I wasn’t in the room where it happened, but I experienced the consequence.
On Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, somebody pushed a button in Hawaii that sent an “Emergency Alert” text message to cell phones statewide:
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
The warning was also automatically broadcast on television and radio. It caused widespread panic. Residents and visitors huddled in closets and basements. Tourists vainly sought clarification from their hotels about what to do. People hugged their children and called their loved ones. Thirty minutes later, another alert declared a false alarm.
The visibly shaken governor appeared on television with the equally discouraged Hawaii Emergency Management Agency administrator and declared, “This should not have happened.”
He said, “An employee pushed the wrong button.”
There will be an investigation and officials will be updating procedures, but let me suggest that some human-centered design guidelines and human-computer interaction procedures might have helped avoid the whole thing in the first place.
Here’s what I know from reading press reports:
We can talk all day about hindsight, but the human-centered design process in software development is there to provide foresight, and every one of the five points above is a red flag for practitioners experienced in its application.
First, exactly what is human-centered design?
It is an approach to system development that prioritizes the experiences of the people who will be using the system. It takes into account how people perceive information in all senses; what people are capable of doing physically with their hands, fingers, eyes and whatever else they are using to interact with a computer system; how people process information, what they can remember and what taxes their information processing capabilities or confuses them; how human feelings and emotions affect performance and attention; how the context of people’s activity influences what they think and do; and so on.
A human-centered designer is therefore someone with knowledge about the behavioral, cognitive and and physiological sciences, who also knows about the design of interactive computing systems. They should be part of any development team, and play just as important a role as the best software engineer or programmer.
Now, to the points above.
These are all design guidelines that the HCI expert should have on hand to help during development. However, not everything can be foreseen, and so there are other important HCI processes that need to be carried out when developing systems such as these.
If we focus on the button, the screen, and the moment, then we miss the larger picture. This event happened in the course of an activity with many steps, and at each step there were branches for doing something else. In scenario-based design, all of the possible things that a person might do while interacting with a computer system to accomplish a range of tasks are explored. This includes all of the possible things that a person might do wrong, and all of the paths of recovery. Note that this is not computer programming. This is not coding. This is thinking about what people do, which is the first principle of human-centered design.
Scenarios can be tested with very basic versions of software, called prototypes. Prototypes can be very simple, even based on paper or cards, and are designed to be modified easily and thrown away when they don’t work. Prototype testing should be done during the design process, using real people who know the tasks (not the programmers or designers) and they should include all activities, including errors. Although this is also not programming per se, programmers and software engineers should be involved in prototyping since it will guide their implementation process ultimately.
Again, I do understand that it is always easy to criticize in hindsight. But, when I hear that someone “pushed the wrong button,” I cannot let that stand as an acceptable reason to scare the wits out of a million and a half residents and a quarter of a million visitors to our state. I don’t blame the person who pushed the button, but I do question the designers and developers of a system in which such a thing could happen.
Error recovery is just as important in system design as any other function.
Human-centered design and HCI are often not taken seriously because they add time and cost, they have roots in the social and behavioral sciences which can be antithetical to STEM practitioners, and they require interactions between cultures that often find it hard to understand each other. It is not an uncommon practice to release apps and even larger and more complex programs in beta versions with the idea that problems will be discovered in the field and fixed in upgrades. But upgrade cycles based on widespread failures in the field are not good practice, and iterative fixes are very different from good design. In application contexts as critical as statewide emergency alerts, poor design is completely unacceptable.
So, my message to the poor governor and his staff is: By all means proceed with fixes and procedural work-arounds to keep this from happening again. But I would also let loose on the emergency alert system some good interaction designers who are knowledgeable about humans and familiar with human-centered principles. They will come to your rescue before you need it.
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