iOS Weather Apps for Vancouver

I was nipping across Carrall Street for a guilty pleasure the other night and ran into the fellow who’s helped out at Glory Food Market since years before I moved into the neighbourhood. I suppose we were both feeling unimaginitive, as Oscar Wilde may or may not have thought, or at least said, but he said he doubted he’d be able to go for a cycle that evening, as he had the night before when he had been caught in rain. I said I thought he was safe in that respect, and he replied, you never know. Actually, you do, I said.

Well, almost. Thanks to a nifty weather service called Forecast, one can, on their iPhone or other device, get a very specific prediction of precipitation for the next hour :

forecast

I have found this aspect of the service to be fairly accurate. Overall, however, my experience with Forecast, and iOS weather apps in general, has been fraught. As a result I’ve turned into something of a weather app junkie. It seems a lot of others have as well, and the field is crowded. But it seems particularly difficult for most of them to get things right. For me, at the simplest level this means the ability to tell me accurately whether or not I need to carry an umbrella for the day. This is an important question in Vancouver for much of the year, and it is surprising how often most of the apps get it wrong, in my experience—and entirely anecdotally, but consistently enough over the course of a couple of years to be quite noticeable.

It is also surprising how tempting it is to try to live with the apps that sport a nifty user experience, or at least a beautiful data display. Weather apps are not usually “deep,” or I’m normally only interested in the initial display which purports to answer my basic question above; so interaction design—behaviour—is usually not bad, or not central. (I have quickly discarded those apps where it has been.) I have always been particular about the design of software, down to their icons: I am even loathe to ugly up my Springboard (or Dock) with anything but the best-finessed set of pixels. Luckily, I’ve found that there is generally a good correlation between the quality of  app design and  functionality.

Except for weather apps, or the predictions they provide for Vancouver. There are some nicely designed entrants, like Yahoo! Weather (although it has a lousy icon):

yahooweather

Unfortunately this app, along with almost all the others, cannot seem reliably to predict rain, and it doesn’t really matter how lovely an app looks if it doesn’t work. There is the Apple Weather app: it is easy to look at and I think it has been unfairly maligned, as it in my experience no less accurate than most of the others:

iosweatherapp

The Weather Network app seems to be among the most popular with people I’ve surveyed informally; unfortunately, along with suffering from the same general inaccuracy as the others, it looks a bit cartoonish:

weathernetwork

There have been others, many others, with which I’ve experienced more or less the same results: being caught without an umbrella; or strolling through sunshine with one that has been reduced to functioning as a cane.

So I was excited when Forecast became available in Canada. It doesn’t look half bad, and it is easy to pick up and use its gesture-based interface (I like the little bouncy hint that’s displayed when it is first opened):

forecastfullscreen

Forecast is “backed by a wide range of data sources, which are aggregated together statistically to provide the most accurate forecast possible for a given location.” (There are other apps, like Weathertron, which use the same consolidated data.)

forecastchart

Unfortunately, I’ve found that an average of wrong tends to be wrong. (It’s interesting to ponder why the inaccuracy. I have a colleague who told me a few years back he had a meteorologist friend who claimed that many of the weather services use computer modelling, rather than a meteorologist, to predict the Vancouver weather. Whether or why this would be the case, I don’t know.)

So I’ve been coming back again and again to the one app that seems to be able to answer my umbrella question most consistently. It is called Atmosphérique Pro, and while it and its icon are not the best of the lot, it is as far as I can tell the only weather app that uses, or uses exclusively, Environment Canada as its data source.

atmospheriquepro

As another Vancouver “winter” approaches, I’ll keep Atmosphérique Pro on the first page of my Springboard, and continue to cast around for alternatives. If there’s a weather app you depend on, please leave a comment.

