The Missile Alert In Hawaii Was The Result Of Bad UI Design

The Missile Alert In Hawaii Was The Result Of Bad UI Design

Last week, I got on my soapbox and chatted about user interface design fails. It turns out the weekend’s accidental missile alert in Hawaii was the result of users error that was facilitated by some poor user interface design.

When creating systems, it’s a good idea to have important commands – like the sort that can send a warning of imminent missile attack to hundreds of thousands of people – away from less critical functions. And that’s the UI mistake that resulted in the US Island State being thrown into a 40 minute panic until a correcting message was sent.

According to The Washington Post, the problem was the result of two commands in a drop-down menu being a little too close and alike to each other.

The “Test Missile Alert” and “Missile Alert” options were confused by an operator.

There are lots of lessons to be learned here. Like having a checking or approval process before someone hits the big red button, and ensuring such options can’t be invoked without checking that the user knows what’s going on. Most programs won’t close down without an “Are you sure?” message.

I often launch the wrong app on my smartphone as app icons are too alike. And it’s really annoying. But a UI that lets someone send the population into a panic is in another league.


  • I’m not disagreeing that it’s poor UI design, but I don’t think the issue is that it looks the same, just that they’re too close together. There’s been plenty of times I’ve clicked the wrong option on a dropdown, despite knowing exactly what I was aiming for; I just missed the mark by a couple of pixels.

  • The reason had nothing to do with poor UI design. The person who issued the alert thought the missile launch was real due to an ambiguous voice message which had the phrase “this is not a drill” within in it. End of story.

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