As a result of recent events in Hawaii and Japan, people may unfortunately take a real live ballistic missile threat alert less seriously in the future.
As we all know by now, last Saturday was a terrible time to be in Hawaii. Just after 8 a.m. local time, Hawaiians and tourists received the shocking notification from their cell phones that a ballistic missile was on its way to Hawaii, directing them to take shelter. The message ended on an ominous note: THIS IS NOT A DRILL. It was a full 38 minutes until they knew the notification had been sent in error. Three days later the nightmare repeated itself on the other side of the Pacific, for our friends in Japan.
The impact this had on the people who received these messages is hard to imagine. In Hawaii, for nearly 40 minutes, some people made what they believed would be their last phone calls and texts, families took refuge in homes and garages, and panic reigned across paradise.
The post-mortem on these events revealed they were caused by human error - essentially a person pressing the wrong button. But that’s only part of the issue. In fact, these episodes could have been prevented completely. Not by better training or a different government, but something radical: good design. This was not a human error but rather a design flaw.
Good design starts with practitioners who put the user at the center of their design decisions and who incorporate insights from users at each step of the design process. We call this focus “user experience” or “UX." UX isn't just a buzzword used by tech giants or the Fortune 500 companies who try to emulate them. It actually drives most of your behavior with digital products - whether you finish a task efficiently or not, accurately or not, or with a level of speed that requires little to no thought.
The emergency notification system in Hawaii is not an example of strong UX. In fact, the screenshot of the launch page provided by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency appeared to have no design at all -- simply a list of tests, alerts, and warnings with no rhyme or reason to their organization, displayed as blue hyperlinks reminiscent of Yahoo’s home page from 20 years ago.
I shudder to think of the design of our nuclear launch system.
A core element of UX is the determination of when and where to apply friction in your interactions with a digital interface to deliberately slow the user down. For the past few years, tech leaders have been relentlessly focused on removing friction from digital experiences. Smart Speakers, voice assistants, and voice user interfaces are all the result of this investment. “Turn the lights on,” “play some music,” “order toilet paper.” We can direct a small device to do all of these things simply by talking aloud. Facebook is even building technology that could read your mind.
While it’s true that friction-free user experiences are the future, we must also weigh the merits of friction, and when it can save us from ourselves. Friction in a user interface slows us down with carefully designed extra steps and clarifying screens that make us fully commit to the action we’re attempting to take. We need friction when completing tasks that could have significant unintended consequences. That might include emptying a bank account with an accidental extra zero, permanently deleting important information, or unintentionally inducing mass panic and distress with alerts sent by accident, like we saw last weekend.
Friction is just one piece of the UX puzzle, and it can’t be built with talented and creative designers alone. Successful UX design is informed by studying users. Through research, and in particular, watching users of your digital product attempt tasks while talking aloud, you can learn what they understand on each interaction you build. Do they get it? Or do they click through screens without recognizing the impact of their actions? How many unintended results do they encounter? What is the cumulative impact of errors encountered? Have you applied friction when it matters and removed it when it doesn’t?
What happened in Hawaii and Japan over the last few days is deeply unfortunate. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from these experiences. We know that there is a need for strong UX outside consumer technologies. The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency clearly missed a huge opportunity to prioritize the user experience and test their designs with actual end users. Let’s not repeat that mistake.
Originally published on LinkedIn: Friction and User Experience: Lessons from the Hawaiian Missile Mishap