Blame elementary software, not operator

Since the false missile alert, a lot has been made about the worker who “pushed the wrong button.” We now know for certain there is no button, thanks to all the coverage of what went wrong.

There is a computer, and on its screen are menus and windows just like on yours or mine. The only difference is this computer is hooked into the Emergency Management System and is running specific EMS software.


A screen image of that software has been making the rounds on the internet, marked up with circles and annotations showing both the intended and selected options.

As a computer professional, that image shook me to my core. It absolutely screams “amateur designer!” and strongly hints at obsolete technology. With some luck, the image is not real.

One thing I am sure about after 35-plus years in the software design business – if one glaringly amateurish thing jumps out in the user interface, there’s probably 30 others hidden in the background. I see at least three glaringly amateurish things in that screenshot.

The menu selections are a mess. The wording is inconsistent, the item order is seemingly random, and test versus real alerts are not meaningfully designated.

This software is what should be replaced immediately, not the poor operator tasked with using it.

At a minimum, the EMS menu selections should:

* Contain multiple menu layers, with like items under the same option

* Be colored consistently (i.e., real alerts are red, tests are blue, …)

* Be worded consistently (i.e., TEST in all caps as the first word when applicable)

* Use a complex, positive confirmation instead of a simple “Are you sure?” (something that cannot be simply “clicked through” mindlessly)

* Use multiple confirmation layers and display what is being confirmed

* Force the operator to read the screen (Example: Have the confirmation include typing a randomly generated number or randomly selected word from the screen or even the phrase “This is not a drill” or “This is a test” as applicable)

It is easy to blame the operator; it is more difficult, but infinitely safer to ensure the software eliminates unintentional human error. And despite what many think, it is possible to minimize or even eliminate human error through proper user interface design.

Most ironic of all, I’m an unemployed software engineer who was laid off from a Fortune 500 company for not relocating away from Hawaii. Not only do I see how inept this system is, I know I could fix it, and it would solve my unemployment problem as well.


Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go peruse the state government’s job listings.

Bob Gage is a resident of Kealakekua