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UI Cause of Hawaii Missile Scare

When salespeople started calling themselves “web designers” web sites became little more than confusing, over packed, repositories for cartoon graphics: lots of color and little clearity. Clean, usable, UI design is one where the human using the interface, hence User Interface, easily knows what to select.

No more than seven (7) actionable items should be on any screen (where the menu counts as one item). No menu should have more than seven (7) choices and there should not be more than three (3) levels to any menu object. Choices should be logically arranged, following international norms and standards (in apps for years we have had File, Edit, View, … Help but sadly there is still not enough cross site predictability on web pages for even menus ending with … About Us, Contact Us, Privacy Policy). “Artistic License” belongs on artistic entertainment web sites, not on business sites employees use to get work done.

From a recent solicitation email from

On an otherwise quiet Saturday morning, the State of Hawaii learned the hard way about the consequences of relying on a poorly designed user interface (UI).

An employee at Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency triggered an emergency alert last Saturday indicating that a ballistic missile was about to hit the islands.

Your first impulse might be to blame the employee for creating this statewide false alarm. But in the discipline of User Interface Design, there is no such thing as user error. Well designed software should anticipate the needs of its users, provide clear warning messages when users are about to take drastic actions, and make errors easy to catch and reverse.

Take a look at the remarkably confusing UI that caused the error:

The employee accidentally clicked “PACOM (CDW) – STATE ONLY” instead of the similarly named option “DRILL-PACOM (DEMO) STATE ONLY”, creating massive panic until a follow up message 40 minutes later revealed it was a mistake. offers their web site UI programming course description at for those who might be interested.