Every type of software benefits from great UX. Too commonly, businesses and agencies assume that because a particular interface isn’t customer facing, investment in UX is a waste of time and money. Quite the contrary. Intuitively designed interfaces organized with a navigational strategy built to reduce user error are absolutely critical, and the ballistic missile alert error in Hawaii over the weekend is a harsh reminder of this fact.

It’s safe to assume that most readers have heard about the the Hawaiian Emergency Management Agency’s serious mishap at this point. If not, you can read about it here: http://www.cnn.com/2018/01/13/politics/hawaii-missile-threat-false-alarm/index.html. According to state leaders and emergency officials, the cause was “a mistake made during a standard procedure at the change over of a shift, [when an] employee pushed the wrong button.”, according to Hawaii Gov. David speaking to CNN. Confirming the governor’s comments, Honolulu Civil Beat posted a screenshot of the EMA alert interface with the following tweet:

Reading the full CNN article and many like it over the last 48 hours evokes visions of children huddling with their parents in bathtubs and stairwells, crying and praying as they await their abrupt demise. Along with the immediate panic and fear it caused, there are many long term consequences resulting from this easily avoidable error. Given the current high-tension geopolitical climate for a state within range of a North Korean nuclear warhead, the increase in societal-level anxiety is one that will linger on.

As a UX designer this story made me cringe, knowing this all could’ve easily been avoided if the Emergency Management Agency invested in more robust UX. Based on the above intel, there was no interface wall separating actions taken by an employee testing the system from doing something like sending out a missile threat alert to 1.4 million Hawaiians. A mode for testing such an interface should be essential, along with a simple two-click confirmation if somehow such a mistaken alert (though much more unlikely) were ever to be initiated. If the interface for testing and sending threat alerts for incoming ballistic nuclear missiles is this bad, I surely hope the ones for actually deploying nuclear missiles have a much, much better designed UX.

Along with the negative impact to Hawaii’s citizens, it’s safe to say the Emergency Management Agency’s public perception has been severely damaged due to this incident, and it could have all been avoided by a regular UX audit. If no dedicated UX team existed, a UX audit could at least have identified this type of interface defect before it became a newsworthy error. For this very reason, the CRi Solutions team recommends an initial audit for all of our new clients. During the UX audit a determination of risk and a development level-of-effort is assigned to each defect that’s identified. This allows our clients (whether an agency or a business) to base their development strategy on specific parameters while maintaining a record of prioritized interface enhancements. Our team then works to offer project guidance to build an immediate and future development plan.

May this unfortunate mistake serve as a stark reminder that it’s the very nature of humans to be error prone. The common adage “if something can go wrong, it probably will” definitely applies to any interface that handles large quantities of users and activities throughout its lifespan. If there’s any lesson for enterprise in the end, it’s that the investment in a UX audit is far less costly when compared to the risk of not having a regular one in place.


CRi Solutions focuses on UX Research and UI Design as critical processes in building quality products that customers love. We provide both research and design projects as stand alone services or combine them with our mobile and web development services.

Preston Halstead

I joined CRi as a User Experience Designer in 2016. Originally a pre-med student in college, I found myself fascinated by the human mind. After completing an internship in behavioral neuroscience I began a focus on human-computer interaction. As a UX professional I’m continually fascinated by the impact of great products on human mood and behavior.

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