911: Defective by Design?

Taking courses in Industrial Design implies that one begins to critically analyze every object, concept or even principle that one encounters. In this post, we compare and contrast various choices of emergency telephone numbers. The well known 911, vs the 100/101/102 native to us, vs what I think is a far better choice: 787.

So, the starting point is purpose: The number should be chosen so that it can be dialed as quickly and easily as possible, by the maximum number of people, including the elderly, children, and the differently abled. For example, the blind. And this is where both 911 and 100 disappoint, 100 in particular. The distance between the ‘9’ and the ‘1’ on a mobile, is comparable to that between adjacent keys on an old-fashioned landline handset. So, thinking from a blind person’s perspective, he has to pres the “9”, and then feel around for a distance of 2 keys to locate the 1. The thing becomes even worse with 100, where, even accepting the fact that the “0” is uniformly placed at the same location for all phones, it is still located right at the bottom, i.e. a taxi-cab distance of 4 from the “1”.. not desirable.

Also, both 911 and 100 have the repeated digit.. horrible, because then, one has to wait for a fraction of a second before jabbing it again, else the second jab won’t register as separate, maybe, on some handsets. And then, there is a chance of accidentally double-pressing the key when dialing some other number, say I was dialing 9123456789, and I am an old fellow who held the “1” in too long, or pressed it unsteadily, and it registered a second time. Bad.
The result of the above analysis: keys should be adjacent, but no consecutive repeated digits.

And the last point to be considered: Consider that you are stuck in a corner of a room, under a heap of rubble due to an earthquake, you can’t move, but your hand can barely make it to the pay phone on the wall. How exasperating it would be, if you can’t dial 911 because the “1” is too far up in the top row, out of reach! Or connsider a small, short child who can barely make it to the buttons by jumping, but can reach only the bottom row.  Conclusion: The keys used should preferably be on the bottom row. Both 911 and 100 fail to satisfy this.

So, keeping these points in mind, the number 787 seems good. It has adjacent keys, so no feeling around needed. No consecutive double pressing involved, and only the bottom row is used. (Of course, using 789 is silly because little children might just press it in that order for fun’s sake.. 3 buttons in a row is tempting, even to some grownups :))

There is this (funny) consideration: children are taught to count gradually from one onwards, the use of “larger” digits like 7 and 8 is bad if, for example, the child knows only the first 5 digits till now. Still, that doesn’t make 100 a better choice than 787, because ideally, the child shouldn’t know “0” either. Or atleast, the full beauty and appreciation for the need to know zero is not apparent until we really need to start writing numbers beyond 9. But of course, this consideration is more for the purposes of humour.. To “trade off” a tiny child who knows all the digits, but is not tall enough to reach to the “1”, in exchange for a child who can reach out to the digits, but cannot count beyond 5, is silly.

The reader might be thinking that all the above are marginal considerations, and don’t deserve so much a drastic action as adding an emergency line. But in a world where A/B testing makes companies pay others and share valuable sales data just to know what colour the Buy button should be, I think any zero-cost measure that saves even one extra life, deserves thought.

3 responses to “911: Defective by Design?

  1. A very good idea to consider.
    Although, one more consideration, that you need to make is that in many phones, if you dial a correct number, and then keep dialing random digits, the call does go through. Which means it is a problem if one correct number is the prefix of another.
    In India at least, that will not happen with 100. But considering that we are having numbers starting with 7 these days, it won’t be long before someone carries 7872432910 (or anything similar).

    • Ah.. That was the very reason I did not go for 989 or 898 or anything like that.. I didn’t know we already have numbers starting from 7.. that’s bad.

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