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DES 3131: Love it/Hate it Mini-Paper

M. Taylor Long February 11, 2014

DARK SKY The creators of the Dark Sky application for iOS describe their product as follows: “A New Kind Of Weather App – Dark Sky uses state-of-the-art technology to predict when it will rain or snow — down to the minute — at your exact location, and presents it to you alongside the most beautiful weather visualizations you’ve ever seen.” ( While the app certainly lives up to these claims, for me its brilliance all comes down to one remarkable achievement: it makes weather simple. With all the information we receive about weather, it’s still remarkably difficult to determine whether or not it’s going to rain on me while I run to the store. We all make a number of daily decisions based on weather, and Dark Sky makes those decisions feel easier by focusing on what I care about most, and presenting that information in plain language supported by clean visualizations. I actually believe that Dark Sky has made my life better, and I regularly recommend it to others. Dark Sky is a product I love.

Strong Design Principles The Dark Sky application flaunts its design chops at every turn, but I’ll focus on three design principles that the app employs really well: the aestheticusability effect, hierarchy, and visibility.

Panel 1 - Weather for the Next Hour

If good aesthetics suggest good usability, Dark Sky lets you know right away that you’re in for a usable experience. The app takes advantage of the Aesthetic-Usability Effect by offering a clean, spacious design. Most of the interface is black text and images on an off-white background (see Panels 1-3). A modern, sans-serif font family and an artfully constrained use of color go even further to tell me that this application was crafted with care and attention to detail. It presents a modern aesthetic that I immediately assume will carry through in all other measures of quality. It succeeds in looking as simple as it really is. The layout choices in Dark Sky benefit from an excellent application of hierarchy. The opening screen panel clearly sets the focus on the temperature by setting it at the top of the screen with white, bold test inside a solid black circle (see Panel 1). The next most bold text is delegated to the precipitation status which floats above the circle and is elaborated upon below the precipitation graph. Panel two continues the hierarchy with the most prominent information – Next 24 Hours – set in the largest text at the top (see Panel 2). The next tier of information – The Sky, Temperature, and The Sun – are all slightly smaller, but in the same all-caps treatment. Supporting text is set in smaller lower case and the most fine grained details are colored gray to help the recede into the background a bit. Even the overall M. Taylor Long • DES 3131 • Love it/Hate it Mini-Paper - Dark Sky

Panel 2 - Next 24 Hours Page 1

structure of the panels follows a logical hierarchy: the first panel focuses on the present, the second panel dives into the next 24 hours, then the third panel reveals the forecast into the week ahead (see Panel 3). Hierarchy is effectively implemented at both the individual panel level and the overall structural level. The Dark Sky app utilizes a number of simple visual cues to improve visibility of system status. Because the app is focused on gathering such locationspecific information, there’s always a small wait at launch to retrieve this information. Rather than leaving the user with a blank screen, or worse, displaying the last-viewed data as if it pertained to the present moment, the app displays that simple black circle from which the temperature is about to be revealed, and it pulses like a beating heart. It’s a simple touch, but the subtle pulse is enough to let me know that everything is working fine and my data is on its way. The location information I see at the top of the screen also improves visibility by conveying the accuracy of my current location. If I see “Minneapolis, MN” I know the app is locating me generally in the middle of the city, but if I see my address, I know I’m getting information catered specifically to where I am. The small dots on the bottom of the screen further improve visibility by reminding me where I am in the progression of available screens. All of these features make the app’s working status more visible, but other elements improve visibility of the actual weather system status as well. Panel 3 - Weekly Forecast When I want to know the temperature, I’m also interested in the direction it’s heading. Dark sky puts that information right under the temperature reading on the main screen. After all, there’s an important difference between 320 and rising, and 320 and falling. All these subtle visibility cues go a long way towards minimizing errors and smoothing out the user experience.

Focus on End User Goals The Dark Sky app excels in its use of the above design principles and many more. Perhaps more important, however, is its success in identifying an unmet need from mobile weather applications. Weather impacts our lives constantly, and we love talking about it, but when it comes to predicting weather, it’s complicated. Models and radar do a pretty good job telling us if it might rain today, but the system of delivering forecasts was designed for newspapers and television where one forecast is assigned to a wide expanse. Most weather apps use mobile technology to pinpoint your exact location, then offer you a forecast that might still represent an average over an entire metro area – they simply aren’t making use of the new medium’s new power. Dark Sky built their own weather prediction platform based on freely available data that doesn’t necessarily do a better job predicting long-term weather patterns, but does an excellent job looking at a moving mass of precipitation, then looking at your location and letting you know that you, not your city, but YOU are about to get wet. While Dark Sky deserves kudos for building a customized weather service, the real design success comes from how well the service helps its users meet such a common yet often unsatisfied goal. With all the weather information available to me, at any given moment, all I really want to know as I’m walking out the door is: do I need a coat and/or an umbrella? That’s priority number one. After that, I might need a little more supporting information to make a decision about my future actions, but a service that can’t deliver that first part might still leave me cold and wet. By focusing specifically on hyper-local prediction of precipitation, Dark Sky turned one small technological step forward into one giant leap ahead of other weather apps. The first time I received an alert for rain starting soon, then casually stepped indoors just before the sky opened up, I felt as though I had the knowledge of the gods in the palm of my hand. The beauty of Dark Sky lies not in its beautiful exterior, but rather in how beautifully it meets such a basic, universal need. M. Taylor Long • DES 3131 • Love it/Hate it Mini-Paper - Dark Sky

