Vince Rants

User Experience Saves Lives

CenturyLink has been dealing with a network event. All consumer services impacted by this event, including voice and 911, have been restored. Any latency issues will clear in the next few hours.

— @CenturyLink December 29, 2018

CenturyLink suffered anywhere between two and three days of downtown, depending on which chart you're looking at. This wasn't the normal type of outage that we see from the likes of Amazon or Microsoft where non-critical web sites like Netflix experience lag or downtime. No no no, something far worse happens when CenturyLink suffers an outage.

CenturyLink is one of the primary phone providers in the United States. One service available through phones that we don't think about until the last second is 911. Yes, when you make these calls, they have to be answered SOMEWHERE. Countless 911 centers across the country are contracted with CenturyLink to provide their service, including the one in my city. 

The Good, The Bad, The ugly

These 911 call centers have a certain layer of redundancy, but not in the most obvious form. There are alternate local phone numbers which will still route even if the main 911 system is offline. The problem? Who honestly knows their 10-digit local emergency dispatcher's phone number? Interestingly enough, almost everyone with a cell phone in many areas. Why is this? Because at around 11:15PM, the cell phone emergency broadcast system was activated throughout the state of Washington (possibly other states too). This system sends out specialized text messages to everyone connected to the cell phone network at the time. These messages were localized to provide each city's alternative 911 number based on which cell tower you were you were physically located.

Google's Android, and other cell phone manufacturers all failed in one absolutely crucial step with these emergency notifications...

These cell phone OSes are designed to display the emergency alerts once, and then hide them after clicking out of them. You cannot even keep them in the toast notification list at the top of the phone, because they don't even register there to begin with. Your only logical option in the moment is to screen cap the message in hopes you may need it... or so I thought.

This experience comes from over 20 years programming computers at all levels, and using Google's Android operating system ever since Cupcake (pretty much the first public release).

For curiosity sake, I attempted to find a record of the message somewhere on my phone to no luck whatsoever. I personally didn't need to the number nor had any intent on calling it, but as I write about User Experience in Software Design regularly, this notification became an interest of mine. Imagine getting this notification, and than three hours later all of a sudden an emergency happens. If it isn't easy to find, you're screwed!

The next step required going to Google Search just to see if Android phones even stored the alerts. Hidden deep within StackOverflow was a lonely post describing exactly where they are logged in the operating system user interface. This is the point where User Experience absolutely fails.

I had absolutely no idea this particular menu even existed, and I'm sure many of you most likely didn't either. But considering these are literally EMERGENCY alerts, one would think that accessing them again would be a priority within the operating system, but it isn't. 

Settings 🡆 Apps & notifications 🡆 Advanced 🡆 Emergency alerts 🡆 Emergency alert history

Now remember the purpose of these notifications and the fact that the phone only shows them once with no way to interact with anything else on the phone until the initial notification is cleared. That menu navigation is what is required to go back and view the message again. In an emergency, is this the first thing that comes to mind? As noted before, I didn't even know this menu existed, and I'm a goddamn software engineer!

911 is literally a life-or-death call sometimes, and CenturyLink should take full responsibility for it being offline. But the backup local phone system that still functioned perfectly was too cumbersome to use simply due to the method of looking up the phone numbers. This lookup is where Google, Samsung, and others can easily improve their experience.

After thinking about this long and hard for several days, I've come up with a simple proposal.

After an emergency alert is received, have it stored in a time-removed toast notification. When an alert is broadcast, an expiration date/time is sent with it, "24 hours" for example. During this time, the notification is locked in the toast notification menu, after this time, the notification auto-clears itself. Users can optionally manually close/remove the notification from the toast menu. Broadcast messages can also be tagged to update an existing message, such as if conditions have changed. These updates would be useful for example in natural disaster situations (NOTICE: shelter available at X. - later, NOTICE: shelter X is full, please now go to shelter Y)

Some may suggest building an app to handle this, or one may already exist. But look at this situation again; this service was used as sending replacement 911 information. We as users should NOT be required to download an additional app to the phone for emergency services.

The Human Element

The CenturyLink 911 outage is a perfect example of the human element to technical glitches. 911 is literally life-or-death phone calls. Emergency cell phone notifications must be treated by software engineers with this same level of life-or-death care and think about how real lives are impacted by the User Experience from the presentation of these notifications. The level of thoughtfulness increases exponentially when designing a system when developers know that other's lives are literally on the line based on the decisions they make.