Amber Alert: The Tragedy of Bad Design

If you live in California or New York and you own a cell phone, you probably recently experienced the new Amber Alert capabilities. And by “capabilities,” I mean “the government’s newfound ability to disturb your sleep with non-actionable information.”

In California, the alert that set all this ablaze was in reference to a man, James Lee DiMaggio, who may or may not have killed his friend and her son, burned his house down with them in it, and fled with her daughter. Not that you would have known that from the Amber Alert: “Boulevard, CA AMBER Alert UPDATE: LIC/6WCU986 (CA) Blue Nissan Versa 4 door.” Certainly, Twitter has been all a-buzz about the alerts, and there are dozens of articles on the subject (my personal favorite headline: “Shaquille O’Neal: Yeah I Got That Amber Alert”).

So what are the news articles saying?

The big story is how annoying the alerts are, and how to turn them off. I think we can all agree that this reaction was not the one authorities were going for, and certainly not consistent with the goals of the Amber Alert program.

Millions of people will seek and carry out instructions to disable Amber Alerts on their phones—no small feat considering how little people like to read instructions and go spelunking into the bowels of their settings. The tragedy is that we may miss out on the opportunity to recover an abducted child because of how badly the introduction of the system was bungled.

Where did they go wrong?


Mistake #1: Surprise

The first cellphone-based Amber Alert took everyone by surprise. Given the loud noise, people were literally startled. They didn’t know the capability existed, and many initially assumed it was spam.

Mistake #2: Lack of Consideration

In California, the first Amber Alert was sent late at night, and was repeated at least two more times in the next 24 hours. Of course, authorities have no way to control when bad guys are going to do their thing, so it may seem ridiculous to complain about the time of day or the frequency of messages. Combined with Mistake #1, however, the lateness of the hour only served to further irritate people.

Mistake #3: No Clear Call to Action

This is the one that really chaps my hide. The alert I got (“Boulevard, CA AMBER Alert UPDATE: LIC/6WCU986 (CA) Blue Nissan Versa 4 door.”) was utterly devoid of any useful information. Notice that this was the first alert I got, so “UPDATE” was nonsensical. But more to the point, where was the information telling me what I should do?

What is the situation? In theory, by virtue of it being an Amber Alert and not another kind of emergency communication I should know that we’re dealing with a child abduction situation. But should an emergency agency presume I know and remember that?

Why are you telling me about that car? Again, we’re supposed to assume that the abductor is driving that car. But in an emergency situation, specificity is important.

What should I do if I see that car? This is the key failure: no clear call to action. Should I follow him? Attempt to intercede? Call 911?

This is a case of failing to take advantage of new capabilities when expanding a service. The Amber Alert contains only the key bits of information, which is the right approach when considering what to write on a billboard. But my phone is not a billboard: it is a sophisticated computer that is always connected to the Internet. Why isn’t there a link to a richer set of information that would answer all the questions I might have about the alert? It’s possible that the system that supports SMS is somehow not capable of including links; if so, the creators of that system were negligent. But even a non-clickable link is better than no further information at all.

It didn’t have to be this way. How can we do better in the future?

Let us assume that the goals of the program are to get the most people to be aware of emergencies in progress so that we might crowd source surveillance and ideally recover abducted children. Further, let us acknowledge that people disabling the service on their phones is contrary to these goals. The following suggestions are not made to coddle the public, but to maximize participation.

Toward a Better Design: Some Suggestions

A well-designed and supported system would take full advantage of the capabilities of modern mobile technology, including location-aware (is this emergency nearby?) and situation-aware (best not to wake me up while I’m sleeping) capabilities, ability to submit photographs and location information in real time, etc.

But even with the technology that already exists today, we could have done better. A simple introductory message sent in the middle of the day when the capability first went live would have gone a long way: “THIS IS A TEST OF THE AMBER ALERT SYSTEM: Wireless Amber Alerts are now available. No further action is required on your part. For more information, visit”

The information provided should leave people feeling connected and empowered. It should celebrate the successes of the program, and educate individuals on how they can be involved.

During subsequent actual Amber Alerts, a link to more information should always be provided. That additional information should be clear and actionable.

There may still be time to implement these simple changes in communities that have not had an Amber Alert since this system went live on January 1. But for places like New York and California, it may be too late. Everyone has already figured out how to turn it off on their phone.


