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Poor design, not human error, is how you get incoming ballistic missiles

In the aftermath of the Hawaiian ballistic missile false alarm, many articles emerged online that focused most of the blame towards the user that "pushed the wrong button". This really shouldn't be the case, because the bigger issue is that poor UI/UX design allowed this to happen.

For a system as important as this, it shouldn't be possible for:

  • a user to make two consecutive mistakes, 
  • be able to put an entire US state into panic-mode in just a couple of steps,
  • and not be able to retract the message and inform the recipients of the false alarm faster than the 38 minutes it actually took to do so.

For human error to be the main issue, that person would have had to have been incredibly incompetent and/or poorly trained to be able to achieve this with a well designed interface. But is it possible that person was simply that badly prepared for their role?

Whilst this was surely a contributing factor, unfortunately, the screenshot released by the Hawaii Governor's office, as well as subsequent revisions, corrections (and the way those were handled) only reinforce the bad design as the main issue argument.

Of course, the person who made the critical mistakes on the day isn't entirely free from blame; he or she still played a key role in these events. But to simplify the cause of the error down to human error and identifying the solutions as more diligent checking and better training misses the more fundamental issue: the system is poorly designed.

And to be clear, when I mean bad design, I'm not just referring to the system's user interface. The issues that arose were both digital as well as process related, but all easily identifiable and avoidable by going through a [doesn't even have to be super-]thorough discovery and design process and following basic, long-established best-practices.

Check out the linked article for a nice breakdown of why poor design, and not people, should be blamed when events like this happen.

Slips occur when a user wants to do one action but unintentionally takes another (usually similar) action. They often happen in situations where users are on autopilot and do not fully devote their attentional resources to the task at hand. Accidentally putting liquid hand soap on one’s toothbrush instead of toothpaste is an unconscious slip. But slips can also happen when the two choices look too similar or are placed too closely to each other. Often times, when you stop to assess the design of an interface where a slip has occurred, there is an underlying UI issue at play that sets people up for these errors.

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