How To Avoid an Accidental Missile Crisis Using UX Principles

On Saturday, reports spread of a dangerous mishap in which an employee of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency accidentally “pushed the wrong button”, leading to a widespread panic in which everyone in Hawaii erroneously thought a ballistic missile was minutes away. The end result caused a wave of fear, as adults and children alike believed they may only have a few minutes left to live.


What is User Experience (UX), and how could it help?

Human error is a natural part of using technology, and one the many goals of a product (UX) designer is to reduce the potential for human error.

For those reading who aren’t familiar with user experience design, a UX designer is responsible for designing the flow and interface of the digital and physical products we use.

Though UX design is now a well-recognized field for consumer products, enterprise software is still catching up. Some software designed for internal audiences, notably within the government, corporate, and finance sectors, still under-invest in user experience, thinking they can get by with “ugly” interfaces that kind of get the job done in a clunky sort of way.

A UX designer’s job is more than just making software that looks pleasing to the eye. They are responsible for identifying the human jobs that software (or hardware) is intended to help the user tackle, and define and design the quickest and least error-prone way to get those jobs done.


Diagnosing the problem

In this case, let’s say the jobs the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s software is intended to solve are:

  1. notifying the public about timely emergencies
  2. testing emergency response systems internally

My quick mockup below is what roughly led to frightful events of the weekend. This isn’t what the software actually looks like, because I’ve never seen it. Instead it summarizes the problem as its been reported by a number of news sources.

A fictional mockup capturing the essence of how a real missile alert was mistakenly sent instead of a test.

What’s wrong here:

  • Missile Alert and Test Missile Alert look really similar
  • It’s really easy to click on the wrong thing by mistake, since they’re so close together (especially if this could be done on a phone)
  • There’s no sort of confirmation step afterwards — it’s just sent to 1.4 million terrified human beings
  • There’s no way to fix the mistake once it’s done

How a UX designer might think about things differently

In the series of quick sketches below, without knowing the ins and outs of the Agency’s software, I’m showing one example approach for how a UX designer might have more empathy for the end user and anticipate risky situations (edge cases, as we call them).

  1. Separate the decision of “what kind of notification do I want to send” from “is this a test or for real”. Don’t overwhelm or confuse the user with too many decisions.

2. Require a confirmation step, particularly for alerts that have serious consequences. Even email marketing companies like Mailchimp require this before sending a newsletter out to people subscribed to your food blog.

3. Once it’s sent, summarize what was done, and provide a way to fix it in case this was a mistake. Also, make sure the chain of command can authorize the notification if needed, and keep them in the loop about what happens next should this be a mistake.


I feel the deepest empathy for anyone that went through hell and back this weekend. For those that work in companies and organizations that deal with software that impact the lives of real people—if you’ve never worked with a UX designer, do yourself and the people that your products affect a huge favor and get started by having one audit your product. IXDA is one great place to start looking for someone local.