UX for safety: the real impact of design | by Daley Wilhelm | Feb, 2024


The good, the bad, and the ugly of designs that can protect–or endanger–its users.

A worried woman, her lip bleeding, looking down at a phone.
In emergency situations, people are faced with the choice to either make a call or to record. Both cannot be done at the same time. Photo by MART PRODUCTION: https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-woman-in-white-shirt-holding-her-cellphone-7699315/

Remember when all of Hawaii was braced for an impending ballistic missile attack? In 2018, a push alert reading, “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” was sent out to residents across the islands. For an agonizing 38 minutes, Hawaiians were bracing for the worst, but there was no actual threat to speak of. Rather, the wrong link had been clicked and instead of a drill, a message clearly labeled NOT A DRILL was sent out.

A quick examination of the user interface of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s computers shows just how easily this mistake could be made.

A tweet showing a screenshot of blue links that all look similar.
Quick: which link do you click on? Image from — https://www.businessinsider.com/screen-that-set-off-hawaii-false-missile-alert-2018-1

We cannot underestimate the value of good user interface. The job of capital-D Design is not just to make things pleasing and pretty. It is to prevent tragedies like the 2018 false alarm from happening. User experience must protect its users from making catastrophic mistakes and furthermore help to ensure the safety of the users. Considerations must be taken into how designs can be abused and turned against the ultimate good of the intended users.

A stun gun shaped like a pink and white cow with a strap.
“Valentine the Cow” is both cute and dangerous. Image from — https://www.tinyprotectors.com/products/valentine-stun-gun

Initially, I admired the Tiny Protectors brand for their adorable designs. The brand brought whimsy to otherwise grimly serious products like emergency alarms and stun guns. It has been a dark joke among women that a right of passage upon getting into college or moving to a new place is the purchase of some kind of self defense measure, whether that be pepper spray, an emergency alarm, or a stun gun.

I came to further appreciate the Tiny Protectors for taking into consideration the safety of their users. In a TikTok that gave a glimpse into the design process behind their “stunners,” Tiny Protectors explained that they took user feedback…


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