Bad Design Caused Hawaii Missile False Alarm


How Bad Design Caused the Hawaii Missile False Alarm

When it comes to UX Design we can all learn from mistakes, or be doomed to repeat history over and over again.

Hawaii Missile False Alarm and Bad Design

In this case, the design, specifically the UI (User Interface) for Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency stands as one of the primary culprits to hundreds of thousands of people experiencing panic, confusion and fear.

After a “this is not a drill” false warning of an impending ballistic missile attack was broadcast via public media channels throughout Hawaii people dove into their bathtubs, lowered their children into sewers, jumped into storm drains or sent final “I love you” video messages via social media.

Thirty minutes later, it was revealed that the alert had been an error, caused by a person clicking the wrong link in a State Emergency Warning System.

You may be wondering, how hard is it to actually find and click the right link?

You know, the one that doesn’t cause hundreds of thousands of tourists and locals to panic?

Based on the shared examples of the User Interface of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency control panel, it would seem it’s actually not that easy at all.

Based on a Tweet by the Honolulu Civil Beat Twitter feed, the interface screen shots of the system shared by the State of Hawaii are approximately equal to what was used.

Confusingly, there were two versions of the interface shared by the State, an earlier (what I call) “Craigslist” view, and a later (what I call) “1990s website” view.

Both, according to the State, are approximations of the real thing since they are not able to share the real interface due to security concerns:

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And according to an original screenshot first shared by the State to the Honolulu Civil Beat Twitter feed, the difference between sending a “This is a drill” alert and a “This is not a drill” alert is, well, just the word drill, written in all-caps in a blue font on a white screen.

View this image on Twitter

Original Source: Honolulu Civil Beat @CivilBeat

“This is the screen that set off the ballistic missile alert on Saturday. The operator clicked the PACOM (CDW) State Only link. The drill link is the one that was supposed to be clicked.”

Sadly, this is an example of the type of interface the Hawaii government officials use to alert the millions of visitors and citizens of Hawaii about an impending nuclear attack. And I’ve seen plenty of other examples of these kinds of interfaces in Enterprises that use outdated interfaces for employees and partners.

Quick! You have only a seconds to get the word out about a major emergency about to hit the island! Which link do YOU click?


So am I.

Or maybe, as in this case, you’re part of a pre-planned drill.

Again, quick! Which do you select?

As a visual design exercise, let’s look at how amazingly hard it is to find the correct link. And here’s a few other notes on the visual interface while we’re on the subject.

Let’s assume you have to use one of these two interfaces due to back-end system limitations.

How do you design it better?

  • Why are the links for “PACOM (CDW) – State Only” and “DRILL – PACOM (CDW) – State Only” not placed in a manner that keeps organizational like objects grouped together?
  • Should Drill vs Real links be placed in separate areas on the screen, to help identify drill versus actual emergency messages?
  • Could the use of caps and lower case be different for the two versions (drill versus real)?
  • What other visual approaches could be used to help identify the appropriate links, assuming this is a text-only interface?

Perhaps you’ll agree with me, I probably could have done the same thing as the operator of the system and accidentally sent the wrong message. That person mistakenly pressed “PACOM (CDW) — State Only” when they should have clicked “DRILL — PACOM (CDW) — State Only.”

Clearly this is a design problem that helped contribute to human error. As designers, it becomes important to consider not only what the interface has in terms of the visual approach, but how it may be used (ie, times of stress) and how that context may impact the visual design.

How Bad Design Caused the Hawaii Missile False Alarm

So that’s how bad design caused the Hawaii Missile false alarm that caused massive panic, fear and confusion. Bad does can and does cause real emergencies.

This is yet another example that consideration for the design of systems, and the humans who use them, are more complex than we often realize.

Hopefully this lesson is one that you’ll be able to use to help you produce better designs that help people accomplish critical tasks.


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