Nuclear attacks and drop-down menus

Show of hands, how many of you have inadvertently clicked on a screen (aka interface) and done something by mistake?

  • Maybe you’ve sent a message with a typo that you only noticed as you were clicking “Send”. Whoops, too late.
  • Maybe you’ve sent a message with an embarrassing/misleading/error-promoting typo without noticing it at all. You had to clarify what you really meant after being questioned/confronted about it.
  • Maybe you chose the wrong item from a drop-down menu because the wording of the items weren’t clear enough, or because your cursor moved slightly while you were clicking. Did you even realize there was a problem?
  • Maybe you robotically clicked “OK” on a confirming text box without really reading the accompanying text carefully?

It turns out that the recent 38 minutes of panic in Hawaii due to a false emergency warning of an immediate incoming missile threat was not caused by someone pressing the “wrong button”. It was caused by someone choosing the wrong item on a drop-down menu. That’s right, the emergency warning message that sent hundreds of thousands of people into a panic – fearing for their lives – was a choice on a drop-down menu. Right below the item “Test missile alert”. An item on a drop-down menu, a drop-down menu that included several alarm options, although none for “False Alarm”! The mind boggles.

We first heard that the missile alert message was a choice on a drop-down menu while watching Stephen Colbert. [No, we don’t stay up that late, but we try to tape it; it’s not to be missed, unless you are a Trump supporter, in which case I would definitely advise you not to watch it!] My husband and I both spent our work lives working in IT, especially in software design and testing; at first we thought that this was part of the humour of Stephen Colbert’s monologue and we laughed out loud. Surely this wasn’t really true. Then I googled “nuclear alert Hawaii drop down menu” and, yep, it’s true! Sorry, but that is just too appallingly awful to laugh at. It is jaw-droppingly bad. That missile-threat message mistake was not the fault of the poor person asked to use this excruciatingly poorly designed system; it was the fault of the “designers” and the “testers” who set it up. Having taught user interface design for many years, I can say with certainty that this design “flaw” would have earned an F in any design class. OMG. What happened to the definition of Fail Safe? This interface clearly was not tested with anything like “Fail Safe” in mind. [They don’t use drop-down menus for similar situations at the White House, right?! ;)]

I gather that the state government in Hawaii has learned from this “error” and has “tweaked” the interface design. Hopefully they have added several Fail Safe steps in the clicking procedure. But I have to say that this is just the most recent in a number of user interface designs that have surprised me with their lack of attention to detail, to good design practices (which are anything but new), and lack of concern for either end-users (customers) or employees who have to deal with the frustrated customers. It comes down to ease of use, clear and useful feedback to the user, and ability for the system to detect and prevent errors in advance of them being made.

Since I don’t live in Hawaii (although at this time of year it does have a nice ring to it), my personal bugbear at the moment is the new Self-Checkout interface at our largest grocery store. The previous system worked just fine, but for some reason Canada’s largest grocer (yes, Loblaw’s. although in eastern Canada we know it as the SuperStore) decided to change it. The previous system prompted customers for produce codes or asked them to start spelling the name of the item, after which the system would bring up pictures and codes of the item it thought you wanted so you could make an informed decision. You actually learned the produce codes and became faster at doing your own checkout. It also showed you a picture and the code for the item you were ready to accept, so you wouldn’t be pricing the wrong item by mistake.

The new system does none of this! It’s all a huge guessing game. Since I have more experience than many people in working my way around computer interfaces, rather than give up and voice my frustrations to the attendant SuperStore employee – which has been the line of recourse for most – I tried the button that says “More”. This, it turns out, brings up the screen that allows you to type in the name of the item you want. However, there are absolutely no prompts, cues, feedback, or codes to help or provide reinforcement that you are on the right path. Nor is there any obvious way for you to undo the mistake you made through no fault of your own without calling the poor overworked employee, who has to work far harder supporting this new system than the old one. All I can think is that (1) the interface was redesigned by someone who has never used the Self Checkout and never intends to, that (2) Loblaw’s doesn’t really want its customers to use Self Checkout, and that (3) for some reason it has it in for the poor employees who support Self Checkout, who don’t deserve this unnecessary situation.

Folks, user interfaces have been with us for a long time, and they’re here to stay! We expect that more and more of what we do will include behind-the-scenes computers and their interfaces (think cars, or even refrigerators). If what we can do with computers continues to advance, why, we might ask, are user interface designs going in the opposite direction? Please, everyone involved in bringing new computer systems into your workplace or your product, don’t scrimp on software testing. Don’t scrimp on testing your user interfaces … with real end-users!

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8 Responses to Nuclear attacks and drop-down menus

  1. Roy McCarthy says:

    I refuse to use self check-outs. If I inadvertently find myself with no choice I’m the one holding up the queue sadly bleating for help. On my very first encounter an elderly lady shopper took pity on me and helped me out.

    No one would put me in charge of warning systems. I’d have the whole island scurrying for shelter like in Hawaii.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      So, Roy, you are a writer, a runner, and an accountant, but a dyed-in-the-wool technophobe?! 😉 Me, I like to use the self checkout because I don’t like the way the cashiers pack my milk in the bags! 🙂

  2. barryh says:

    Worst is the interfaces where there is a slow response time. You think it’s not responding, so click again, only to find that, as you click, up comes the screen you wanted – and you find you’ve clicked on some random thing ‘in error’.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Another good example. Just be glad the poor fellow clicking on the drop-down menu didn’t experience that frustrating problem and send out two different wrong warnings, several of which were on the same menu list!

  3. alesiablogs says:

    I love Hawaii. I go usually every year. It is unfortunate but I do believe this is a wake up call to how the federal government is not assisting the states on the most basic need for understanding the safety network and how we as the States are protected.. Why was the states system not in line with what the federal side of things who would know if we were in imminent danger? Federal has a system in place to see if /when a missle is launched and then the federal government would bring it down is what my basic common sense tells me. If I lived in Hawaii- I prefer no warning. Where the heck would I hide anyway? Trumps fault for causing undo fear . Sorry for my rambling as I am sure there is much I do not know….. maybe a good start is for better softwares that talk to each other as I believe you may be alluding to.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      You make some important points, Alesia. Happily, some critical lessons were learned because of this unfortunate but more or less harmless mistake. Let’s hope they’re acting on even more lessons than they’re talking about!

  4. I can’t tell you how many times my husband and I have said to each other, “Gee, didn’t anyone actually try to use this before marketing it?” Not just in conjunction with computer software; it’s a problem with all products these days. As for drop-down menus, I can only hope that the hot button controlling launching of the nuclear bombs is not linked to a drop-down menu. That would give a whole new meaning to “drop-down”, wouldn’t it?

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I know, so many products! Sigh. I love your last observation. That would indeed give a new meaning to drop-down!! I’m afraid to laugh for fear someone is saying, “Oh yeah, maybe we should change that!”

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