Cloudy with a chance of iPhones – the UX of weather

Here’s a post I wrote for The Real Adventure blog recently.

the weather

Although it can at times feel tediously familiar, our geographical position makes our weather hard to predict, and at times it can feel like we experience all four seasons in one day. Deciding what to wear, and even what to do, is a decision best made after consulting your favourite weather source – something we’ve all been doing a lot more of during the recent cold snap.

For some people it’s watching the evening news, for others it’s a website or their trusty iPhone weather app. For me it’s a bit of an obsession – I think it goes back to my childhood in Cornwall when I was constantly checking weather reports to try and work out the latest surf conditions.

Nowadays I find myself glancing at weather reports throughout the day; dipping in and out quickly and often.

I’m not really looking for much detail during these visits, just answers to basic questions like: ‘Will I get soaked on the way home?’, ‘Do I need a warm coat?’ or ‘Should I go on that 60 mile cycle ride on Saturday?’.

Recently I’ve spotted some interesting apps that could help answer these basic questions, whilst describing our weather in new and often beautiful ways.

1. Solar

The first app is Solar, a much hyped, minimalistic, gesture-driven app. Solar delivers big on visuals, focusing on the use of colours to describe how the weather feels, rather than showing any real detail.

I like the idea of using colours as a way of showing temperature. It’s pretty straight forward. Warm colours like red and orange mean that it’s warm – and cold colours mean, umm, it’s cold. What this does is add an interesting dimension to the app, communicating to the user in an entirely abstract way.

However, according to its many negative reviews on the app store; it delivers little in the way of accuracy – a reminder that, for users, being right trumps looking cool. For me, the app fails as the focus is on the weather now, something I already know from looking out of the window. What I’m really interested in is what the weather is going to do next – information that I have to hunt for rather than receive at a glance. It’s a neat toy with an interesting User Interface but almost entirely useless.

2. Sun

Sun is an optimistically named web app, which displays the weather as bold pictograms on tastefully selected background colours. Pinch out to see a basic four-day forecast, swipe to look at other locations. Again, the minimal aesthetic makes it visually pleasing, and I’m a big fan of pictograms in this context – I can decipher them much faster than I can text. It’s a beautiful design, and couldn’t be much simpler. However, once again it’s a shame that I have to interact with the app each time in order to find out the info that I’m looking for.

3. Partly Cloudy

The slightly less optimistically named Partly Cloudy, is an iPhone app that incorporates a clock-like interface peppered with data, designed in the style of an interactive infographic. This aesthetic will appeal to fans of infographics, and it seems to be giving a nod back to that old stalwart of weather data, the barometer.

Partly Cloudy also manages to show a lot more detail than the other apps here, whilst still maintaining a focus on tasteful design. Moving the dial shows the weather forecast hour-by-hour. It looks interesting – however I don’t feel that the interface is that intuitive, and needs deciphering each time you look at it, which doesn’t fit with my need to get info at a glance. The main problem here is that the emphasis is on the clock dial rather than the weather: the raison d’être of the app is getting lost behind the user interface.

The outlook is good

I’m a fan of these kinds of minimalistic apps, I think they look great, and it’s inspiring to see things that work in new and innovative ways. But if I’m really honest, when it comes to looking up the weather, for me, it’s the BBC website every time. It’s clean, intuitive, and shows the upcoming weather at a glance ­­– something these apps don’t quite manage to do. I trust it, and it’s generally right – maybe 90% of the time, which is about as good as I can hope for unless I move to L.A. or somewhere else with predictable weather. If I want it, its got the really detailed info too – sunrise, sunset, pollution, UV levels, radar maps – pretty much anything a weather geek could ever wish for.

Interestingly, it’s not even been mobile optimised – and I often find myself looking at it on my phone. This illustrates how important it is to show the right information, and that users don’t necessarily want to see less just because they are on a mobile device

Here’s your chance to make millions

Bear with me here, but I’m proposing reinventing the barometer.

These apps all have several things in common – they are visually appealing, and contain useful information that can be digested at a glance. They’re the sort of thing you look at regularly, but for short amounts of time – much like the clock on your wall. This is why I think they lend themselves perfectly to being a permanent feature of our homes and offices.

Their minimal beauty is all but wasted in a mobile app that rarely gets looked at.

Imagine for a second, a flat screen panel mounted on your wall, about the same size as a big wall clock, that shows you the weather now (and in the near future), in a beautifully simple way.

It’s the barometer for the 21st century, and it’s going to make us all very rich. If you don’t believe its possible, just consider Nest, the device that made thermostats seem cool (and which is now shipping 40,000 units a month!); and let’s not forget one of the big predicted trends of 2013 – the connected home.

So anyway, I’ll start wiring the Arduinos together, if you’ll fund my Kickstarter – who’s with me?

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