Hawaii’s False Alarm Illustrates the Importance of Solid User Interface

Few things could be more terrifying then seeing an “IMPENDING BALLISTIC MISSILE” alert on your phone.  Similarly, few things could be more infuriating then than hearing “Whoops, we hit the wrong button” thirty minutes later.  It’s natural that residents of Hawaii (and the rest of us for that matter) want answers regarding the events that led up to the panic.  How did such a large-scale mistake happen?  Who is to blame?  As it turns out, the blame may rest squarely on the user interface (UI) used to trigger these alerts.  Here is a photo of the interface for their alert system:

This image is terrifying.  Where are the instructions?  Why are tests and actual alerts in the same menu?  Why was there no sanity check for the real alerts, ie “Are you sure you want to notify the entire state of a missile crisis”?  This is such a complex system, it is responsible for alerting all of Hawaii across a huge range of platforms.  So much time must have been spent on this, yet the user interface obviously was deemed unimportant.

Let’s use Mailchimp, an email marketing platform, as an example of what could have been.  They do a fantastic job of making sure that their application is clean and easily navigated, as well as, insuring the results of a user’s action is clear. Below, is the screen they present their users who have just clicked the button to officially send out their email campaign.

It is very clear by looking at the interface what’s about to happen.  Users know this isn’t a test because it is clearly stated this email will go to 2,099 subscribers.  The graphic also illustrates the seriousness of this action (albeit in a playful way) with the animated, nervously sweating hand that hovers up and down over a big red button.  This screams “Hey, pay attention! This action is irreversible”. I doubt many people end up clicking the Send Now button without realizing they aren’t merely sending a test.

How different would last Saturday have been for Hawaii if the engineers of their alert system took a similar approach?  Sending an email campaign before its ready is bad, but obviously nowhere near the sending of an accidental message to all residents of Hawaii about an impending nuclear strike.  Yet, Mailchimp’s UI team assumed the “Send Now” button would be clicked inadvertently and knew they needed to make clear what was going to happen when the button was clicked.

If there was ever solid proof regarding the importance of crafting a solid user experience this is it.  This disaster was 100% avoidable had time been spent on creating a proper interface that made its intent extremely obvious.  As technology advances, so does the complexity of the software we use.  It is so important to think about how your users will actually use the websites or applications we make.  It is equally important to make sure they are educated on its use and understand the consequences of actions they are taking.

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