A Name
Well, an intro message or URL would be nice, but some idiot has locked the length to 90 characters, no rich text. Fail.
Jenea Hayes
Thanks for that, A Name. I suspected such limitations were imposed on the system. All the more reason to spend a few of those precious characters on a URL for more information. Of course, this assumes that 90 characters can be different for, say, billboards and cell phones. Would I be surprised to learn they have to be identical? No I would not. Also, 90 characters?! Did they feel like they were competing with Twitter for brevity?!
Craig Hockenberry
Unfortunately, many aspects of the design are government mandated: This is not a design or engineering problem. It is a political issue.
Jenea Hayes
Thanks Craig. I think it's a design issue AND a political issue. As I say above, I think there are very simple things we could do within the (absurd) limitations of the program to make it better than it is now. But it would be amazing if we could educate the public about the role of design, and collectively demand better from our public efforts (ie, government). I really love the comment from @jury that you copied in your post: "Call it the 'missing child alert.'" Although I think Amber Alerts are specific to abducted children, so "Abducted child alert" would be even better. Let's not sacrifice our goals at the altar of sentimentality. Interested folks should definitely check out Craig's post that he links in his comment.
When the hollow Amber Alert icon and message appeared on my iPhone I thought... What is a Versa? Should I google it? Is Boulevard a street name that somehow got clipped in the message? How close or far am I from Boulevard? Is it near someone or something I'm familiar with? Perhaps this message continues with a map, a sample image/illustration of a Nissan Versa 4 door... Unfortunately, the iPhone icon for the Amber Alert would NOT slide-to-open. But my Grindr did. My participation ended there.
Kenny Landes
I am one of the 3 people in Northern California who knows where Boulevard, CA is because I used to know some people who lived there briefly. It is 2 hours outside of San Diego in the mountains near the border with Mexico. That is very far away in my mind. So when I saw Boulevard, I thought it was a local alert about something that happened at a restaurant a few blocks away—named Boulevard. It seemed like a neighborhood safety type of alert. I even used the comma to separate Boulevard from the otherwise sense-making phrase CA AMBER Alert. Once I realized nothing bad happened at Boulevard, I was bewildered why I got the message at all. Great idea. Terrible execution. I've chosen to leave the capability enabled, but hope they get it right next time. And, obviously, I hope this young girl is safe.
Another mistake was actually made years ago, for people who paid attention to Amber Alerts when they first started. The failure to differentiate between actual kidnappings and "kidnappings" where a non-custodial parent took their own child made the system nearly useless years ago. In one situation, the child is in immediate danger and the first few hours are crucial to saving the child's life. The other situation seemed to account for 90+% of the Amber Alerts. So when I was awakened the other day by my iPhone, of course I immediately figured out how to disable the feature. I assumed it was just another distraught parent who reacted the way parents often react when they're told they can't see their children. If they had limited the system to real kidnappings in my area, I would have been annoyed, but then memorized the license plate for my commute to work the next morning.
Chris Marquardt
I used to get Amber alerts for Washington state for years. They were never annoying; I was glad to get them; I was glad to be on the lookout for the vehicle. I didn't even mind too much if they woke me at 2 a.m. The difference was that the WA amber alerts arrived as simple text messages, with that simple text message sound you get on an iPhone (ba-la-la-ling), not BWAAAAH! BWAAAH! BWAAAH! BWAAAH! (The NUCLEAR MISSILES ARRIVING IN FIVE MINUTES sound.) THAT is what bothers me and so many others. THAT is what can be changed. I am not heartless, but the designers of that alert were definitely insensitive. When I hear that that sound has been removed and replaced by a normal text message sound (after all, who doesn't look immediately at their phone when they hear that sound, anyway?), I will turn the Amber Alert feature back on in a heartbeat. Until then, I will no doubt hear about it from the news, or someone else, within five minutes after it is broadcast. Those five minutes won't make the difference in any case, and I will have taken an action that might prompt the designers, when they see the numbers of people who have disabled the alerts, to reconsider and adopt a more sensitive design, and one that will be no less effective in real terms, anyway. And just maybe, with more people opting in again, actually more effective.
Chris Marquardt
I used to get Amber Alerts from Washington state all the time. I was never minded getting them. I was glad to be on the lookout for the vehicle. I didn't even mind if they woke me sometimes at 2 a.m. What was different about them was that they arrived as normal text message with the normal sound a text message makes on an iPhone (ba-la-la-ling) and not BWAAAH! BWAAAH! BWAAAH! BWAAAH! (The NUCLEAR MISSILES ARRIVING IN FIVE MINUTES sound.) THAT is what people are upset about. THAT is what can be changed. I am not heartless, but the designers of this alert were definitely insensitive. As soon as I hear that the Amber Alert system has been reconfigured to produce a normal text message sound (after all, who doesn't check their phone immediately whenever they hear that sound?), I will turn it back on in a heartbeat. Until then, I will no doubt hear about it within five minutes from the news, or from other people. Those five minutes are not going to be making any difference. In the meantime, I will be taking an action that, when the designers of this system see the numbers of people who have disabled the alerts, will prompt them to replace the current alarm with a more sensitive design that will not be any less effective in real terms. In fact, if announce these alerts with a normal text sounds prompts more people to opt back in, that more sensitive design would be even more effective.
