’m sorry to worry you,” I said, “but thankfully I’m fine.”

“Well, at least we know the system works!” he said.

I was shaken, but I returned to my seat at dinner and told my group what had happened. My friend took my phone out of her purse, so I could seed that it had sent even more messages to other people!

How many people did I have in my emergency contact list?

One of them was my mom.

A couple of minutes later, I saw that my mom was trying to send message to me — but was responding to the automated messages from Apple. “Where is she?” she kept texting back, not knowing that there was no one there to answer. She couldn’t read the Apple map location connected to the SOS, and had no idea what to do.

I texted her that it was an accident, and that it was okay, but I had her in full on panic for 30 minutes.

I went into my phone to turn everything off and to cancel the alert. Only to be interrupted with another surprise:

My current partner burst through the restaurant door, looking concerned. He had driven 45 minutes from Portland to find me. In fact, he had even stopped at a creepy-looking house next to the restaurant, seriously considering whether to look for me there — worried that I might have been kidnapped.

It took talking with him and Matt to realize what had happened:

It was Sunday, and I wanted to be phone free for a day, so I put my iPhone 8 in my friend’s bag. At some point while we walked, my phone jostled around among her things, apparently creating enough repeated pressure and shifting against the phone to initiate Apple’s Emergency SOS call. This call sent an SOS to my three designated emergency contacts, and gave them frequent updates on my current location at 15 minute intervals.

My partner and I ended up having a really nice dinner at the restaurant, happy to be able to test the system out. And everyone was glad I was okay.

But driving back to Portland, I mentally audited my user experience with Apple’s emergency system. The most important takeaway is so crucial, it’s worth putting in bold:

We Need a Better UX to Initiate Emergency Signals

The fact that many other iPhone and Apple Watch users report problems with accidental SOS alerts suggest that a better UX is needed. The emergency process on my iPhone model is initiated by rapidly pressing the side or top button. This might not be ideal for situations where the iPhone is in a handbag, surrounded by objects which can bump against it. (My SOS signal has also been triggered when I put the phone in an airport security tray, apparently due to being jostled by the conveyor belt.)

Another aspect of the UX that Apple should consider addressing is the SOS countdown alert. While it’s important to warn the user that the emergency protocol has been triggered (giving them time to disable it, if necessary), there are many scenarios where this blaring alarm could be extremely embarrassing — or worse, dangerous. While there is an option on iOS to disable this alert, a better alternative might be this: enable the user to choose complete silence, or a unique ringtone, buzz, or audio file to act as a countdown, a warning that only they will recognize as such.

Consider Your Personal Emergency Contacts Wisely

Not all of the experience was bad: For instance, I came to appreciate that Apple’s SOS only contacts people that you specifically designate, as opposed to just simply notifying the police.

For many people, especially those with non-Caucasian backgrounds, an out of context call to the police can often end in tragedy.

It would’ve been embarrassing, wasteful and potentially dangerous if my own phone had contacted the police. Having my contacts in the system gives them the ability to figure out whether it is a true emergency, and strategize ways to help out.

After the incident, Matt asked for my mom’s number, and my current partner’s number. That way, if this happened again, all of them could contact each other. This gives them the ability to curate the SOS, and figure out the actual nature of the emergency, identify false positives — and not be too angry, if it turned out to be a false alarm.

At the same time, my experience illustrated just who users should designate as their SOS contacts. We’ve been trained to automatically list our next of kin in case of emergency, but that’s not always ideal. My ex and current partner, being tech savvy, were able to engage in some geo-location savvy to find me, and figure out a course of action.

But I had also listed my elderly mother as an SOS contact, and she was barraged by SOS messages, causing her unnecessary stress and panic. During the SOS set-up process, it would be helpful if Apple added a dialog box such as: “We recommend selecting personal contacts who are most likely to respond promptly, calmly, and effectively to an emergency message.”

Apple Should Use Google Maps for Emergency Location Sharing on All Its Devices — Not Apple Maps!

Both my ex and partner were able to find my (rough) location via their own iPhones — but the SOS system is still apparently tied to Apple Maps. The first location my partner went to was an empty field. It wasn’t until he cross-referenced my location with Google Maps that he was able to see a much more exact location.

Mapping software is never 100% accurate, especially when you factor in GPS. Google Maps is still often more accurate than Apple maps. Starting with a widely reported fiasco in 2011, a former Apple executive botched a huge data deal between Apple Maps and the mapping company Tom Tom, resulting in buggy maps and sometimes dangerous situations. Even if you use advanced mapping software, geolocation can still be off by up to a mile. It’s why my partner stopped at the sketchy house, thinking I might be there — Apple Maps placed my location nearby. (Just imagine if he were the type who preferred to go into an emergency situation guns blazing.) But when my partner checked my Google location (something we also share with each other), he was able to find me at the restaurant very quickly.

There’s also an issue of the update time. Emergency Services updated my location every 15 minutes. It would’ve been better to share my location in real time, though that might have consumed significant battery life. For someone in a real crisis situation, battery life is just as important as real-time information.

SOS Setup Tips for iPhone Users

For all the times when an accidental emergency SOS isn’t as pleasant — and until Apple gets around to improving its system — there are a few steps you can take:

  • Avoid putting the phone in a position or location where side buttons can be frequently jostled. If you’re putting your phone in a bag or other space, consider turning your phone off to prevent emergency services from being called.
  • Set your emergency service contacts so that the police are not among them.
  • You might also want to disable the SOS countdown alarm (accessible in Settings > Emergency SOS). Or if you consider turning off the alarm altogether.

And if you’ve listed someone in your contact list who’s prone to panic or not very familiar with technology, you might want to choose an alternative person. (Sorry Mom!)

Have you ever launched the Emergency SOS on accident — or on purpose? Tell me your story in Comments here, or on my Twitter @caseorganic!

Written by

Design advocate, speaker and author of Calm Technology + Designing With Sound. Research Fellow at Institute for the Future. Caseorganic.com

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