Hawaii False Alarm: The story that keeps on giving

Right after the Hawaii false nuclear alarm, I posted about how the user interface seemed to contribute to the error. At the time, sources were reporting it as a “dropdown” menu. Well, that wasn’t exactly true, but in the last few weeks it’s become clear that truth is stranger than fiction. Here is a run-down … Continue reading Hawaii False Alarm: The story that keeps on giving

Right after the Hawaii false nuclear alarm, I posted about how the user interface seemed to contribute to the error. At the time, sources were reporting it as a “dropdown” menu. Well, that wasn’t exactly true, but in the last few weeks it’s become clear that truth is stranger than fiction. Here is a run-down of the news on the story (spoiler, every step is a human factors-related issue):

  • Hawaii nuclear attack alarms are sounded, also sending alerts to cell phones across the state
  • Alarm is noted as false and the state struggles to get that message out to the panicked public
  • Error is blamed on a confusing drop-down interface: “From a drop-down menu on a computer program, he saw two options: “Test missile alert” and “Missile alert.”
  • The actual interface is found and shown – rather than a drop-down menu it’s just closely clustered links on a 1990s-era website-looking interface that say “DRILL-PACOM(CDW)-STATE ONLY” and “PACOM(CDW)-STATE ONLY”
  • It comes to light that part of the reason the wrong alert stood for 38 minutes was because the Governor didn’t remember his twitter login and password
  • Latest news: the employee who sounded the alarm says it wasn’t an error, he heard this was “not a drill” and acted accordingly to trigger the real alarm

The now-fired employee has spoken up, saying he was sure of his actions and “did what I was trained to do.” When asked what he’d do differently, he said “nothing,” because everything he saw and heard at the time made him think this was not a drill. His firing is clearly an attempt by Hawaii to get rid of a ‘bad apple.’ Problem solved?

It seems like a good time for my favorite reminder from Sidney Dekker’s book, “The Field Guide to Human Error Investigations” (abridged):

To protect safe systems from the vagaries of human behavior, recommendations typically propose to:

    • Tighten procedures and close regulatory gaps. This reduces the bandwidth in which people operate. It leaves less room for error.
    • Introduce more technology to monitor or replace human work. If machines do the work, then humans can no longer make errors doing it. And if machines monitor human work, they ca
    snuff out any erratic human behavior.
    • Make sure that defective practitioners (the bad apples) do not contribute to system breakdown again. Put them on “administrative leave”; demote them to a lower status; educate or pressure them to behave better next time; instill some fear in them and their peers by taking them to court or reprimanding them.

In this view of human error, investigations can safely conclude with the label “human error”—by whatever name (for example: ignoring a warning light, violating a procedure). Such a conclusion and its implications supposedly get to the causes of system failure.

AN ILLUSION OF PROGRESS ON SAFETY
The shortcomings of the bad apple theory are severe and deep. Progress on safety based on this view is often a short-lived illusion. For example, focusing on individual failures does not take away the underlying problem. Removing “defective” practitioners (throwing out the bad apples) fails to remove the potential for the errors they made.

…[T]rying to change your people by setting examples, or changing the make-up of your operational workforce by removing bad apples, has little long-term effect if the basic conditions that people work under are left unamended.

A ‘bad apple’ is often just a scapegoat that makes people feel better by giving a focus for blame. Real improvements and safety happen by improving the system, not by getting rid of employees who were forced to work within a problematic system.

‘Mom, are we going to die today? Why won’t you answer me?’ – False Nuclear Alarm in Hawaii Due to User Interface

Image from the New York Times The morning of January 13th, people in Hawaii received a false alarm that the island was under nuclear attack. One of the messages people received was via cell phones and it said:“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Today, the Washington Post … Continue reading ‘Mom, are we going to die today? Why won’t you answer me?’ – False Nuclear Alarm in Hawaii Due to User Interface


Image from the New York Times

The morning of January 13th, people in Hawaii received a false alarm that the island was under nuclear attack. One of the messages people received was via cell phones and it said:“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Today, the Washington Post reported that the alarm was due to an employee pushing the “wrong button” when trying to test the nuclear alarm system.

The quote in the title of this post is from another Washington Post article where people experiencing the alarm were interviewed.

To sum up the issue, the alarm is triggered by choosing an option in a drop down menu, which had options for “Test missile alert” and “Missile alert.” The employee chose the wrong dropdown and, once chosen, the system had no way to reverse the alarm.

A nuclear alarm system should be subjected to particularly high usability requirements, but this system didn’t even conform to Nielson’s 10 heuristics. It violates:

  • User control and freedom: Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked “emergency exit” to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.
  • Visibility of system status: The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.
  • Error prevention: Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action.
  • Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors: Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.
  • And those are just the ones I could identify from reading the Washington Post article! Perhaps a human factors analysis will become regulated for these systems as it has been for the FDA and medical devices.

    Designing the technology of ‘Blade Runner 2049’

    The original Bladerunner is my favorite movie and can be credited as sparking my interest in human-technology/human-autonomy interactions.  The sequel is fantastic if you have not seen it (I’ve seen it twice already and soon a third). If you’ve seen the original or sequel, the representations of incidental technologies may have seemed unusual.  For example, the … Continue reading Designing the technology of ‘Blade Runner 2049’

    The original Bladerunner is my favorite movie and can be credited as sparking my interest in human-technology/human-autonomy interactions.  The sequel is fantastic if you have not seen it (I’ve seen it twice already and soon a third).

    If you’ve seen the original or sequel, the representations of incidental technologies may have seemed unusual.  For example, the technologies feel like a strange hybrid of digital/analog systems, they are mostly voice controlled, and the hardware and software has a well-worn look.  Machines also make satisfying noises as they are working (also present in the sequel).  This is a refreshing contrast to the super clean, touch-based, transparent augmented reality displays shown in other movies.

    This really great post/article from Engadget [WARNING CONTAINS SPOILERS] profiles the company that designed the technology shown in the movie Bladerunner 2049.  I’ve always been fascinated by futuristic UI concepts shown in movies.  What is the interaction like?  Information density? Multi-modal?  Why does it work like that and does it fit in-world?

    The article suggests that the team really thought deeply about how to portray technology and UI by thinking about the fundamentals (I would love to have this job):

    Blade Runner 2049 was challenging because it required Territory to think about complete systems. They were envisioning not only screens, but the machines and parts that would made them work.

    With this in mind, the team considered a range of alternate display technologies. They included e-ink screens, which use tiny microcapsules filled with positive and negatively charged particles, and microfiche sheets, an old analog format used by libraries and other archival institutions to preserve old paper documents.