The Secret Life of Defective Smartphones: Overcoming the No Fault Found (NFF) Challenge In Reverse Logistics

Most people don’t realize just how much defective mobile devices are damaging end-user experiences. At first glance, it may seem that a defective mobile device is mainly an inconvenience for the first owner and that initial owner has clear options. If the device is defective and under warranty, they can simply take it back to the store. And if the warranty is expired, they can use it as a trade-in and upgrade the device or buy a new one. It all seems very straightforward. But lurking beneath this simplistic perception is a more complex truth. Defective mobile devices don’t just impact the initial owner: these poorly performing devices increasingly get passed on to multiple future owners, their defects undetected, leading to a trail of unhappy users.

So how do defective devices have a life that goes beyond the initial owner? To understand this, we need to look deeper into the device returns process. First of all, a massive amount of mobile devices are returned each year. In fact, it’s millions and millions of devices per year just for a single large US operator. With such a huge volume of devices, operator’s reverse logistics functions have historically been limited to performing subjective tests or fairly simplistic objective measurements. Neither approach is particularly accurate at identifying defects and as a result, many defective devices are mistakenly tagged as “no fault found” (NFF), sent for refurbishment and then back to users – with the original defective device elements still in place.

This problem isn’t unique to the mobile industry. We recently attended the Reverse Logistics Association Conference & Expo in Las Vegas, where Reverse It Sales & Consulting, LLC stated that 70% of returned consumer electronics are categorized as NFF. To make matters worse, the presenter pointed out that the returns cause codes provided by customer support teams handling these returns were typically wrong, with the first code on the list being selected disproportionately. Clearly, identifying defects is a fundamental challenge across the electronics industry.

So what’s the mobile industry to do? From talking with our customers and meeting with logistics players at the RLA Conference and elsewhere, we see the industry taking three main approaches:

  1. evaluating the user experience of mobile devices during the initial production and forward logistics phases
  2. performing an intensive user experience evaluation of the first 100 or more mobile devices returned by customers
  3. improving the accuracy of defective mobile device detection during the returns process

To enable each of these approaches, the industry is turning to systems that rely on sophisticated user experience tests to accurately identify defective and poorly performing devices. These systems have a few key requirements: the user experience tests need to be quickly and easily executed, the systems need to have a compact form factor that can be deployed in production or logistics facilities, and the defect identification accuracy needs to be significantly better than existing subjective and simplistic tests.

As operators and their logistics partners deploy user experience evaluation systems, we’ve observed significant reductions in initial mobile device defects and dramatic reductions in NFF rates. In the audio quality returns category, a leading US operator customer was able to reduce NFF rates by more than 60% by deploying user experience evaluation systems in their reverse logistics provider’s facilities. Following are a few additional examples of how the industry can deploy user experience systems to improve their logistics processes: evaluating the battery life, assessing speech quality, and evaluating devices for audio quality. These tests can be performed before devices go to retail outlets and/or upon return from customers.

By tackling the challenge of defective devices both in the forward and reverse logistics channels, we believe the industry is poised to make dramatic improvements in device quality – ultimately improving the user experience of both their new and refurbished devices. If you’d like to learn more about how Spirent is helping the logistics industry address these challenges, please watch our video on logistics solutions and visit our Acoustic Verification System (AVS) product page.


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