The Costco Experience

I went to Costco the other day with a friend; I’d found myself there previously, once or twice, in similar circumstances. There was something about the place beyond the obvious that had kept me away. The obvious being, first, that it has an almost religious-military bent about requiring “membership,” and one isn’t even allowed to go in to see whether it might be worth signing up, membership carrying a fairly hefty $55 annual fee. Is the freedom to go into a retail store to decide whether you’re going to make a purchase not a basic right of consumption? Although I once got into a bit of an argument with one of the “bouncers” about this illogical policy—don’t, or can’t, they check for membership when and if you actually buy something?—this barrier was circumvented pretty simply, by turning around and entering through the exit, which in size is closer to a delivery bay entrance than a regular set of retail doors.

Another aspect of the lack of appeal for me is the obvious, and arguably crass, mass consumption represented by the place. Even in the middle of the city—there is a Costco nestled underground, or under roads and condos, near the sports palaces in Vancouver—it seems an oasis of suburbia. American suburbia. Everything is oversized; the enormous shopping carts make me feel like I’m a child pushing a regulation-sized cart (children’s carts not having been available as long ago as when I was that young). Often-large people driving large vehicles pile in enormous quantities of stuff that they probably don’t need, or at least I can’t fathom needing myself. It’s one of those places like London Drugs: who actually buys all this stuff, and how did anyone even come up with the idea of producing it? At any rate, being single I can’t imagine ever requiring the quantities offered: even if they do have a good deal on organic quinoa, I’m not sure how to calculate when I might get through four kilograms of it. Not to mention the membership surcharge which, if you’re not spending a lot of your money there, does increase the cost of everything beyond the sticker prices. I guess that’s the point.

But what struck me this time was the apparent mood of the shoppers. I didn’t see anyone who looked like they were interested in what they were doing, let alone happy. There was a universal glumness, a grey lifeless cast to the proceedings. I shop mostly at Whole Foods, and there’s a striking difference. I wonder if this is because Whole Foods shoppers are wealthier, healthier, or—perhaps partly as a result of both—not coming down from a sugar high. I am not sure, but can say that it is an interesting, even engaging place to be: there is such a range of appealing and sometimes even exotic foods there, that cooking becomes an adventure, even—or especially—for a vegan like me. Costco doesn’t even have many of my staples, from tempeh to collard greens; it’s mostly pre-packaged and processed foods. Although Whole Foods is not as expensive as some people claim—Nesters in Gastown is far pricier, for instance—it seems to me that cost is beside the point, to an extent, if you’re not being wasteful and you can shop in an environment that doesn’t feel like a Soviet-era Russian warehouse. But then I’m willing to pay something for experience. I do this with technology and art and music and books, too. Think usability, venue, typography and paper stock; think Munro’s or Elliot Bay versus ChaptersApple Store as compared to, say, NCIX. When you’re buying retail goods, the environment and service are part of the product: it’s called customer experience. Why should shopping feel like you’re procuring for your squad in a big, unhappy army?

Thoughts on Steve Jobs

When I saw a photo of a young Steve Jobs pop up on Flipboard today, I momentarily feared the worst: it had been only a couple of days before that Jack Layton‘s picture appearing on my iPad had signalled his death. And I think a lot of us still worry that this announcement might parallel bad news on Steve’s health.

But to use another politician as an analogy, I feel about Jobs today much as I did when Pierre Trudeau resigned in 1984. Trudeau had been prime minister for almost my entire life, from 1968, with a gap of less than a year. And from before the time I bought my first computer—an Apple ][+—in the early 1980s, until today, Steve Jobs has headed Apple, with a gap of about ten years. Which, from this vantage point, feels relatively brief; though at the time, with the company in a slow and painful decline, it might not have seemed so.

A lot of people are asking what Apple will look like, and how it will fare, without its founder. Speculation is pointless; we won’t know for five, for ten, for fifty years from now. But I find it interesting that no one seems to be asking how the technology industry will evolve in his absence, which is pretty much unprecedented—yes, even NeXT, not to mention Pixar, had an impact. While Jobs was absent Apple, real innovation not only stopped at his former company, it pretty much halted everywhere (except, perhaps arguably, at NeXT).

