Colorado Tornado Warnings Don't Get Sent

There was a story yesterday in the Financial Times of London concerning the usability - or maybe better said, the lack thereof - of many software products.

The story cites a recent survey conducted by Global Graphics, an international electronic document software company, which claims that 77 per cent of office workers estimate they lose up to one hour a week because business software is difficult to use. (Only an hour?)

The FT story also references a Scottish company called User Vision that provides an "eye tracking" service to its clients. The company, the FT says, uses a "technology that measures and records the path that users’ eyes take when scanning a user interface. This allows customers to see which areas of the interface grab users’ attention and which areas they tend to overlook. If you've got a vital button or menu located in one of these neglected areas, your application or website isn't likely to hit usability targets."

I think 99.5% of web pages could probably benefit from the use of this technology, especially in regard to where they place (hide) their login or print buttons.

However, not all usability issues are a matter of poor visual design; sometimes it is just poor software design.

Take the case of the emergency warning system in Ft. Collins, Colorado. The system allows emergency-dispatch personnel to send out warnings about a flood, fire, etc. to residents by e-mail, phone calls and text messages based on geographic area. 

On Monday, the US National Weather Service issued a tornado  warning for Ft. Collins and eastern Larimer County, Colorado. Per procedure, the Ft. Collins' Poudre Emergency Communications Center (PECC) activated the system but it failed to reach 100,000 telephone and e-mail addresses about the possible tornado. Three attempts were made in all and none of them worked.

An investigation discovered that the warning system was not designed to handle a situation when a system user specifies geographical locations to receive warnings also happen to overlap; nor does the system inform the user that this geographical overlapping is an illegal operation. Instead, the system just fails to send out the warnings.

The company which designed the software, Everbridge, has created a work around, and acknowledged that maybe a user alert informing that overlapping of geographical locations was not possible would create "a more intuitive environment for the user."

A bit of understatement that.

What I also found interesting in this story was that operator error (because of inadequate training) was also faulted by government and company officials, and in fact, was as much to blame as the software flaw.  This even though the system, in use since last September, has been used over a dozen times for sending out emergency warnings.

Sounds suspiciously like a poor excuse for poorly designed (and tested) software to me.

Given that Everbridge claims that its emergency system software is in widespread use, I also find it strange that this specific problem wouldn't have reared its ugly head a long time ago.

The last sentence in the Ft. Collins' press release also said, "This week’s emergency notification message failure underscores the importance of utilizing multiple sources for emergency information such as alerts from the National Weather Service, local radio and television broadcasts, news media twitter alerts, in addition to the Everbridge notification system."

Again, this sounds like a pretty clumsy attempt to minimize the problem as well as the software system's part in creating it.

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Willie D. Jones
 
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