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Was the Hawaii Missile Alert the Result of Poor Interface Design?

ballistic missile

I can only imagine what kind of panic ensued over the weekend for people in Hawaii.  If you haven’t heard, residents and tourists received a warning on Sunday morning that indicated there was an incoming ballistic missile and for people to take immediate cover.  On one hand, this system is incredibly beneficial, but on the other hand, something went wrong.  Which makes you wonder if there is something wrong with the design itself.  The Washington Post reported that the alert was fired off (no pun intended) by an employee at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.  The employee simply selected the wrong option in a drop-down menu while conducting a routine test of the state’s emergency warning system.  As someone who has worked with these systems, I can understand selecting the wrong option.

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EUGENE TANNER/AFP/Getty Images

That said, it took 38 minutes for the government to realize their mistake and issue an additional alert stating that the warning was sent in error.  If you’re not familiar with the interface you are given two options.  The first is “test missile alert” and the second is “missile alert”.  Rule number one in interface design is – don’t put the test function next to the deployment button. In this case, it kind of sounds like the actual use of a drop-down menu was not the best.  Instead of making it easy to test the system safely, the interface has created a scenario where there’s a 50% chance of making a massive mistake. 50%!  Those are incredible odds, so I’m unsure why the designer thought this would be a good way to present the information?

In most of our day to day experiences, drop-down menus are fine.  Especially for certain functions like filling out forms.  But even in those cases, they can be difficult to navigate.  I myself just had troubles with a drop-down menu in a form.  It took several attempts before figuring out what the problem was.  But in my case, I was presented with an error message indicating I had done something wrong.  Why doesn’t this system have an alert that indicates something to the effect of – you do realize that you’re sending out a missile threat warning?  If this was present the operator could have realized that they didn’t want to select that option.

missile alert

Or better yet, for those kinds of options, perhaps a secondary layer of authentication is needed.  Perhaps a supervisor also needs to verify the missile threat?  I’m not trying to make it more complicated, but human error is a real thing. Maybe you’re tired. Perhaps you’re just overwhelmed with everything going on with work at the moment.  While none of these are excuses, these are things that happen to people every day, which is why some other layer of accountability is necessary.  Even if that accountability is built into the way that the interface is designed.  It could potentially minimize the number of these false missile alerts.  I think this is a lesson for designers to better understand their products.  If there is room for mistakes, then they might consider going back to the drawing board.