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  • 02.01.17

Could This Button Reinvent 9-1-1 For The Age Of Uber?

Instead of calling for help, what if help called you?

Two years ago, when Bo Gillespie’s mother was about to send her last kid to college, she set about getting back to work. She got her real estate license, and started selling houses in South Florida. It was an exhilarating but also worrying prospect: After all, what other job asks women to meet strangers alone every day, as a matter of course? So she took what precautions she could. She would call up Bo before every showing, just to make sure someone knew where she was. But it made Bo wonder: If something did happen, what help could he offer? He could call the police, but between waiting for his mother to call and then dialing 9-1-1, how much time would have passed?

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Better, he thought, to let his mother be able to call for help. Why not just create a big gaudy bracelet, that she could use like a Life Alert to call for help? And so he hired Pearl, the same design firm behind the Misfit Shine activity tracker and the recently launched the Instrumments smart measuring pen. But in short order, Pearl’s CEO and lead designer, Mladen Barbaric, realized that Gilespie’s assumptions about what we need in times or duress only seldom rise to the level of 9-1-1.

Ripple, the product of all that insight, launches today on Kickstarter and is expected to ship in April. The team has already put two years into nailing down the manufacturing and service design. It’s not a gaudy bracelet. Instead, it’s a discreet button linked to your smartphone, which can be accessed without anyone noticing it at all. That’s part of the appeal: There’s no fumbling with your phone, trying to unlock it, or trying to get Siri to work. But if you simply push the button three times, it can indeed work like a Life Alert: Those three taps can trigger an automated 9-1-1 call if the user sets up their device like that.

But it’s what happens when the user only pushes once that’s interesting. Pressing once doesn’t call 9-1-1. Rather, pressing once pings a safety expert, working at a call center, to call you up. Once you’re connected, that expert can talk you through whatever situation you’re in. They’ll already have information like your height and weight, the medications you’re taking, and the allergies you have. “It’s not another safety button,” explains Bo Gillespie, Ripple’s 26-year-old founder and COO. “It’s really a service that lets you get out of uncomfortable situations. It connects you to a personal backup team.” (For the time being, $49 buys you a button and three months of service with the safety expert.) Instead of simply calling for help, the help calls you. And that might make all the difference.

Flipping The 9-1-1 Paradigm

What Gillespie and Barbaric eventually created isn’t just meant to be a tool for moments that fall short of an emergency, but still need some kind of help. In all those situations, perhaps you don’t need a panic button, as much as you need a get-me-outta-here or a help-me-figure-out-what-to-do button. “If you’re in an uncomfortable situation and need an interruption, you click and you get a call,” explains Gillespie. “You can say you have to this call.” In that way, Ripple piggybacks off a behavior that already exists. But in allowing its users to very discretely ask for an incoming call for help, the hope is to also access myriad other use cases as well. Someone might also use it when having car problems, knowing they don’t need 9-1-1, but unsure whom exactly to call. The operator on the line will talk to you, figure out what you need, and figure out what help to lend.

Ripple is a product that seems either obvious or ingenious, depending on how closely you look. There are dozens of safety buttons on the market today. Most of those work like Life Alerts: Giant buttons that yell DANGER. There are even safety-button apps—the simplest of which has you hold your finger to a button on the screen, and calls 9-1-1 if you take your finger off the button. But behind all those products lies a very bad assumption about why we call for help. Each of those products assumes that danger arrives in a flash—that a bogeyman jumps out of the bushes. But in fact, we very seldom face such situations. Most of the time, the help that we need is fuzzier and harder to articulate. You might not know that you need the police right away. Then again, you might need the police after all. It’s hard to tell, in the moment.

For any new product, the core UX problem is: How do you make a device so useful that people will actually think to keep on using it? Put another way: How do you make a product that becomes a part of people’s lives? Part of the solution is making the use of a product as easy as possible. That’s what Ripple is doing, by putting a help-mate just one button-push away, and inverting the relationship between who calls whom. It’s simply easier to have someone ask you what you need, than to go through the exercise of figuring out what exactly you’re looking for. That’s one of the reasons people pay butlers, after all. But Ripple’s greatest challenge is making sure that there are enough reasons to use the button that you actually bring it with you—and that you actually think to use it for all kinds of unanticipated situations when the excuse to bail might be useful.

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In that sense, Ripple’s is hoping to create a service that’s flexible enough that people can use it as they see fit. “If you want to interrupt a situation, your phone is going to ring,” says Gillespie. “There’s comfort in just knowing that someone has your back and that you don’t have to be alone or embarrassed to ask for help.” How often does that need arise? That’s the knife-edge upon which Ripple’s business rests. Of course, the company has thought about all kinds of services that might be on the offing. For example, you could imagine having a button that taps a personal concierge, who calls you ready to assist in whatever you want. But that, Gillespie says, is far off for now. Ripple will instead start by testing if people realize how helpful it might be not just to be able to call for help, but for that help to call them. It’s a novel inversion that might prove useful. And one that arose directly from thinking deeply about our mistaken ideas about what kind of help we really need.

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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