Nuclear meltdown and UX, two topics that you wouldn’t expect to see in the same sentence. Yet there is an important story behind this and how not considering the UX, prior to the launch of a product or design, can lead to severe malfunctions within businesses or, in this instance, nuclear plants.

Firstly let’s break down the jargon, what is UX? 

UX is User Experience. Designers look at the user’s personal experience and interaction with a product, which ultimately helps to refine and finalise their design.  

A few key points that are considered when looking at UX are:  

  1. Making sure it is easy to use, 
  2. Providing a purpose of the design e.g. why is the user going to use it? 
  3. Making sure it functions in the correct way, 
  4. Ensuring it adheres to the brand and concept of the business. 

UX is highly important to ensure that the user’s needs are achieved, if they are not, then the UX is not good.    

So what is UI…


UI is User Interface. This is specifically for the digital world. It looks at the visual elements and the layout of the page.

It would ensure that the navigation bar, buttons, icons and menus are located in the space where the user can easily navigate and use the product.  


Think of it as, UX is the architect and UI is the interior designer 

How does near nuclear meltdown fit into this equation?  


The Three Mile Island Accident of 1979 was a near catastrophic incident and one which could have been prevented, if the interface of the nuclear plant systems was originally considered.  


At the nuclear plant in Pennsylvania a partial meltdown occurred, it was a massive event, as UX collective writes it reached “”5” on the 7-point International Nuclear Event Scale.” The reason for the high rating was that there was a malfunction which ended with one of the reactors being destroyed. 


The investigation afterwards found that the control room had serious usability problems. There was no light to indicate when the valve was open or closed, just when it had power – hence the confusion and near meltdown. The medium writes that there were “fourteen different meanings for red (lights) and eleven for green” without any logical path for them. 

What does this mean in terms of UX? 


Research. Before you finalise a product, ensure that you obtain user research on how user’s interact with the design. With the Three Mile Island, there was need to make sure that the lights had a cohesive underlying meaning and context. If not, then there was opportunity to explore other options, like alternative coloured lights.


Researching will help remove assumptions made in the design process; never assume that your design is clear and easy to navigate. Always cater to the needs of your audience, as they will be the ones using your design or product. 


It is an opportunity to test the design out. It is highly likely that you may have missed a small detail that could impact the whole product.  

As Don Norman, the creator of the term User Experience, summarises: 

“Pinning the blame on the person may be a comfortable way to proceed, but why was the system ever designed so that a single act by a single person could cause calamity? Worse, blaming the person without fixing the root, underlying cause does not fix the problem: the same error is likely to be repeated by someone else.” ―Donald A. Norman, in “The Design of Everyday Things 

The event that occurred in Pennsylvania shed light on the importance of User Experience (UX). It highlighted the importance of user research behind any new product and when creating any new interface. Hence why today, there is such emphasis on understanding the UX and UI as they define the products success.   

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