Clean, clear and error-proof

Lessons from Hawaii: Smart graphics can help prevent human error

Sitting at a keyboard

A Raytheon system called Command View combines and displays data to allow decision-makers to act quickly. Experts say well-designed interfaces are crucial to emergency management and military operations.

All of Hawaii was in a nuclear panic. And all it took was a couple of computer clicks to make it happen.

A simple mistake that sent a screaming, all-caps ballistic missile alert to smartphones across the state showed how important it is to have well-designed emergency management computer systems, experts said. Part of that is having clean, clear, user-friendly graphic interfaces – which Raytheon experts have built into control systems for missile defense, satellite command and cybersecurity operations centers.

“It’s not just about nice. It’s about clean, crisp and obvious. You’re getting rid of clutter,” said Mark Bigham, chief innovation officer for Raytheon’s Intelligence, Information and Services business. “You’re trying to cause that human to arrive at the correct conclusion.”

Officials said the false alarm in Hawaii was caused by a warning officer who, meaning to broadcast an internal test message, clicked on the wrong option – the one that sent the smartphone notification: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

In a subsequent statement to investigators from the Federal Communications Commission, the warning officer claims to have thought a missile attack was imminent.

The FCC reported a drill was indeed underway, and that the officer was responding to a recorded telephone message. That message started and ended with the words "exercise, exercise, exercise," but also erroneously included the words "this is not a drill," investigators said. In a written statement to the FCC, the warning officer claimed not to have heard the "exercise" portion. Other warning officers said they did hear those words, and understood the message was part of a drill.

"Because we've not been able to interview the day shift warning officer who transmitted the false alert, we're not in a position to fully evaluate the credibility of their assertion that they believed there was an actual missile threat," an FCC official wrote in a statement.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency and other public safety officials retracted the alert on social media minutes later, but responding through the smartphone system took 38 minutes. Within a day, the agency built in a feature to declare a false alarm much faster, and adopted a “two-person rule” requiring an additional level of approval before an alert goes out.

Bigham pointed to two key flaws contributing to the mistake: The options were too close and too similar on the screen, and a single person had the power to issue such a drastic alert.

The controls to activate the alarm "need to be bold and big ... a giant red button," Bigham said, adding that any attempt to broadcast a warning should automatically notify others in the chain of command, who can then decide whether to confirm or cancel. 

“That way, you have a little bit more of a failsafe. And you can do these things where it happens in milliseconds.”

The confirmation prompts could even include data about the situation at hand, he said; in the Hawaii case, that would include factors such as the time the incoming missile launched and where it is most likely to hit.

“There’s just some basic information you’d want to know that says how sure we are that this would happen,” he said.

Working at a command center
A proposed new interface for the Patriot Air and Missile Defense System uses 3-D graphics and other features that make command and control more intuitive and efficient.

Another reason why smart user interface design is so important: It helps operators make decisions in situations where seconds matter. For example, a proposed new interface Raytheon has built for the Patriot Air and Missile Defense System crunches information including the target's point of origin, where it’s headed, its speed and its altitude – then combines all that into a 3-D picture. The result: Operators can read it at a glance and respond quickly.

Another small but significant feature: The new interface has a search box – a reflection of the way younger operators are accustomed to finding information.

“What we’re trying to do is prioritize the information that goes into the decision-making and display it in a way that is quickly consumable by the operators,” said Bob Kelley, who operated Patriot systems during his 27 years with the U.S. Army and now works as a senior manager of business development for Raytheon’s integrated air and missile defense programs.

That speaks to another tenet of graphical user interface design: the need to tailor it to the user, or something known as “human-factors engineering.” Bigham pointed to his work several years ago with a tractor manufacturer looking to include a weather readout on the control panel.

At first, Bigham thought that meant a radar display like the ones TV meteorologists use. What he learned was that farmers were most interested in wind – where it was blowing and how fast, so they could avoid spraying their neighbors’ crops with pesticide. The display required little more than a color-coded arrow.

“On a modern tractor, that’s what they do. That’s what weather looks like,” he said. “The human-factors engineering that went into knowing what that person needed to know, that’s an example of what we need to do here.”

Last Updated: 02/14/2018