Bad UX can get us all killed! Seriously!!

About a microwave oven, missile defense and why things don’t get better over time
Reading Time: 6 min

This article is a part of the Battery004 issue: Physics and Math are easy, UX is not!

We are making progress!!

There are two parts in designing the user experience of a product that need to balance, the user’s expectations on one hand, and what could be called the “product vision” on the other. User expectation is based on experience, earlier contacts with the same type of product, based on this the user can guess all the basic stuff.

Then there is the vision. Just because something has been done in a certain way that doesn’t mean it is the best way of doing it. So by doing things in a new way that makes more sense then we are actually making progress!

Or are we?

Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep…

Please meet my microwave oven Siemens HF25M5L2B. The microwave oven was invented in the fifties and started landing in homes in the end of the sixties. We have had a couple of years to perfect the ultimate product, but there are always room for improvement, right?

Here are some examples of “progress” in the Siemens HF25M5L2B:

  • You have to turn the micro OFF to set the clock. It took an hour to figure that one out.
  • You push the STOP button to add time to the timer (!) which coincidentally also resets the effect setting.
  • It beeps FOREVER when the time is done as if something bad would happen if I don’t act immediately.
  • It NEVER turns off the power when idle.
  • If I take out the food with some seconds remaining, closes the door, then it beeps every minute FOREVER, as if it wants to punish me for not sticking to the plan.

I know, this is NOT the end of the world, and it will NOT get us all killed (coming to that). But there are a million microwave ovens that behaves completely logical. In this case someone has chosen to ignore that knowledge, and instead consciously create totally illogical behaviors. Sure, it does what it should but why would you create an inferior product when we already know how to do it right?

Beaters that don’t beat, mixers that don’t mix, washers that don’t wash

Another example, my hand mixer. The most common task is to whip cream, seems pretty basic but it turns out that it is perfectly possible to fail at that too. In just a couple of hours the whipped cream starts to separate, making any cake doomed to fail! Never happened with my ancient one.

Or my food assistant, takes twice the time to do peanut butter compared to my old.

Or my new dishwasher that has an ECO program (👍) which does not clean the dishes (👎).

We are supposed to make progress. HOW HARD CAN IT BE??????

Pushing the wrong button

Maybe you remember this story from 2018, maybe you even experienced it first hand. From Washington Post:

Shortly after 8 a.m. local time Saturday, an employee at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency settled in at the start of his shift. Among his duties that day was to initiate an internal test of the emergency missile warning system: essentially, to practice sending an emergency alert to the public without actually sending it to the public.

You know where this is going, right?

Around 8:05 a.m., the Hawaii emergency employee initiated the internal test, according to a timeline released by the state. From a drop-down menu on a computer program, he saw two options: “Test missile alert” and “Missile alert.” He was supposed to choose the former; as much of the world now knows, he chose the latter, an initiation of a real-life missile alert.

I can’t even make this stuff up!!

Around 8:07 a.m., an errant alert went out to scores of Hawaii residents and tourists on their cellphones: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” A more detailed message scrolled across television screens in Hawaii, suggesting, “If you are indoors, stay indoors. If you are outdoors, seek immediate shelter in a building. Remain indoors well away from windows. If you are driving, pull safely to the side of the road and seek shelter in a building or lay on the floor.”

This is so absurdly comical if it wasn’t so serious. People totally panicked, a very understandable reaction.

So why did this even happen? Well, according to WaPo “From a drop-down menu on a computer program, he saw two options: ‘Test missile alert’ and ‘Missile alert’. He was supposed to choose the former […] he chose the latter”…

Let that sink in. ‘Test missile alert’ and ‘Missile alert’ on the same menu. One option that has very limited real-world effects, another that surely will cause total panic. That is not only bad UX, it is UX that should land the software company in jail.

The worst user experience ever!

This incident is probably one of the worst user experiences ever. I am not talking about the poor guy that started it all, that must have been terrible, but the user experience of the population of Hawaii. It took 38 minutes before a retraction came out, during that time many were sure they were going to die.

But it could have been much, much worse. Think about if the false alarm had triggered a nuclear retaliation. No need for the term “user experience” anymore.

All because of a system that has criminally bad UX design. And if this specific system was this bad then we can assume that there is a million other examples of bad UX where a small human error could create totally disproportionate results.

Let us just pray that it is not the same contractor that has made the UX for the US missile system.

Why is bad UX still a thing?

The Hawaii incident would not have happened if the software company had just done their job, these options would never have ended up in the same menu. A proper UX process would probably solve the problem. I say “probably” because I think there is more to it.

There is nothing obviously wrong with putting two similar things next to each other in a drop down menu. In this case it was devastating and clearly a bad choice, in another case it would be the most logical thing ever. So the decision is based on logical reasoning and will vary from case to case.

User testing could have found this potential risk and handled it. But then the tests and analysis had to be designed to catch that specific problem. A test person (or a hundred) that didn’t do the mistake is not proof that no one will do it.

Inventing a crappy wheel, again and again

So what does the missile warning system have in common with my shitty home appliances? They do not build on already acquired knowledge, they are not better than the generation before them, they are actually worse.

As I explained above UX theory and methodology alone cannot save us from “nucular” disaster or a lousy kitchen experience, we need to learn from and build on past mistakes and successes.

The problem is that we most of the time don’t have access to this knowledge and experience, we might not even know it is there. Maybe you are the new UX guy and still learning (as we all are). Maybe there are colleagues that knows exactly what a decision will lead to, but you did not know who to ask. A search might help but remember that Internet is a real hoarder and will point in any and all directions at the same time. Even published research findings are most likely wrong.

And the solution is?

To get out of this karmatic loop of repeating old mistakes and start generating true progress we need to acquire relevant information and knowledge and act on it. We also need to be able to transfer it to others, publicly or within a company. And finally we need to be prepared to scrap all we thought we knew in an instant when we realize that we were wrong.

This is the point where I am supposed to explain how all this is solved but unfortunately my five minutes of your attention as a reader is already used up. So once again I have to leave you hanging until I have the time to write them all. I am sure you will survive 😉.

This article is a part of the Battery004 issue: Physics and Math are easy, UX is not!


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