Thoughts On Smartphone Emergency Access

Assortment of emergency related icons

My son is four and a half. He has an iPad and is able to use it like a pro. It truly seems instinctual. Earlier this year I had taught him how to dial 911 with my iPhone. He did well considering he cannot read yet but I was always bothered by how wildly difficult the entire thing was; young children needing to gain access to emergency services does not appear to have been a concern during the design process.

After the most recent iOS updates (iOS 10) he can no longer navigate into emergency mode. Why is such a critical action buried under an additional perfectly calculated press of the home button?

I’ve heard a lot of people expressing frustration over the added difficulty in unlocking the phone. I get that, it is much harder for sure. But what I find to be the most upsetting is this added complexity around accessing the emergency view. In thinking about this problem more I realized it’s an oversight that goes beyond just iPhones.

The Problem

The current state of making emergency calls on smartphones is unacceptably faulty and incohesive. In a moment when we need good design the most it can likely fail many of us as it is, so let’s take a quick look at some specific reasons I feel this needs more attention.

Illustration of latest iPhone home screen

Different Across Devices/OS

All phones and operating systems approach this issue with entirely different patterns. Not only does this make it impossible to teach children it also guarantees a devoted Android user will have a more difficult experience if ever needing to use an iPhone in an emergency, for example.

Impossible For Young Kids

It’s also not easy for a child to recover from a mistake. The need for two clicks of the home button with a calculated number of seconds in between each click is confusing. If the home button is pressed twice too quickly we are taken to an Apple Pay screen and it’s unclear how to recover from this.

Apple Pay screen illustration

Words Are Hard

There are so many symbols that can successfully communicate “Emergency”. In addition, “Emergency” is presented in an unassuming way in the bottom left corner of the view it’s located in.

Visually it’s nearly on equal footing with “Cancel” and “Touch ID or Enter Passcode”. This coupled with it being a long, tricky word to begin with presents an especially burdensome experience for those that cannot read or those that speak a different language.

Faulty Under Duress

As mentioned, when we do find our way to the view offering “Emergency” as an action it doesn’t stand out. Imagine how challenging this may be in a true emergency when every second counts. Now imagine having to keep a steady, decisive hand as to not press the home button a second time too quickly and be directed to “Pay with Touch ID”.

We also have to now remember and enter those three (or more) magic numbers and then press the little green button to complete the call.

Having To Dial

Emergency numbers are different across countries and any amount of sequential numbers can be tough for a young child to remember.

Illustration of iPhone emergency dial screen

Expecting a kid to remember “9-1-1” is risky. While it’s challenging enough to remember these numbers should they be expected to carry this out in such a tremendously stressful situation to boot? There’s just too much at stake here to place such a burden on young kids or on international travelers.

Brainstorming Possible Solutions

I wanted to put some initial thoughts behind potential solutions, largely based on what I suspect would work well for my son. The amazing thing about keeping a child’s physical and mental capabilities in mind when designing such essential and life-saving features is that what works for them will work for many different demographics.

There is no question that this is a very complicated problem which needs a heck of a lot more time and attention than what I have listed below, but I feel the main takeaway is that it does need attention and needs to be taken more seriously, thoughtfully, and approached holistically.

Access

Being able to get to the emergency action needs to be much simpler. Pressing the home screen only once should expose this feature as anything beyond that quickly becomes too convoluted.

Symbols and Hierarchy

“Emergency” currently has no unique visual treatment to stand out among other text on the screen, which prevents it from instantly grabbing our attention.

Illustration of iPhone unlock screen view

There’s also a bunch of different ways to communicate the word “emergency”. If someone not fluent in your language were to reach for your phone right now in an emergency would they know what to do?

When viewing the emergency dial pad within iOS 10 the words “Emergency Call” at the top of the screen actually cycle through a number of different languages. While I can appreciate this effort I fail to see how someone speaking one of those languages would have made it this far to begin with (or have time for it to cycle through to a specific language). If the point is to convey that this is an emergency dial pad are these currently implemented signifiers sufficient enough?

Illustration of an iPhone with an emergency symbol in home screen view

Perhaps if this action was represented by a symbol from the initial screen it would be easier to locate and discern.

No Dialing

Eliminating even the need to know what each country’s emergency number is and having to then dial it would be huge.

It’s entirely possible I am missing something, but why is this information that cannot be automatically set based on location? Is it possible that a phone can count our steps, tag our exact location on images, and tell us where the closest Starbucks is and how to get there but not know that if we are physically in the United States 9-1-1 are the numbers associated with emergency?

The very fact that selecting “Emergency” directs us to a dial pad is largely illogical in itself; true emergencies warrant a single number. If the actual intention of this feature is for users to be able to place any call without unlocking the phone, well that’s not an emergency and should not be labeled as such.

I realize it also shouldn’t be too easy to call for emergency assistance by accident as well and there would need to be a lot of thought and testing put into how to appropriately confirm decisions made here.

Consistency

This is the most important factor. Gaining access to emergency features should ultimately be the same across all smartphones. This is the type of action that is so important it warrants complete collaboration and open planning/discussion.

Currently if my son does manage to sincerely grasp how to use my phone in an emergency none of it will be relevant as soon as he is with any other adult with a different phone or even a different OS version. This is far too fragile and unrealistic. There must be standards.

Widely adapted design in the name of safety is not unheard of or uncommon and I’ll argue that we can’t afford not to extend this same attention and care here.

Conclusion

This post obviously isn’t meant to be a hard-hitting, heavily researched look into the design thinking of the latest iOS update. Rather, my goal is to simply voice some thoughts and concerns I have over this seemingly profound design oversight of an essential, life-or-death feature across the board. I feel there is so much that can be achieved here through a cohesive, consistent design and a collaborated plan of action.

While many of us hopefully do not have emergencies often this feature is unique in that when it is used every second counts. Surely this is deserving of more design attention and thought behind various use cases and non-ideal situations? After all, an emergency is certainly not ideal.