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This week, I tried a feature of iOS that I’ve been meaning to try since the iPhone 14 debuted, Emergency SOS via satellite.

The feature is impressive, but like fall detection on the Apple Watch, you hope never to need it. It’s also a feature that you don’t want to have to try and figure out when an emergency happens, and time may be critical. To help with that, if you have a capable device, you’ll have been ushered towards a demo of this feature through a banner at the root of the Settings app.

The engineering that went into that demo app is fascinating to me.

First, it’s a whole separate app. It starts simply enough with some traditional onboarding screens that explain the feature. Then, when the demo begins, your cellular service is temporarily disabled, and the app appears to be tracking real satellites¹. Of course, it sends no messages, but it seems to be doing everything except that. It’s impressive and clearly took a lot of time to create.

I’d love to know how the creation of this demo app came about. I’d imagine it was a combination of genuinely wanting people to get familiar with the process before needing it for real (and without the potentially panicked state of mind), having a large amount of “demo” code available from the inevitable test harness apps created during its development, with a sprinkle of consideration that it might also enable some word of mouth marketing².

Finally, the discovery of this feature needs to be foolproof. Apple has trained everyone to expect an “Emergency Call” option when you hold down the power and volume buttons, but in a panic, I’d expect most people’s instinct to be to head to the phone app and dial 999/911. Sure enough, it pops up as soon as the call fails.

Very few of us need to approach design at the same scale as Apple’s design team, and it’s unlikely you’ll need to show off something quite like this in your apps. That said, I bet there are lessons you could learn from going through the demo yourself or watching someone else use it. It certainly opened my mind a bit.

¹ It may not be making connections to the satellites, but it’s a compelling simulation if it’s not genuinely locating them.

² “My new phone can send a message to emergency services even if I don’t have a connection! Let me show you.”

Dave Verwer  

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