Blame terrible interface design for the Hawaii missile alert debacle

But the damage was already done.
But the damage was already done.
Image: Instagram/@sighpoutshrug/via Reuters
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Imagine you have just arrived to work on a Saturday morning, and you are told to select “Test missile alert” from a drop-down menu. You should absolutely not select the second option. What are the chances you don’t mess it up?

This was the situation at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency on Saturday. A computer program offered an employee a menu with the two options above, according to The Washington Post.

“In this case, the operator selected the wrong menu option,” Richard Rapoza, a spokesman for the agency, told the Post. That error caused widespread panic. Shortly after selecting the “Missile alert” option, Hawaii’s system sent a text message to residents across Hawaii, reading: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” The state government did not correct the mistake for a full 38 minutes.

It would be easy to blame the operator for choosing the wrong menu option. After all, this has only happened once since Hawaii started increasing the regularity of its missile-warning systems last November. And the operator is paid to click the correct one.

But the real culprit is poor design. Specifically, the drop-down menu.

Drop the Drop-down

Drop-downs are a decent design choice when each of a set of options has more or less the same likelihood of being chosen. Think of a person specifying the country they live in while filling out a form. Even then, it is easy to mess up. I personally have on several occasions accidentally claimed to live in the United Arab Emirates, which appears next to the United States in such menus.

In the case of the Hawaii warning system, the two options are far from equal. One is used commonly and has low stakes. The other is extremely rare and has major consequences. When they are treated equally by the design, it greatly increases the likelihood of making the wrong choice. The operator in Hawaii was asked to confirm the selection after it was chosen, but given the visual equivalence of a drop-down, it’s be easy for a user to assume they have selected the one they intended.

Choosing the option that has an extreme effect should have a lot more friction than the common, innocuous one. That is to say, it should be harder to do. Consider, by comparison, one of the hardest things to do online: deleting an account on a social media platform.

Companies like Facebook and Twitter are good at design; they are masters of exploiting human psychology; and they really don’t want you to delete your account. Here are the steps you have to take to delete a Twitter account, for example:

  1. Go to your settings page
  2. Click “Deactivate your account”
  3. Read a message explaining why you might not want to deactivate your account
  4. Confirm by clicking “Deactivate” once again

That’s interface friction.

Of course, the Hawaii warning system needs to work faster than account deletion. It is time sensitive. So four steps may be too many for getting out a genuine warning message. But one step—identical to the one for issuing just a test—is not enough. It seems Hawaii has learned that the hard way.

The state has said it will require that a second person confirm the choice in the future. Design provides a simpler and better solution: give it some friction. Make it so that you have to really want to click the real message to do it at all. (If you are facing a real missile threat, you will certainly want to get the message out.) Get rid of the drop down. Make the test warning a big, orange button. Make the real warning a small, red one. There are plenty of other ways to do it, any of which could save us all from another 38 minutes of unnecessary terror.