It’s surprising how many companies still don’t understand what Apple has been doing, and why. They have little real competition: tablet competitors, for example, are still competing on geeky tables of specifications. Users don’t care. Ultimately a lot of what Apple has done in the last fifteen years is a vindication of my area of expertise, interaction design and user-centred design—despite Apple’s apparently unusual approach to this. I expect, in a couple of decades, we’ll have insider accounts of how the company actually pulled off hit after hit during the current era. Until then, we’ll still marvel. And I hope Jobs remains healthy enough to stay on as chairman of the board.

Regardless, the man has been directly or indirectly responsible not only for many of the advances we enjoy—almost every day I pinch myself when I realize that I’m “living in the future” through some of these products—but my own livelihood, as well.

Apple? I suspect they’ll be fine. Steve Jobs? I wish him long life.

Postscript: After I wrote this I realized that I may have left out the most important factor of all. That is, that after being unceremoniously booted from the company he founded; after being exiled at NeXT; and after seeing Microsoft come to dominate the personal computer industry, by arguably stealing the Mac design—Steve Jobs came back and, finally, won. Apple surpassed Microsoft in terms of market capitalization in 2010. It is one of the most fascinating of questions, what might have happened at Apple had Jobs, rather than Sculley, been at the helm. Myself, though I’m sure Jobs learned a lot at NeXT (and Pixar), I think we’d have moved on from the PC era much earlier. The obviously missing “Mac III” would have preceded even this. The world would be even more different than it is now. At any rate, I think that Steve Jobs has proved that he had the right idea all along: computers are for people.

The New Yorker iPad Issues List

I am curious to know what will happen when there are enough issues that the little navigation dots fill the width of the screen. I’m not sure Apple has an answer for this, but I’ve never seen this feedback used for more than a handful of “pages.”

Canada Line Signage

I’ve noticed several instances in Vancouver recently of whiteboards and other makeshift signs erected (“plonked” might be a better term) at new facilities in an obvious effort to compensate for poor design. One example is the new extension to the CBC building on Georgia Street: a hand-written sign pointed people to the main entrance, which apparently the architect had neglected to make obvious.

The other day I came across this sign at one of the Canada Line stations.

It’s jarring to see such a band-aid on a brand new multi-billion dollar subway line. I’m guessing that no one bothered actually to test to see whether people entering the stations could tell which direction the trains are travelling, perhaps even after checking the overhead red LED signs. I wonder if anyone ever thinks of doing “usability” testing of built environments and wayfinding signage—or the lack thereof.

Clouds of Confusion

“The cloud” is touted as one of the biggest advances of the current era. And it promises to be: having information stored centrally and synchronized seamlessly across multiple devices would be a dogsend. The operative word being “would.” There are a few potentially faulty assumptions here, one of which is that there is a single “cloud.” And there is also a catch: that is, the “multiple devices” bit. Just how many, and of what capabilities, are we talking about?

It turns out that when you start to mix and match, as invariably happens in real life, things become slightly more complicated. I have encountered this recently when trying to understand exactly how and where all the data is flying around between and among my two Macs and my iPod touch, and MobileMe (personal information) and Exchange Server (work). I had quite a time putting together the following diagram, but I think it is accurate.

servicesanddevices.jpg

The iTunes sync from the Mac Pro to iPod touch is tethered; everything else is wireless on wired internet. I should note that this is actually a simplification of my setup: I have several private domains as well. But it gives a good picture of the problem: by default, not everything is synchronized, or synchronized live. And I’m using a single vendor (Apple), at least for my devices. First, due to what appears to be a bug, address book information doesn’t work between Exchange Server and Macs—though on the iPod touch this is not an issue. However, for me the crux of the problem is trying to undertand why only mail is “ON” (whatever that means) by default:

mobilmeipodtouchprefs.jpg

There’s nothing to indicate what “ON” versus “OFF” means. My address book and calendar are synced via iTunes; as an expert user, I made the leap to assuming that this means “over the air” sync, rather than depending on a tethered sync via iTunes. But when I flip the switch to turn on, say, Calendars, I am presented with what I think may be the most confusing dialog message I have received in thirty years of computing:

mergewarning.jpg

I defy anyone to explain to me, based solely on the message and buttons, what this means. I spent half an hour today chatting with an Apple support representative, and I’m not convinced that he fully understood either.

