Avoiding Disaster with UXD

Learn how UX design offers the opportunity to help this critical causes and ultimately protect, and save, lives. Read more from Kent State here!

User Experience Design graphic

User Experience Design to the Rescue!

On Saturday, January 13, 2018, a terrifying message populated the screens of over a million smartphones in Honolulu, Hawaii. It read: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” As the world now knows, this turned out to be a false alarm. An investigation into the incident found that the message was sent by mistake when a state employee hit the wrong button during an internal drill.1

In the aftermath of the false alarm, people across the nation and the world over are wondering how the entire incident could have been avoided, and also how the situation could have been handled better once the alarm had already been circulated. According to NBC News, the moment the message was sent, local 911 received nearly 5,000 calls—a number impossible for them to handle. It also took the state over half an hour to send a retraction to the same million people who received the first message reading, “There is no missile threat or danger to the state of Hawaii. Repeat. False Alarm.”2

In actuality, this incident was tied directly to user experience design (UXD). Surprised? Don’t be. Because this aspect of design deals with the structural and informational aspects of successful (or unsuccessful) user interface across both industries and devices, the real-world application of UXD extends well beyond creative agencies and web development firms. In the case of Hawaii’s false missile alarm, a more intuitive interface could have pointed one city employee toward the right test link.

Avoiding Disaster

The fact that it was a human error that led to the false message being sent to over a million people is important for two reasons. First, it means that the UX design could have been simpler. In this case, an employee pressed the wrong button, something good UXD attempts to make nearly impossible. Second, it means that a human was able to send a real alert during an internal drill. If you’re able to send an outward message during such a drill, then the UXD of the drill isn’t as strong as it could be.

This situation brings up a significant point: for many, user experience design is still seen as primarily a skill set with a business-to-consumer focus—meaning the use of UXD in an internal setting would not be as stressed as the UXD of a public-facing experience. However, the more problems that occur on the company side of digital products, including the Hawaii situation, the greater the need for better internal UXD becomes.3

The strengthening of internal UX design within companies and their business to business products is exciting. It means the benefits of a quality digital user experience is being more widely recognized as a ubiquitous need, not only for consumers, but for employees and employers as well. Ultimately, it could lead to safer digital experiences for everyone—because if only the public-facing UXD is considered, then there’s always the risk of safety being compromised on the backend of a product.

What this means for the field of UXD is also significant. It means more job opportunities for UX designers in a wider variety of industries. Advertising agencies and other public-facing businesses are known for employing UX designers, but now with the expansion of UXD to internal product development, UX designers could find themselves working in a multitude of industries, including some of the world’s biggest tech companies such as IBM and GE.4

Responding to Disaster

But despite the best efforts of preventative systems, some disasters are unavoidable. When a disaster does happen, responding with traditional methods isn’t always the most effective strategy. This certainly doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t use those traditional methods to respond to a crisis initially, but rather that there need to be secondary and tertiary methods in place as well—ones with the ability to take in, respond to and assess large sets of information.

The good news is that organizations and companies across the world are developing innovative and truly amazing ways to respond to disasters quickly and efficiently. And these systems and technologies often have UX design at their core. For example, utilizing the infrastructure of social media and personal devices, companies like Cisco are able to create highly advanced and effective disaster response systems.5 Response information provided by such systems is often delivered in visuals and requires a comprehensive user journey so that those sending it, and those receiving it, can understand it fully. By efficiently and conveniently structuring this interface, UX designers can have a huge impact on the flow of information in times of crisis.

Better Prepared for Anything

Unfortunately, there have been plenty of disasters, both natural and man-made, in recent memory. It’s our job as a global community to learn from the successes and failures of our responses to these crucial moments and improve upon them. UX design offers the opportunity to help this critical cause and ultimately protect, and save, lives. It’s a field that demands strategic thinking and an intense analysis of every possible situation and outcome.

Are you interested in other ways UXD is being used to improve the world? Read about the “hidden industries of UX design,” and consider an online Master of Science in User Experience Design from Kent State University.


  1. Retrieved on February 2, 2018, from nbcnews.com/news/us-news/hawaii-false-alarm-ensuing-chaos-teachable-moment-experts-say-n838836
  2. Retrieved on February 2, 2018, from nbcnews.com/news/us-news/hawaii-false-alarm-ensuing-chaos-teachable-moment-experts-say-n838836
  3. Retrieved on February 6, 2018, from uxpin.com/enterprise-ux-design-2017-2018-industry-report
  4. Retrieved on February 6, 2018, from uxpin.com/studio/blog/enterprise-ux-state-industry-2017-2018-infographic/
  5. Retrieved on February 2, 2018, from weforum.org/agenda/2018/01/4-ways-technology-can-play-a-critical-role-in-disaster-response/
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He is an Associate Professor in the Evaluation and Measurement program within the College of Education, Health and Human Services at Kent State University. He is also the program coordinator for the online Master of Education degree in Research, Measurement, and Statistics.
Dr. Astrid N. Sambolín Morales is an Assistant Professor in Kent State Online’s 100% Online Master of Education degree in Cultural Foundations. She received her PhD in Educational Equity and Cultural Diversity from the University of Colorado Boulder and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research provides a more nuanced picture of the agency, resistance, and empowerment enacted by displaced Puerto Rican m(others) in the U.S., and her work was funded by several grants, including the University of Colorado Natural Hazards Center, the BUENO Center for Multicultural Education, the URBAN Research Network, and the NAEd Spencer Foundation.
Felesia McDonald, ’14 is an adjunct instructor in the iSchool, teaching courses in the 100% Online Master of Science in User Experience. McDonald is also the Sr Manager UX Design at Optum, a branch of UnitedHealth Group.