Missiles, False Alarms, and Bad Design

By Maya King, Senior Producer

Waking up last Saturday morning in Hawaii, many people, including Smashing’s Sr. Marketing Manager, Brittany Carlstrom, saw the now-infamous alert on their phone:


Similar alerts sounded on TV and radio stations throughout the islands, and predictably, chaos ensued.

Tourists fled to underground parking lots in nearby hotels, while locals gathered their loved ones and pets and took shelter in bathrooms, basements, even the sewer system, as others parked inside highway tunnels that cut through the mountains.

Many called friends and family on the mainland and around the world to say emotional good-byes, while others chose to seize the moment by popping open their best bottle of vintage wine and downing it with chocolate.

38 minutes after the alert went out, an all clear came through:

There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. Repeat. False Alarm.


Then the real fallout began.

Confusion and worry turned to anger, as people shifted from savoring their final moments on Earth to looking for someone to blame for the panic and subsequent pandemonium.

The state of Hawaii was quick to make a statement under pressure, with Gov. David Y. Ige apologizing for the mistake, saying that someone clicked the wrong thing on the computer.”

Emergency Management Agency Administrator Vern Miyagi soon followed up by saying that the employee who made the mistake felt terrible for triggering the alarm, but placed the blame squarely on this unidentified employee. Miyagi said the employee answered “yes” when asked by the system if he was sure he wanted to send the message. “It’s human error,” Miyagi said. “There is a screen that says, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’”

News media were quick to jump on the ‘human error’ as the cause of the state-wide panic.


But, is it fair to blame a single employee for clicking the wrong button?

Don Norman, best known for his classic book The Design of Everyday Things, and an expert in the fields of design, usability engineering, and cognitive science, was quick to post on Twitter:

Norman has a valid point in his research, that anyone working in the field of user-centered design will recognize:

If we assume that the people who use technology are stupid then we will continue to design poorly conceived equipment, procedures, and software, thus leading to more and more accidents, all of which can be blamed upon the hapless users rather than the root cause — ill-conceived software, ill-conceived procedural requirements, ill-conceived business practices, and ill-conceived design in general.

It is far too easy to blame people when systems fail.

As people called for accountability and tried to dissect what happened, screenshots of the internal system used to manage and send the alerts spread online.


The above screenshot was shared by Hawaii News Now reporter Mileka Lincoln, which quickly spread to multiple additional media outlets.

State officials later discredited the image, instead sharing a mock-up closer to what an HI-EMA employee might see (a true screenshot couldn’t be shared due to security concerns):

The mock-up suggests the real interface is less bad than the first; but still hardly a shining example of good design or clean naming conventions.

While the false alarm was a terrifying reminder of the looming possibility of intercontinental missile attacks and how little time there is to prepare in such an event, it also serves as a wake-up call to the importance of human-centered design on internal systems UI.

The design community has certainly been vocal in the wake of this event, and maybe governments and other large organizations with poorly-designed systems will take heed of their usability research and recommendations, and the true value of a user-centered design experience.

These organizations can take inspiration from some of the multitude of design suggestions on Twitter, or advice on a better system for file names. Or, they begin by picking up a copy of The Design of Everyday Things to learn about the science behind creating thoughtful designs.


Don Norman, father of UX

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