Most of the time, thinking carefully about UX is important. Sometimes, it's very important.

By now, everyone has heard about the incident on Saturday, January 13, in which scores of Hawaiian residents and tourists received a grim message on their cell phones. “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii” it read, “Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.” You’ve likely heard of the apology from Hawaii Emergency Management and the subsequent death threats the culprit has received for causing such widespread panic.



But you likely won’t hear as much about the actual cause of this whole mess—which is not a negligent employee who haphazardly pushed the “everybody panic” button— but a poorly designed user interface.

Apparently they selected from a drop-down menu in which he saw the options for “PACOM (CDW) - STATE ONLY” and “DRILL - PACOM (CDW) - STATE ONLY.” Although the menu option still required confirmation that the user really wanted to send an alert, clearly it wasn’t a message strong enough to prevent him from robotically clicking onward. This is speculation, but I’m willing to bet that the “Are you sure you want to release this warning?” modal looks exactly the same as it would if you were releasing a test.


It sounds like I’m giving him a lot of slack, but anyone who has ever sent out an email campaign with a typo experiences this face-palm moment. And for those arguing that bad design couldn’t possibly have that big of an impact, let me remind you of the 2000 US Election debacle—in which a poorly laid-out ballot resulted in thousands of incorrect entries and weeks of scrutiny and controversy.

While this incident points out several layers of faulty processes, any web designer can tell you this could have been easily avoided by a simple line of css:

.REALMissileAlert { font-size: 2em; font-weight: bold; color: red; }

So the next time you’re sitting around the dinner table trying to explain to your Great Aunt Lorraine that good design and user experience is not just making things pretty, remember to drive home the fact that it can actually do a great many things.

Especially in the case of preventing national incidents.

Stephanie Ward Stephanie Ward

When S4's Creative Director isn't longing for the bygone days of boy bands, glitter, and questionable hairstyle choices that we call the 90s, she's helping us push our creative chops to the next level. She combines impeccable taste and artistic skill with a strong determination to make sure a design's target audience always understands the message perfectly.