“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
In Medias Res – Latin for in the middle of things
If this were a Martin Scorsese movie, the story would begin with a hapless, state official, coffee cup in hand moving a mouse cursor over a URL link. The film would show him take a sip from the cup; then the camera would pan down to his hand. There would be a mouse click, then OK click, terrified look and a scream of horror. In the distance, a sound of buzzing phones. Raised voices and running. Only then we would flash back to the beginning of the story and flashforward to its end. Unfortunately, this is not a Martin Scorsese movie.
A lot of failures had to occur before a whole state could be terrorized with a false missile attack alarm. Initial reports claimed that an employee pushed the wrong button. A recent Washington Post article indicates that it was a drop-down list of choices, not a button as previously stated.
However, a photo of the computer screen supplied by HI-EMA, shows a list of Browser Links, with Drill and Emergency links placed in proximity to one another, not a drop down. Their old school formatting, similar naming, the fact that it’s simple HTML with little distinction seem to scream: “who designed this?”
The subsequent pile on of articles, blogs and comments suggest poor User Interface design, incompetent software engineering, etc. Can we genuinely say though that bad UX (User Interface Design) is to blame for panic in Hawaii?
I read the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s press release. It begins with: “Approx. 8:05 a.m. – A routine internal test during a shift change was initiated. This was a test that involved the Emergency Alert System, the Wireless Emergency Alert, but no warning sirens.”
Was this a QA test of the system, or emergency preparedness drill? What was being tested, the staff or technology? What is an “internal test” and why does it result in external alerts? The test was routine, so why did it occur during a shift change on a Saturday?
We can deduct that this was not an end to end test because it did not involve sirens. We also know that the test involved the Emergency Alert System. The statement does not say that it was a test of the Emergency Alert System.
My point is
A simple HTML interface not reflective of any UX thought or production readiness, an event occurring during a shift change, strange Saturday Morning timing, a test involving Alert System but not necessarily a test of the Alert System. Was this a broken testing process of a prototype website? Did lousy web QA trigger a ballistic missile alert in Hawaii?
Of course, I don’t know, and I’m not sure it will ever be publically known given security and sensitivity of these types of environments. The bad UX suggestion by Washington Post seems a little too simplistic, the language in the HI-EMA presser a little too squishy.
If this were a Martin Scorsese movie starting media in res, it would show a panicked employee setting off an alarm causing statewide panic, then flashback to explaining events prior, and flash-forwards to explain the end. But this is not a Martin Scorsese movie.
Don’t blame software
A whole state was put into a panic under questionable testing circumstances. Bad UX, bad UI, bad QA the fingers of blame will probably point at technology, and technology people, because they are easy targets. What led to the acceptance of that interface to serve Hawaii’s needs, the business decision to use URL links to issue lifesaving alerts, the requirements definition that led to the development of said URL links, the choice of a software vendor who obliged in creating them?. I’m convinced we will never learn. I suspect however that the answer lies beyond simple bad UX or poorly written software.