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!