One week ago, Hawaii received an accidental Emergency notification of a Ballistic Missile Launch by the Hawaii Civil Defense. It made international news. The government and media responded swiftly to what increasingly looked like human error by a Civil Defense employee. Post mortem discussions circled through social media as many tried to coupe with forty panic filled minutes on a quiet Saturday morning. To my knowledge, this was the first time a “real” nuclear threat arrived via cell phone to an unsuspecting public. Hawaii’s emergency response to natural disasters is held in high regard, due in no small part by the same Office that sent this weeks false alarm.
Of all the disasters that have happened, 15 minutes to prepare for a nuclear missile attack is a new one for Hawaii.
Nearly a week later, debates about the event, personal testimonies on Facebook and screenshots of the alleged “button” have dwindled. Friday brought a strange call-to-action by CodeAcademy, the online coding school.
The email was a real world example of how bad software interface design could lead to unpredictable results. You couldn’t ask for a better sales pitch.
On an otherwise quiet Saturday morning, the State of Hawaii learned the hard way about the consequences of relying on a poorly designed user interface (UI)
This email reminded me of something I witnessed a few summers back when I stepped into a McDonald’s for a drink. What didn’t look like a long line turned into one quickly. A nervous cashier at the counter was near panic as she struggled to take orders. As I got closer, the reason for the sluggish line became evident. She would rely on other employees passing behind her to ask questions about the register. A typical sign of an undertrained employee on their first week. The interruption for nearly every item ordered was making everyone in line noticeably hysterical.
As I got to the front (look, I was thirsty enough to endure this, plus I became genuinely curious, entertained even, anyway) I noticed the real cause of her discomfort. The menu screen was a grid of multi colored buttons, some with tiny pictures of burgers and drink logos. The images represented classic items, stuff always on the menu. Then I witnessed the problem: the employee was a Micronesian women with a what seemed like a limited command of reading English. It was the items without pictures, oddly chosen words and functions which kept stumping her. The register interface looked like nothing conventional or common. Weird menus popped up from buttons without cue, there was an attempt at using color coding, and abbreviations of functions that made no sense. This employee was setup to fail. There was no way for the interface to remind her of what each function did, just pure memorization of arbitrary meanings. Anyway, I ordered and left but always remembered the time waisted that day. Why? Because User Interface Design (UI) and the User experience (UX) matters. (So does proper hiring techniques, but that’s another story) The total human energy loss from that one event was enormous considering the task. The register design had made a somewhat strait forward process unnecessarily convoluted with little regard for computer conventions or basic common sense. As more daily services move online our dependence on screens for work and play has hit an all time high.
Think about this for a minute.
For all the buttons pressed each second of the day, the poor Civil Defense employee won the lottery. Was it his fault, sorta, but he was setup by a poorly designed set of tools. More importantly, a genuine lack of compassion on the part of CD management for implementing a proprietary system that obtuse. Unless you are watching an Apple keynote, you rarely hear words like “humane” and “compassion” or “thoughtful” when discussing design. Menus and buttons are often considered an afterthought, a necessary detail to the real functions of an application. That summer day in McDonalds stood an employee who could have been productive, confident even, if a little thoughtfulness and compassion was applied to the ordering process. I think it safe to say we’ve all been there.
What Hawaii Civil Defense gave the world was a gift — a wake up call. Everyone, even if for a few days, had a conversation about clarity and function of a single set of poorly labeled links. Imagine what could possibly be prevented now that we are talking openly about common sense interface design.
Our collective lifestyles depend on buttons more than ever before. We live in an age where the refrigerator, washing machine and vacuum can have screens. Pushing buttons to get things done are a genuine modern problem (and convenience). As we collectively emerge from a state of confusion and anxiety about the ugly details of a nuclear attack, one thing is almost certain, this event will become cautionary folklore for generations to come. 💥