You don't need a beautiful weather app to know which way the wind blows

Why are incredible designers drawn to something as mundane as weather?

Rob Walker, Yahoo News
Yahoo News

by Rob Walker | @YahooTech

Last week, Business Insider published its picks for the “15 companies that are dominating mobile design right now.” Perusing that list, I was struck that four of the examples involved weather apps. Weather apps! Remembering too that Apple’s recent demo of its forthcoming iOS upgrade focused pretty heavily on the new version of its weather app, I got to wondering: How can it be that more than a quarter of “dominant” design involves such a workaday category?

Upon reflection, this storm of weather apps makes sense if you think about it from the design-world point of view. Designers love creating new things, but what they really love is trying to make a better version of something that already exists. This is why, for example, pretty much every industrial designer creates a chair. It’s not as though the core problem — something to sit on — has never been tackled, or changed much. But a fresh take on an iconic thing is a catnip-level challenge, and a possible ticket to immortality via object.

Perhaps, then, weather is the chair of apps.

That explains the appeal to interaction designers: It’s the opportunity to place an auteur’s stamp on a familiar category. But what about the rest of us?

The fact that weather apps are popular, and likely occupy prominent spots on untold numbers of smart phone home screens, does not mean we want to spend a lot of time with them. Quite the opposite: If you want to know how cold it is outside, you want to know now. If you’re trying to decide whether to pack an umbrella for a weekend jaunt to the coast, even drool-worthy aesthetics are a problem if they delay your access to the relevant data. In this case, truth is more important than beauty: Actual weather information is pretty close to being a commodity, so the interaction designer’s challenge is to get out of the way as beautifully as possible.

As with chairs, this is harder than it sounds: A gorgeous chair that’s uncomfortable to sit in is also known as landfill.

When I looked at the overwhelming selection on the Apple and Google Play app stores, I was suddenly thankful for that mobile-dominance list narrowing things down for me; you don’t need 27 weather apps to know which way the wind blows. Let’s examine this handful of lauded takes on the weather app see how variable the conditions really are in this category.

1. Yahoo! Weather. Screamingly obvious disclosure: You are reading a Yahoo News page right now. Factor that in as you wish.

This happens to be the weather app I use, and no, that’s not out of some sort of weird corporate loyalty. The typography is clean and engaging, it offers three screens of data for every city I choose, and I have a weakness for the app’s most prominent gimmick: rotating geographic-and-weather-specific background imagery crowdsourced from a dedicated Flickr pool. (Yahoo! owns Flickr.) This actually makes it mildly fun to check the app even when I already know that it is pouring rain.

Also: This is the only app in this roundup available for Android and iOS devices. And it’s free.

2. Sun. Go from Yahoo! Weather to this and there’s no denying that approaches to solving the weather-app challenge can vary wildly. If you’re into the super-flat, ultra-minimal tiles-and-icon aesthetic, this one is for you.

Looks aside, Sun has two features I like a lot. One: You can see current-condition summaries, elegantly simplified, on a single page. If (like me) you’re a multi-city weather-tracker, this is cool. Two: The home screen icon shows the current temperature wherever you are, so you don’t have to open the app. (Why don’t all weather apps do this?)

Downsides? It’s a little light on data, and a weird wavy-line forecast tool is slightly neat to play with, but it’s not exactly intuitive, and actually adds to user effort.

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A screenshot of the Sun app, on the iPad.

This is a Web-based app for iOS devices; it’s free.

3. Haze. This app is for those who like a little more razzmatazz in the graphic representation of basic weather data. The home screen shows the current temperature, and then alludes to the forecast by way of animated, colored bars pulsing either upward or downward in the background. Tap once to get a similar presentation of precipitation chances.

Pleasurable to interact with, Haze also skimps (for my taste) on data, or at least didn’t make it easy to find what I wanted: Forecast high temperatures are plainly visible, but sometimes you want to know what the low might be two or three days from now, and I don’t see how to do that. It also makes sounds (these can be disabled), which doesn’t do anything for me.

This iOS app costs $2.99.

4. Dark Sky. The disconcertingly threatening name of this app is echoed by its look. It opens to a black-and-blue map with spooky radar-like depictions of cloud cover that you can manipulate with a slider along the bottom. When the skies over New York proved to be clear, the app suggested I check out its visualization of storms over some place called Solon Springs, WI.

Okay. Indeed, that’s pretty entertaining for a moment or two — make the apocalyptic-looking clouds move with your finger! Cool! But you can’t get a real forecast from Dark Sky — this is definitely a supplemental app, for true weather freaks who enjoy “minute-to-minute predictions,” depicted in a way that makes you feel like you’re sitting in some Mission Control bunker.

Also an iOS app, this one goes for $3.99

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Screenshots from the Dark Skies weather app

In short: Yes, this does turn out to be an impressive array of design responses to a single notion. But I wouldn’t mind seeing some of this interaction creativity finding its way to newer categories. And after spending the day manipulating these clever bits of mobile design, I can say with confidence I’d rather have another chair than another weather app.

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