The Hawaiian Missile Alert Debacle – Don’t Blame the Design

A few days ago the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency accidentally set of a missile alert that sent the island’s population into a wave of panic.  After the alert was recalled and peace was reinstated (pun intended), the story spread over the news like wildfire. The chief question on everyone’s mind was “how could this happen?”



Soon-after rumors began to surface and reports of human error based on a very badly designed human interface started to hover. Was it bad microcopy? Was the call to action not clear enough? Was this a new interface that had not been implemented properly? The theories were endless, with each one more colorful than the next. At one point government officials couldn’t even agree on what the interface really looked like.


Finally, the truth came out. This is what the deceiving user interface looked like:

Hawaii Missile Alert interface


Admit it, you wouldn’t have the first clue what to press. There are two headlines that include the word “test”, one that indicates “drill” and one suspicious “false alarm”. The operator eventually pressed the PACOM – STATE ONLY  link.


“Hold on”, you would say. “Wasn’t the operator trained to identify the right action?” And you would be right. Unfortunately, the operator’s training may not have taken Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve. We lose nearly 50% of acquired information within the first 20 minutes after learning a new thing. This is why coherent design and precisely planned user interfaces are so important. So that we won’t have to retain navigation skills beyond what is humanly possible.


Jared Spool justly blames poorly chosen file names. This is a common problem with dynamic interfaces that aren’t scrutinized by UX writers: the person who names an action/function/button does so intuitively, to what makes the most sense to them at that moment. These are often programmers or engineers, professionals who aren’t versed with the need to communicate clearly with users. Ultimately the chosen name is an array of associative terms that connect mainly in the name-givers mind.


However, this reality is astoundingly common. Many organizations, especially those depending on public funding, cannot afford to retain design and UX services at the rate they make functionality changes to their products. As such, they often have to rely on external solutions of training and context sensitive help to support their users through change and product transformation.


As one of our clients mentioned – “if the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency had Iridize, that wouldn’t have happened”. He may be right. Although I get the feeling the agency won’t be cutting back on UI upgrades any time soon…


Noa is Iridize's Head of Content. With a background in digital strategy planning and database management, Noa translates Iridize's vision, stories and data into words. Digital learning and user experience are a particular passion of hers.