The Human Factor

Background:  I work in User Experience in the software business. Some people think it’s a matter of “making software look pretty”; it’s actually about making software work better, easier to learn, more effectively, more powerfully and – this is the big one today – more error-proof for real people.

Software for government is simultaneously a “target rich environment” of big problems caused by disregarding user-centered design principles.  For example, when a consultant released a seventy page report on MNSure’s problems – which cost the state an extravagant amount of money to solve – a solid third of them were problems that would have never happened had they  had someone on staff minding the store when it came to designing for real people.

Austin Bay’s piece on last weekend’s false alarm in Hawaii shows that the issue is, in part, rooted in User Experience issues:

The Hollywood movie scene has someone pushing a red button on a control console. reports that a rather mundane act generated Hawaii’s false alert: a single HI-EMA employee selected the wrong option on a confusing drop-down computer menu checklist.

That menu is a mess. On the menu, the “drill” is in close proximity with other choices. Moreover, the state civil defense drill and the for real U.S. Pacific Command civil defense warning for Hawaii option (an attack warning) nest among other options, including high surf and tsunami warnings.

Tsunamis and enemy missile attacks are deadly threats. The menu’s miserable clutter reflects sloppy institutional planning.

8:05 a.m. January 13: instead of selecting the state-PACOM civil defense warning drill, the employee clicked the PACOM civil defense warning option. Then he compounded his error by clicking “yes” on “a second (computer) confirmation page.” The false warning was immediately transmitted to the public.

Since emergency messaging is in the news, Channel 4 did a piece on MInnesota’s system.   And it sounds more error proof – although I doubt the typical reporter knows much about analyzing a system’s human factors issues (note to Channel 4 – have your people call my people).

I imagine we’ll find out sooner or later.


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