Byte-Sized Futurism #5

Bad UX Could Cost Lives

Today FEMA and FCC conducted a nationwide Emergency Alert System (EAS)* test. Around noon, my phone—alongside millions of other smart devices around the United States—started emitting full-volume noise and displaying the test alert message. Within a span of 10 minutes the alert repeated three times.

After successfully completing the test, something started nagging at me, so I started talking to people; After interviewing about a dozen friends and co-workers,**, I was convinced that in its current state EAS UX is lethally flawed.

Here’s what happens:

  • The alert goes off and your phone begins emitting a screeching sound. It’s designed to grab attention and be unavoidable.
  • You fumble through your pockets trying to locate the source of the sound. It’s piercing, inescapable, and you want it off, now.
  • As soon as you get the phone in front of your face, you hit the Dismiss button and are confronted with a blessed silence.

  • It’s only after a moment that you realize you didn’t actually read the alert!

The alert sound is designed to grab attention – but it does its job all too well. It puts the user in a fight-or-flight mode. Instead of investigating the reasons for the disturbance, every single person I talked to today just wanted the sound to stop.

Were they trying to read the alert message, I’m convinced the sound would make the task impossible to accomplish, too.

It’s as if no proper UX study was conducted on the design.

From the user experience standpoint, fixing the system is trivial. Even a simple double dismiss confirmation could solve the problem: Tap once to silence the alert. Tap/swipe to dismiss the message.

The amount of cognitive clarity that returns as soon as the alert is off would guarantee a large percentage of people actually following through the message.

Better yet, here’s the Emergency Alert System reimagined:

  • The sound signal goes off and the devices display a cover page. The page includes a simple bit of info: This is a test***, or this is a real thing. A button below reads acknowledge or receive.
  • As soon as you tap the button, the noise stops and you jump to a second page detailing the alert info. The page has a swipe-to-dismiss slider at the bottom that remains grayed out for let’s say 5-10 seconds.

I don’t know the exact realities of implementing these – whether the code to display alerts is embedded in the device OS, or beamed by the FCC, but at the very least, a double dismiss would help solve what is now a major, potentially lethal flaw in the system.

Were today’s alert attempting to warn us about a real threat—majority of people I spoke to would have received it, and never have read it.

This needs to get fixed. Immediately.

* Countries other than US have similar systems, like Alert Ready in Canada, Reverse 112 being tested across EU, or various earthquake and missile launch warnings in Japan or South Korea.

** It was far from a proper research study – just a casual conversation with a tiny sample size – but the results were nearly 100% aligned.

*** Having a strong ‘cover page’ indicator—distinguishing real threats from tests—could help avoid disasters like the 2018 Hawaii false missile incident.