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Social distancing brings remote support to the forefront

Remote coaching on mobile devices will require a new look at old use cases.

Social distancing brings new use cases for mobile phones to the forefront

Last week we helped my mother set up her new Samsung mobile phone. Due to the current pandemic, she is under a stay-at-home order in Florida. Provisioning my mother’s new phone meant transferring personal data from her old phone to the new one. In order to perform this task, she had to find, install and launch the Samsung Smart Switch data transfer app. Since we are currently in Canada, we needed to support her through the data transfer process over the phone.

Unfortunately, the designers of the data transfer app did not consider the “remote support” use case.

The sound channel works well for in-person support.

The data transfer app uses ultrasonics (very high-frequency audio) via the microphone and speaker to both authenticate the new phone and to enable the secure transfer of data from the old phone to the new phone. For in-person support scenarios, this would be an acceptable user experience. The app was expecting to use the speaker and the microphone for both the transmission and reception of ultrasound. In a remote support situation, this design solution no longer suffices.

Using ultrasonics to orchestrate secure data transfer between two phones prevents an end-user from concurrently receiving remote help via a voice call on one of the phones.

Participating in a voice call with my mother while “remote coaching” her through the transfer process meant that the speaker and the microphone interfered with the data transfer. The active voice call had exclusive use of the phone’s microphone and speaker, denying access to the data transfer application and interfering with its completion.

We realized the problem and hung up our call, and mom had to perform the transfer without our step by step guidance. She persevered and was eventually able to complete the task by herself, then called us back to report success.

Remote coaching scenarios will need to use the audio channel to offer support.

Social distancing is having ripple effects on the way products and services are being delivered. The impact on retail will have many follow-on effects including issues with customer support.

As shown in the scenario above, using the sound channel in the app to orchestrate the data transfer requires that the end-user cannot receive remote help via a voice call while using the same phone to participate in performing the transfer. It is not clear that most people would be able to recognize the interference between the transfer app and the voice call.

To prevent this problem in the future, this limitation should be called out in the user interface before the initiation of the data transfer task. The user should not have to stumble upon it while in the middle of attempting a data transfer.

From a product planning perspective, a simple call to an API to recognize an active voice call with a resulting notification to the phone screen would have saved a lot of time and effort. A visual cue prompting the user to “please hang up while we start the data transfer to the new phone” would have mitigated the difficulty in the user experience, and the process of provisioning the new phone would have proceeded smoothly.

Social distancing brings new use cases for mobile phones to the forefront.

With the current disappearance of in-person support, product teams will now have to prioritize remote coaching use cases in the design and delivery of their product experiences. We predict there will be more remote authentication and support use cases for utility apps like the one we have described.

As customers are no longer able to visit retail stores for in-person support, product managers and design teams should be taking note of the above scenario while planning new features. Remote support user experiences that were previously low priority and considered “nice to have” are now required and are in need of new prioritization consideration by product teams.


Karen Donoghue and Craig Newell are Principals at HumanLogic.


The illustrations are based on visual design components from the Undraw illustration system.