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A Pleasurable Experience In a Hierarchy of User’s Needs Pyramid, I believe the Dark Sky app rises to the peak of pleasurability. It certainly meets the most basic needs of functionality and reliability as best it can on an iPhone. As long as the phone can determine its location and access the Internet, the Dark Sky app performs its duties flawlessly. It works right away, and keeps working thanks to an active development team that continues to make the app better and better. Apps these days can be so ephemeral that functionality and reliability are a must, and the fact that I’ve continued to use Dark Sky for so long is a testament to the application’s stability. In terms of usability, the above-mentioned design principles are only a few of Dark Sky’s strengths that make it such a usable app. Thoughtful design makes it easier to read, simple to navigate, and exceptionally usable, even for the clumsiest of thumbs. Perhaps one of the most impactful aspects of its usabilty is that it has so few features to use. The app’s three main panels are packed with useful information, but it’s so well presented that I don’t have to do anything to take it all in – just an easy glance and I get it. The only decision I have to make is how the application will notify me of precipitation. A simple slider gives me the option to change the amount of precipitation that will trigger a notification.

Animated Map of Precipitation

Of course the peak of user needs can only be reached by offering a truly pleasurable experience and Dark Sky does this brilliantly. From the opening panel, a small but prominent globe icon invites you to view animated visualizations of local, regional, or global weather data from the recent past through the near future (see Animated Map of Precipitation and Animated Map of Temperature). These maps represent of a clever feat of technological wizardry presented so simply and beautifully, so obscenely well, that it borders on arrogance. Every time I open Dark Sky I get the information I need quickly, but I often stay a while longer just to marvel at the beautiful representations of weather phenomena across earth’s surface. The pinch, zoom, and spin animations are so fluid that I find myself spinning the globe just to watch it spin. I rarely consult these maps for actionable information, but I regularly show them off to my friends. Its this kind of pleasure that makes the application sell itself.

Thoughts on Evaluation An application like Dark Sky has already proven itself to me as a thoughtful, user-focused design, but every product benefits from the ongoing application of design evaluation. Perhaps in the initial phases of design, developing Animated Map of Temperature personas to envision user goals could have informed design priorities. Performing a contextual inquiry could have helped inform how typical users interact with the application as a part of their daily routine. Still, at this mature phase in the application’s development, and after the recent release of an overhauled interface, I believe that Dark Sky would benefit most from further usability testing. Classic usability testing could determine the extent to which users are successfully navigating the app and correctly M. Taylor Long • DES 3131 • Love it/Hate it Mini-Paper - Dark Sky

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interpreting the information it presents. Dark Sky really pushes the limits of minimal design, with many actions offering only the faintest hint of how to perform them. In most cases, I find the interface to be wordlessly intuitive. Still, such an approach requires ongoing assessment of your users’ interpretation of the app. I envision a usability test in which a filmed volunteer is asked to perform a series of common tasks on the application and narrate the process out-loud. In relatively few tests, say 5-10, lingering weak points in the design could be identified and potentially corrected. Of course, in the case of an application, it might be a bit difficult to record the fine interactions taking place on a small screen. Furthermore, the controlled environment of a usability test might fail to reveal errors that arise more often in active, real-life use. Still, with ceaselessly updating software and hardware, continued use of usability testing offers a simple, effective means of keeping the application working well for its users. As the technology continues to advance, a return to contextual inquiry may even become necessary to assess the everchanging needs of a typical user in the context of other mobile weather services. The thoughts above reveal my deep admiration for the Dark Sky app. Its serenely practical design does give me a sense of real pleasure, but after waxing on about its many virtues I must remind myself that it is, after all, just a clever little tool. If I’m a bit dramatic about my appreciation for the application’s design, perhaps it’s not so much a testament to a good design as it is a sort of scolding, indirectly hurled towards all the other daft products that only add to the confusion and frustration of life in this century. I suppose I believe that strong design is to be celebrated and shared so that the many makers of things out there can see just how much better every thing could be. In an endless, shallow sea of mediocre mobile applications, Dark Sky is a shining beacon of hope for good design.

M. Taylor Long • DES 3131 • Love it/Hate it Mini-Paper - Dark Sky

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Dark Sky: An App I Love  

A mini-paper I wrote in a course on User Experience in Design.

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