When a First User Experience Affects Children: How the California Amber Alerts Got it All Wrong

On Monday night at about 10:45pm, tens of thousands of Californians were jolted awake by a loud, frightening message that unexpectedly popped up on their cell phones. It was an Amber Alert – undoubtedly one of the most powerful ways that our community has to broadcast the fact that children are in imminent danger.

(To learn more about this current alert, please go to www.amberalert.gov – authorities are in the midst of a search for Hannah and Ethan Anderson, who are believed to have been kidnapped by a man that allegedly killed their mother).

I believe that Amber Alerts are critical, and I want to know when there are children in danger and I can help. That said, the manner in which this alert was delivered was so jarring and unnerving that the fright overshadowed the potential benefit of a mass-broadcast. While the concept is phenomenal, the execution of California’s first Amber Alert via mobile phones did the entire program a disservice. And ultimately, that only hurts innocent children.

Here’s where the Amber Alert system went wrong:

  • Most Californians didn’t realize that they were automatically opted-in to this alert system, which means that the alerts came as a total surprise. We didn’t know what they were or that we could even receive them.
  • The alert came at about 10:45pm PDT, which is well outside of the range of expected alerts or text messages for most people.
  • The audio of the alert mimicked that of a television disaster warning – the blaring, deep beeps that signal imminent disaster. No one has ever had that noise come from their phones, ever. It was truly a shock to hear.
  • The combination of these factors made the first Amber Alert a scary, unnerving experience, which I believe will lead mobile phone users to turn off the setting and thus never receive the alerts again

We know from social software development and watching usage patterns that the first user experience is absolutely critical to ongoing usage of a product or service. This applies to other things too; if your first experience at a restaurant is poor, or if your first meeting with a date is terrible, you’re unlikely to rehash that experience and instead move on. According to this article by the San Francisco Gate, the creators of the Amber Alert program “were thrilled by the reaction to the first-ever statewide alarm” because “more than 100,000 people have searched for the San Diego County case on Google and authorities have been flooded with calls.”

But what I want to know is – how many people opted out of the program because of the fright, stress and annoyance of the alert itself? I’d wager that the poor first user experience for mobile Amber Alerts unnecessarily prompted a flood of users away from the service, resulting in fewer eyes looking out for child predators and the innocent kids who need us to look out for them.

As a mom, I struggle with my decision to change the setting – right now, I’ve kept it “on,” but I have heard of several people with and without kids who complained of toddler wake ups to the noise (yes, it was that loud) and who simply don’t want to be interrupted late at night (to be fair to these people, it’s not that they don’t want to help kids, it’s that they don’t want loud alerts waking them up in the middle of the night). Ideally, there would be a feature that turns notifications on and off based on the time of day – a simple “do not disturb” setting would, I think, work wonders to keep adoption rates on this system high. But this example of a poor first user experience could be a true matter of life or death for children now and in the future – we need to reevaluate how mass messages are delivered through mobile phone systems to optimize for the most widespread adoption possible.

Photo Credit: © 2012 Blake Patterson, 'the iOS family pile'