False Alarm

By John Lim, CTO

Over the weekend, the residents of Hawaii got some crazy alerts about a missile that had launched. People were in a panic…but it was a false alarm. How can clicking one button immediately send out an alert like this, causing a state-wide panic, with no precautions in place and no “false alarm” alert handy just in case? How does a mistake like that happen?

It comes down to having a terrible user interface on a computer.

There are two big things to keep in mind when designing a user interface.

  • One: it should be easy for the user to establish muscle memory; like the old calculators and input systems. If someone is entering data all day the interface doesn’t have to look pretty, it just has to be functional in the sense that they know that three right clicks, two down arrows, and “enter” accomplishes their task.
    • The flaw to keep in mind here is if anything changes on that interface, that user’s world is going to end.


  • Two: the interface needs to be intuitive, like a kiosk. Someone walking up to it for the first time would be able to look at it and figure it out. Simple and obvious.


With all of that in mind, what happened in Hawaii?

Simply put, the user interface for that alert system is seriously outdated. A list of links made up of a string of words. In actuality the link the employee was supposed to click on to send the test alert only was only 4 letters different from the one they weren’t supposed to click on (it just says “Drill” on the test link).

That’s it.

On top of that, at the time there was no system in place to immediately send out a false alert message (it has since been added).

We stress to our clients, and our clients understand, that there is a shelf life to technology. And they are very good about upgrading and staying current. So why do we have such a key important system running on such old tech?

Things die, entropy is in everything.

So we have to build our lives and our work around that, understanding that things will eventually fail. This is why we have redundancies in place (we could go off and talk about backups and protections here). The importance of staying current, updating, and having a solid user interface is very apparent in this event.

Just another technology thing we have to work out!


John Lim, CTO
// John, CTO directs our team of technicians in support cases, new project planning, and research and development. John came to TekTegrity after spending ten years as a leader in Cuesta College’s Information Technology Department where he helped make possible Cuesta’s High Tech building, myCuesta portal, and Gmail integration. If you come by the office and there are dozens of donuts, bagels or fresh egg rolls (from San José) in the break room, John is most likely the food fairy who left them. And if he’s not feeding or directing the tech team you might find John having lunch at the Elks Lodge or spot him cruising the coast with his motorcycle gang.