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.

Jenea Hayes
Jenea Hayes

Jenea Hayes is a Design Director and Cooper Professional Education instructor at Designit San Francisco.

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