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Dark Sky - A Defense

There have been a lot of critical things said about the latest version of Dark Sky since its last release. Some of it may be warranted (and I’ll get to that at the end of the piece) but some have been focused so much on some elements of the app’s design that they put the actual daily usefulness of the app aside to make their points.

Data Visualization

From the Dark Sky website:

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.

I have long sung the praises of Dark Sky’s ability to predict bad weather with uncanny accuracy. It’s not always correct, but I understand that weather is an unexact science. Sometimes it predicts rain, like right now, when I’m actually getting snow so heavy I can’t see across the street. The inflection point of a temperature change along a front is understandably a hard thing to predict with 100% accuracy. I think we all understand that as reasonable people.

So that being said, as reasonable people, we would know that looking at a chart, no matter how many labeled axes and tickmarks, no matter how many data points which show a temperature trend inching upwards or downwards twelve hours from now, it is really just an approximation of what the actual weather might be. We understand, as reasonable people, that the weather might be something quite different when that time arrives 12 hours from now. It turns out that it wasn’t 14F, but 18F or even -4F (no thank you).

Yet I have read many words over the last week criticising the lack of exactingly-labeled graph axes. The line on the charts have tickmarks labeled with a time and a temperature when there is an inflection point. It’s that simple. Sometimes it doesn’t change at that exact datapoint because the line is a smooth curve, not a jagged chart. Given that, the savvy designer will know that the line can’t change quickly when there are two temperature inflection points close to one another but yet that is the criticism I’m hearing.

The other knocks are that there are two stacked representations of data on the “Next 24 Hours” screen. One is labeled “The Sky” and shows what his happening in the sky over the next 24 hours and has an x-axis for the next 24 hours starting from now. That makes intuitive sense.

The chart below is labeled “Temperature” and has an approximation of temperature across the same 24 hour period. Looking up at the chart you can interpolate temperature to time but you can intuit that 12 hours from now is halfway.

“How can I see what the temperature is fourteen and a half hours from now, smart guy?”, they bellow.

To them I say, “You are missing the point. This is a weather app and even if there was an exact 24 hour chart with a 100x zoom to the minute, the temperature will still be approximate 14 hours from now. That is the point of these charts and that is fairly well conveyed to me when I look at them.”

I’d go so far as to say that if it does bother you, this probably isn’t the weather app for you.

There are also some pretty smart people criticising the lack of labels on each page to denote what they represent. I’m with Dr. Drang on this one when he dissects Jared Sinclair’s complaints about the app.

I can only assume he thinks “casual users” are idiots. It’s true that having a heading on only one of the screens is inconsistent, but I don’t see how anyone could mistake what these three screens are for.

That’s right.

Colors

If you could make a color on a chart representing rain, what color would it be? A watery blue, right? That makes sense. How about snow? Maybe an icier blue? Check. Clouds should be gray and fog should probably be a darker gray. Check and check. Those all make sense intuitively and those are the exact colors used on charts when those weather events are taking place.

The complaints about colors (or lack thereof) appear to me to be uncompromisingly harsh given what the app is describing. You could have criticised the last version for being too dark.

Refresh Time

There is nothing but a pulsing circle when you open the app.1 The pulsing continues until it gets enough information to display and then the screen updates with up-to-the-minute information.

Many designers have said that it is bad design to display just a pulsing circle. I am not exactly sure what they feel should be displayed while data is being fetched. If it was cached data, as some suggest, it clearly wouldn’t be up-to-the-minute data. The app needs to connect to a server to get its information. That’s just the way it is and if it takes a while, that’s a function of a lot of things that aren’t entirely in the app’s control.

I fail to see where a spinning globe or a dancing pickle would alleviate your pain. Just wait a second and you’ll get your information. If not, check back in a few minutes. Also, it’s the actual weather so maybe poke your head outside and take a look.

Some Things Actually Do Need Fixing

After spending some time with the new app, there are some things that could use some help. The radar view always is zoomed out to view the entire eastern seaboard for me. I am not quite sure why but they should fix that. It should be about a 35 mile radius around my current location.

The feed from alerts.weather.gov depicting winter warning news is showing an ugly non-mobile-formatted webpage right now. It’s a minor thing but it would be nice if it was easier to read. Knowing that I’m about to be hosed by awful weather is easier to take when I don’t have to zoom in on a webpage that looks like something best viewed in Netscape Navigator.

Conclusion

I get that people hate change. Having a healthy critique of a beloved app that underwent a pretty major makeover is healthy however much of the comments I have been reading over the last few days has seemed like design buffs trying to one-up their peers on which pixel ended up in the wrong place. It’s the “gotcha” school of collective design.

Sorry if this seems a bit critical. I was ignoring this whole echospheric event until I caught up on the ADN comments this morning and felt like I needed to clear the air a bit. I’m also cranky and miserable that the clouds above (as seen as a pretty rainbow of reds and oranges in Dark Sky) are dumping another 8-10” on snow on my car outside right now.

this is total bullshit


  1. That has been a big criticism I’ve seen as well. I like that its a circle but again I’m in the minority. Those of you who hate the circle and don’t know why it is a circle, well, I don’t know what to tell you. Would a square be better? A smiling raindrop? A cute puppy?