I can agree that the 'nuclear alert' sound needs to change to a regular text message sound, and I can certainly see where more information within the alert is useful, but I'm sorry, complaining that the Amber Alert woke you up and needs to be changed to only alert people during the daytime is ridiculous. From the article: "situation-aware (best not to wake me up while I’m sleeping) capabilities".) Do you want them to disable this alert at night? There are people with jobs that require them to be awake during the night and they could be the people who see the person or car that the police are looking for. When a child is kidnapped, time is of the essence. If your child was kidnapped, would you want people to be on the lookout immediately, or only at their own convenience? If you don't want to be woken up by your phone, TURN IT OFF.
Jenea Hayes
Hi Shannon, thanks for your comments. If my child were kidnapped, I would want the absolute largest number of people possible participating in the program. I hear what you're saying, but I don't agree that it's ridiculous to consider the impact of the alert late at night if the actual (and predictable) outcome is that large numbers of people opt out of the program. I didn't say (and I don't think Chris meant to imply) that the program should only send alerts during the day. Instead, my point was that an introduction to the program during regular hours would have gone a long way toward people forgiving the late-night intrusion when a real emergency occurs. You and I can agree that people's reaction to the Amber Alert was ridiculous and didn't take into account the very real *emergency* that was taking place. My hope is we can figure out ways to *do better* given the real-world constraints of the program.
This text-based amber alert appears to violate so much of what we know about effective visual design. To wit: 1. Images are more powerful than words. Children, Perps, and cars are all better described with a photograph than words. 2. Respect the user. As the author described, an introductory message would have given people a warning of what might come, a chance to opt-out, etc. Keeping your eyes open for a kidnapped child is not a legal requirement, but rather something we choose to do. In a civil society, I'd hope that everyone does it, but society cannot force that on everybody. 3. Use the capabilities of the platform. Phones have a GPS, among other features. Why not progressively issue amber alerts as time passes so that the most relevant people are involved at each moment. For example, letting someone in Sacramento know that a child was abducted in San Diego two hours ago is pretty silly. People within a couple hours of San Diego are the only relevant audience. After eight hours have passed, then the person in Sacramento might be helpful, but not before then. 4. Stress reduces comprehension. The message they sent was convoluted -- abbreviations, caps, etc. In a stressful situation, such as when you're awakened in the night, you're less likely to comprehend a convoluted message than a straightforward, purposeful message. You read quickly and with little motivation or time to study and interpret meaning. Images would be straightforward, but so would be different words. Nobody should need to know the California Highway Patrol jargon to make sense of an emergency message.
I live in Houston, Texas and also awoke early in the morning to the "High-Alert" sound on my phone. I consider myself a compassionate person and would love an opportunity to assist a parent in retrieving a lost or missing child or senior (our Amber Alerts include missing Senior Citizens). However, once I received my fifth unnerving Amber Alert, I was searching for a way to turn it off. It would have been easy for the government or whomever dreamed up this feature to have produced a public service announcement in the months prior to release of this phone update. Then we would have been prepared for the first alert. They should have encouraged us to participate by pulling on our heart strings. And, finally, as stated multiple times before, the alarm didn't need to be excessively jarring. This sound is no more helpful driving down the road, where I would be in a position to help, than it is in the middle of the night at home, in my bed, nowhere near the actual incident, asleep, left the next morning too bumfuzzled to notice the cars next to me as I drive down the freeway, or anywhere else, rendering me use less to help.
David S
I love the article. It really brings up the points that ran through my head when my I was frantically trying to turn my phone off so that the entire house does not wake up. The person who is in charge of it defends this ridiculous implementation by saying "If you were a parent, you would want the maximum number of people helping to find your child", but that could not be more obvious. I think that he feels proud for coming to such a revelation, but anybody can figure that out. The problem is that the people who designed this are causing millions to turn it off because it is so poorly implemented. They are actually taking an amazing opportunity and squandering it. Can't they hire people that are even a little bit intelligent to do this thing correctly? In short, this is how stupid people hurt our society.
Ellie Master
When I was a child we didn't have "Amber alerts". It wasn't because there was less child abduction back then - in truth there was just as much then as there is now - practically none. What was different back then is that parents didn't see their children as egotistical extensions of themselves, and so there wasn't a need to create hysterical, demonstrative "Amber alerts". What next - Fido alerts?
Richard Marceau
Re: Mistake #1 -- the recipients were correct that it was spam, lacking only the commercial element. Far too many of the alerts have strayed from their original intent and I believe it's becoming a general purpose device for the police to press into service civilians under false pretences when they're looking for a vehicle unrelated to a child.
Wow, that's a really clever way of thkniing about it!

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