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This Is the Awful Design That Led to Hawaii’s Ballistic Missile Warning

If you’re a UX designer in Hawaii it might be time to put in a call to the state’s Emergency Management Agency — they are in dire need of your help. After a false warning of an incoming ballistic missile sent people into bathtubs and storm drains and general states of (understandable) fear and panic for over half an hour on Saturday, it was later revealed that the alert had been sent in error. That’s awful, you might be thinking. How difficult is it to press the right button, the one that doesn’t send thousands of people into existential crises.

It seems it’s actually fairly difficult. According to a screenshot from Honolulu Civil Beat, the difference between sending a “This is a drill” alert and a “This is not a drill” alert is, well, just the word drill, written in all-caps in a blue font on a white screen.

Note that you are not looking at Craigslist in this photo. This is the actual interface that the real government uses to alert its citizens of likely nuclear catastrophe. The operator mistakenly pressed “PACOM (CDW) — State Only” when they should have clicked “DRILL — PACOM (CDW) — State Only.” Which isn’t great, for sure, if your job is to be the person clicking the buttons about potentially impending disasters. But also, this is as much a design problem as it is that one human’s error. How about putting the big, scary, “THIS IS REALLY HAPPENING” option in red. Or adding in a two-step confirmation — “Are you sure you want to alert all of Hawaii to an incoming missile” — requirement before sending the alert. On Twitter, BuzzFeed’s Kevin Collier also pointed out an AP story from last year which included now-removed photos of computers at Hawaii’s Emergency Management offices with visible passwords.

The system has, Honolulu Civil Beat reports, received one change following this weekend’s events. It now has a built-in “False Alarm” alert.

Update, January 17, 2018, at 5:20 p.m.: The State of Hawaii has since issued a statement saying the screenshot it originally sent to Honolulu Civil Beat isn’t actually what the alert system looks like. Instead, Governor David Ige’s office shared a second image that is closer to what the person who goofed and sent the alert would have seen on their screen. Both are recreations, as sharing the real thing would be, apparently, a security risk.

This Is the Awful Design That Set off Nuke Panic in Hawaii