This Is Not a Drill: How Bad Design Caused Hawaii’s Missile-Warning Fiasco
By Abdul Rastagar
On January 13, 2018, more than one million residents of the state of Hawaii received an emergency alert on their smart phones, warning them of an inbound ballistic missile. The warning instructed people to “seek shelter immediately” and finished with the ominous sentence, “This is not a drill.”
The message, however, had been sent inadvertently by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency during routine testing. It took an excruciating 38 minutes for the state to send out a cancellation notice. The initial reason reported to the press was that “The wrong button was pushed.” Unfortunately for most Hawaiians, those 38 minutes were spent in fear and hysteria as panicked residents called loved ones to wish them emotional farewells.
It is tempting to blame the emergency management official who made the mistake. However, as the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency released an image of the offending screen, it became obvious that the incident resulted from the poor interface of Hawaii’s warning system, causing the operator to inadvertently select the wrong option.
The episode is reminiscent of the 1986 song, The Land of Confusion by Genesis, in which a confused President Ronald Reagan accidentally presses the “Nuke” button when he actually means to call the nurse. Sadly for the residents of Hawaii, this error was no laughing matter.
Photo Credit: Hawaii News Now
Good Design Is Not Just For Aesthetics
There is a common misconception that design is just for aesthetic purposes and therefore necessary only for consumer applications. The reality could not be further from the truth, as the state of Hawaii just found out the hard way. User-centric design, a design philosophy that focuses on usability and user behavior, would have helped avoid this public relations debacle.
The image of the state warning system indicates that only minimal planning went into its design. It is composed of an illogical and seemingly random listing of alerts and test drills, giving the operator a high likelihood of clicking on the wrong missile warning link. And it offers product managers a fascinating case study in proper UI development.
What’s required is a more intuitive interface that does not force users to guess or search for the actions they must take. In addition, it must incorporate standard safeguard processes to minimize the possibility of the notorious “fat finger” error, as well as provide a straightforward cancellation mechanism.
The following design elements would help prevent future mistakes:
- Logical Placement
Rather than a seemingly random listing, warning options would be listed in order of most likely to happen to least likely. High surf warnings are fairly frequent for Hawaii and should be placed first, while ballistic missile launches are rare and should be listed either at the bottom or separately.
- Color-coded buttons
The initial statement that “the wrong button was pressed” is not accurate. There are no actual buttons to be pressed. From a design perspective, color-coded buttons would be a better option to make it visually clear to the user which action they are about to take. [Note: color scheme should account for color blindness.]
- Standardized terminology
We see the words “test” and “drill” for separate items. These should be standardized to just one term.
- Second authentication
If Amazon can require us to log in a second time to edit our profile or password, an emergency management system should be able to do the same. Presumably, the user was required to log in once in order to access the system. It should require a second log in for issuing an actual alert.
- System warning
A stark warning should pop up prior to sending out an actual state-wide warning: “Are you sure you want to issue a ballistic missile warning?” The operator would have the opportunity to cancel the notice before needlessly frightening more than one million people.
- Independent validation
In order to issue a purchase order, I have to obtain permission in our procurement system from my supervisor. An actual state-wide alert of such magnitude should be automatically routed to a second person on duty to validate the alert.
- Built-in cancellation
There is a cancellation option at the top, though it is not obvious what “BMD” means. A proper cancellation option would make it extremely simple for the operator to act upon. A large button should appear immediately after the notice has been sent and should remain directly accessible.
From the image, it is not clear which of these design features actually exist. However, given the outcome and judging from the poor design, it is fair to assume that none of these options are available. A single one of these would have reduced the likelihood of a false alarm. All of the above together would essentially eliminate an erroneous false alarm.
Hawaii’s fiasco is a predictable consequence of bad design. And it is likely quite common among government agencies across the globe. A more user-centered design approach would have avoided this sad incident. It is an unfortunate lesson that all product managers must take to heart when building their product.
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