Dark Sky — Some Constructive Criticism for Today’s Update

Dark Sky has managed the impossible task of standing out in an App Store teeming with me-too weather apps. It has two amazing features: astonishingly accurate local rainfall predictions and colorful weather visualizations. Today its developers released a significant update to both the iPhone and iPad versions of the app. I don’t use Dark Sky on my iPad, so I’ll restrict my observations to the iPhone version.

Today’s update appears to be a complete rewrite of the user interface. The previous version had an admittedly awkward mix of chunky black, yellow, and blue controls on its primary view, with a gorgeous radar view hidden offscreen. The new version adds a three-panel view of week’s worth of a weather, all housed in a blurred container that is superimposed in front of a three-dimensional projection the Earth. This globe is painted with Dark Sky’s astounding animated weather radar and is interactive. It’s a significant improvement over the previous two-dimensional view.

Since the rainfall predictions are a transient feature — they’re experienced through push notifications — the most important visual elements in the new version of the app are the animated globe and the wavy prediction graphs. In my opinion, all of Dark Sky’s aesthetic choices should follow the design cues suggested by the nature of these features.

Contrary to what you might think from looking at most iOS 7 app redesigns, a white background color is not a foolproof way to elevate content above navigation. White isn’t a free color. It comes with baggage. It has its own personality like any other color. White is paper. White is an empty screen. It’s broadsheet for news articles and text boxes for blog posts. White is a dry erase marker board.

If you put ten people in a room and asked them each to name a predominant background color — the first color to come to mind — for a heat-mapped weather radar view, I would expect white not to appear on their list. The colors that are most often put to the task are pure black and dark gray. The participants’ likelihood of choosing black or gray would grow even stronger if you also told them that the name of the app in question is “Dark Sky.”

Color associations matter. Colors provide immediate, visceral clues. As Thoreau wrote, “some circumstantial evidence is strong, such as finding a trout in the milk.” Dark Sky’s new white theme points first-time users in the wrong direction. It drains the app of its vigor. The desaturated colors make the globe and the prediction graphs look like watermarks instead of category-defining innovations. White suggests that the text-based elements are more important. Newspapers and novels are monochromatic. Weather should be colorful. A dark theme with a palette of vibrant accent colors would evoke meteorological data on every screen, strengthening the association between the name of the app and its purpose. I would rather Dark Sky resemble the iOS 7 Compass app.

The raw idea for the redesign is good; the three-panel view with a side panel for the globe is an interesting riff on two established navigation patterns. But the execution is sloppy. It lacks clarity. It fails to shape the data into visually coherent elements. Titles are indistinguishable from content.

Of the three panels — current conditions, Next 24 Hours, and the week view — only the middle panel has a title, but in context the title is easily confused for a subhead. It took deliberate focus while preparing this post for me to recognize the purpose of all three tabs. I suspect a casual user will not undertake that much effort.

On the first panel, the cloud cover and temperature are rendered in a large black circle, for no discernible reason other than that circles are trendy. It looks more like a user profile than a weather summary. It is a shape without purpose. The circle does not add meaning to the data. It undermines the content-first ethos of the rest of the app.

On the second panel, the 24 hour temperature graph doesn’t have any bounding guides or axes to give the graph meaning. It’s just a line meandering through negative space. Graphs need axes to be legible.

On both the first and the second panels, all the individual sections are difficult to distinguish from one another. Whenever there are two or more things on the same screen, those things need boundaries. Boundaries, like button borders, can be real or implied. The only elements with adequate implied borders are found on the third panel, the week view. Each row in the week view resembles its neighbors above and below. This creates a consistent visual rhythm. The sections on the first two panels don’t have any rhythm, so they have no implied border. Without a real or implied border, each area of content melts into an amorphous blob. It’s disorienting and hard to read.

The third panel is not wholly exempt from criticism, however. Because the individual rows can be swiped open, they compete for the same panning gestures used to navigate between panels. The conflict between these gestures (and the lack of visual distinction between static and interactive content) makes me feel uneasy touching the app at all — a sin for an iOS app.

I’m still a huge fan of Dark Sky as a technical achievement. Its predictions are still thrillingly accurate. Our whole family depends upon them. I hope they reconsider some of the decisions unveiled today.

|  27 Jan 2014