MJ Parnell

Chernobyl, or how to manage incidents

The accident at Chernobyl on April 26th, 1986 is the very button of fashion at the moment, what with the eponymous HBO miniseries. Now, I’d hate for you to think of me as a bandwagon jumper in choosing now to write something about Chernobyl, but rest assured, I was interested in Chernobyl long before the series. Admittedly, this makes me something much worse than a bandwagon jumper — a nuclear accident hipster, the worst kind of hipster — but it does mean that I recently read Adam Higgenbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl. This is an excellent blow-by-blow account of the disaster that reads more like a thriller, and reveals much behind the decision making at each stage of the crisis. Moreover, just this June I finally visited the Chernobyl exclusion zone and the abandoned town of Pripyat.

Phones are Bad. Part 1 – Kanye’s Pocket Hammer

Ideas grow in the public consciousness by a slow accretion. What was fringe yesterday slowly gains ground, inch by inch, until it becomes an accepted part of the mainstream. One way to understand what’s becoming mainstreamed is to extensively survey public opinion, and share what you find in the impenetrable jargon of academia. Another, quicker way is just to see whatever shit Kanye West has been tweeting recently.


(via https://www.reddit.com/r/PhonesAreBad/comments/8l3elo/kanye_right_now/)

Against Using Bullshit in UX Design

(This post is taken from a talk I did earlier this year at the Shanghai UI/IUX Meetup and from another blog post I wrote a couple of years ago. Lovely illustrations in the description of the poster study courtesy of Alice Colombo.)


As ever, I seem to catch up with discussions in the world of design at a glacial pace. One such example of my tardiness was that I finally sat down and watched a great talk Mike Monteiro did at Webdagene last year, entitled “This is the golden age of design! …and we’re screwed’:


A (quick and dirty) vision of how WhatsApp could integrate news

In my previous post, I mentioned that the Quartz app experience so closely apes the experience of using chat apps that it would make more sense just to roll this functionality into a chat app like WhatsApp.

I wasn’t being entirely fair to the Quartz app – it aggregates content from multiple sites more than I initially thought, meaning the app is more of a full news digest than just a digest of Quartz’s news. The result is that it has much longer legs as a standalone news experience than just as a route into the Quartz site – though one wonders if app sponsorship will let them monetise this sufficiently.

The new Quartz app is not the future of news

Bold ideas have to vault a huge number of hurdles in interaction design. Novel, risky ideas end up on the cutting room floor, which is why so many apps are so similar. It was therefore exciting to see the new iPhone app from the business site Quartz.

The app is a radical departure from all other news apps. Eschewing a homescreen, hierarchy or navigation, the app instead presents users with a conversational interface á la WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. Each news story is a “message” that appears in the chat timeline, and the user can interact with the feed by sending “messages” to request more detail or receive another story. Selecting a news message opens the Quartz site in a webview, meaning the app does not contain any of Quartz’s articles itself. The app limits itself to 3-4 articles at a time, giving the user gets a brief digest instead of a massive data dump.

How do you solve a problem like wearables?

With today being something of an important day for wearable technology, it seems like a good time to consider what could make or break whatever (though it’s almost certainly a watch or bangle) Apple announces.

Hats off then to Amazon for launching their “Wearable Technology” store, since it gives us a handy consolidated overview of the state of the art for wearables. The first thing that’s immediately clear is that a huge range of wearables has blossomed. Consumers can choose from watches, cameras, bands, glasses, shirts bras and more when picking a wearable. Looking at the more successful ones (in terms of both sales and experience), it’s clear that the best are those that have a very specific purpose. Fitness trackers, cardio monitors and GPS devices are particularly prevalent.

Spike Jonze’s Dangerous Idea: Her, Simulation and Reality

Her isn’t interesting because it embeds UI into the world; it’s interesting because it embeds fantasy and simulation into the world.




As I get older I find twee things to be ever more tedious. Exhibit A: British Gas’ recent advert for its Hive service, which has the infantilising tone and twinky-twanky ukelele music that I find insufferable. Plus at one point a man in a bowler hat drinks from what appears to be two jam jars full of urine. Astonishing. Anyway, it was therefore with some surprise that the twee aesthetic of Spike Jonze’s Her (Exhibit B: those high-waisted pants) didn’t really put me off the movie – if anything I quite enjoyed it. You now might therefore expect me, as a UX professional, to add my two cents about the UI design.

How to Fucking Love Science

In my previous post, I argued that due to our propensity for bullshit and the unreliability of our introspections, designers can appeal to science in deceptive and unhelpful ways. Needless to say, I don’t think this is a very good state of affairs, and want to suggest a few ways we can avoid this happening.

Truth and Empathy in User Research

The more time I’ve spent user testing, the more I’ve realized that determining “truth” about an interface is only one of its functions. User testing can indeed provide valuable quantitative findings from very small samples (contra those that describe it as purely “qualitative”) – yet generating empathy is another key function of user testing.

Each testing session is a sort of kabuki theatre, with facilitator and participants donning masks and performing roles for an audience. Like all good theatre, an aim of such a performance should be to remove the audience from its comfortable bubble and come to understand the feelings, frustrations and needs of others. A good user testing session should achieve this just as much as it provides hard data. I’ll outline my thoughts about this in the rest of this post.