Hawaii: When Bad UX Causes Mass Hysteria

NPG1033 Route 46 East, Suite 107 Clifton, NJ 07013The widespread panic in Hawaii this past weekend could have been avoided if only an experienced UX designer had been involved in designing the alert system.

Hawaii: When Bad UX Causes Mass Hysteria

By Sebastien Jean-Baptiste

Hawaii: When Bad UX Causes Mass HysteriaNew Possibilities Group/site_media/1879/Hawaii: When Bad UX Causes Mass Hysteria01/17/2018Hawaii: When Bad UX Causes Mass HysteriaDesign
New Possibilities Group


Not a great way to start your day, but that’s the alert many panicked Hawaiians received this past weekend. Luckily, it was a false alarm, but those 38 minutes of uncertainty definitely scared a lot of people.

So, what exactly happened?

“According to Governor David Ige of Hawaii, the error occurred during a change of shift, when an ‘employee pushed the wrong button.’” (The Atlantic, Ankit Panda)

Someone pressed the wrong button during a shift change! You’d think an emergency system would have a much more secure method of sending such a message. And yet, all it took was the simple press of a button to send an entire state into chaos.

That said, I’d argue that the real failure here is the constant devaluation of designers—in this case, a user experience designer.

Designers are treated like the smoke detectors on your ceiling, often ignored and forgotten, rarely appreciated. A UX designer crafts a user’s experience on anything created with the intent of being interacted with. Simply relying on a coder to build your system is a guarantee for failure. A developer’s role is to code—they have no idea what user experience is and honestly, they don’t care (no offense, guys).

One of the first things a UX designer does after designing a system is break it. Yes, we spend hours, if not days, thinking of ways to break the very system we just designed, how it could fail, what could go wrong, what external elements could affect the system, even alien invasions...!

Okay, we tend to go too far sometimes, but that’s where coders balance us out by denying our more unreasonable requests.

So, how does this apply to the Hawaii's Emergency Alert System?

If a decent UX designer was involved in the building of the alert system, I promise you one of the first things that designer would have recommended would be a double-confirmation system: a secondary message forcing a user to confirm an action before executing it. Even Windows 98 used to do this when you tried to delete a file.

The second flaw in Hawaii's Emergency Alert System showed itself as well: They were not able to send a follow-up message right after! Holy cow. Not only did they send the wrong message, but it took them a whopping 38 minutes to send a false alarm message!

What kind of UX is that? A really bad one.

A really good UX designer would take it a step further. After all, imagination is such a crucial skill set when designing. UX designers plan for when things do inevitably go wrong and allow users a clear and efficient way to correct mistakes. Users are humans, after all; mistakes will occur. To not plan for it is arrogant. The fact that this system’s designers didn’t even imagine what to do if they sent the wrong message tells me that they either didn’t have a UX designer involved or that they had one, but just didn’t listen to them.

I can only imagine what other flaws live in this system. Countless to be sure. The moral of the story here is that designers should always be involved in any project you embark on. The value may not always be seen—and that’s my point.

After all, good design tends to be invisible, and under appreciated.

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