  • Of course there are calendars on my iPod not synchronized with Exchange; of all vendors, one might think that Apple would make the assumption that living in an all-Microsoft world isn’t necessarily the norm.
  • Would I like to merge the (non-Exchange-synced) calendars with MobileMe? Well, they’re already synced with MobileMe via iTunes. What is the difference between “syncing” and “merging”? Will the latter duplicate information?
  • Which “server-based calendars” are being referred to here: MobileMe, Exchange, or both? I assume “removed” is a synonym for “deleted,” but removed from where? My iPod, Exchange, and/or MobileMe? Scary.
  • What is the difference between “Do not Merge” and “Cancel”?

I’m going to take a chance—while I’m writing this post—and tap “Merge with MobileMe.” I have backups.

After proceeding, I get a progress message, “Turning On Calendars…”. This lasts for a long while (at least five minutes), until finally I stop tapping and the iPod turns off its screen. When I rouse it again, the Calendars setting is “ON”.

And what is the result? I created a new event on my iPod touch, and it has appeared on MobileMe without a tethered sync. So much confusion and stress for something that should have been set up by default. If it took me this much analysis and thought, what is the lot of the average user? Synchronization strikes me as a complex development challenge, but it should be the default: that is the promise. If Apple hasn’t got it right, what chance do we have?

Now I’m going to try turning on Google sync …

Columbus Group Alumni

When I returned from Sun Microsystems in Silicon Valley to work in Vancouver, I landed at a small but growing web development company called Columbus Group. Only a couple of years later, in 2001, the company was acquired by Telus.

The Columbus Group offices in the Arts and Crafts building, near the old A&B Sound, were maintained by Telus for almost three years after the acquisition. At that point, when the remaining employees moved out, there was virtually no evidence of the company on the web. I’d seen various employee alumni sites, for example the Apple HI Alumni page, and decided to create one for Columbus Group.

I’ve now moved it to this new site, but over the six years it was on my old site it was, from month to month, often my most visited page. I think this is because it has long been one of the best ways to find some of the former Columbus Group employees on the web. I also put a fair amount of thought into the display of information on the page.

The central part of the page is a large table which includes information on role, years at the company, current whereabouts, and contact information, including a link to LinkedIn profiles where available.

The “Years” column shows visually the span of time each employee worked for the company, so you can see whether people’s tenure overlaps. The final element in this column is the Telus logo, which if present indicates that the person was employed at the time of the acquisition. And rows coloured green identify those who still work at Telus. Overall I think it’s a successful information design.

The Simple Things: epost

I subscribe to Canada Post’s epost service, which promises to consolidate delivery of all your bills. It doesn’t quite manage that, largely because not all vendors support the service. That may change; in the meantime there’s a certain convenience to it, particularly in that it’s apparently the only way to get my Vancity Visa bills in PDF format rather than paper.

I’ve been thinking recently about usability issues related to this kind of regular but infrequent online experience. It seems that it’s often the simple things that cause frustration: the details surrounding getting to the desired or promised information. Destinations can be obscured by giving equal or greater weight to tasks and audiences not directly related to the notification. Memorability is an important aspect of design in this case, and it seems that this it often not well supported due to a lack of focus on the interaction initiated by the email.

The following screen shot shows the body of the email sent by epost when a new “mail delivery” is ready. Where would you click? Notice the prominence of the big blue “Remind Me” button, compared to the link to the service itself, where the bill can be accessed. Every couple of weeks I have to think consciously about where to click. How many people want to be reminded again, rather than just retrieve the bill, or leave the email in their in box, flagged or unread?

epostemail.gif

After remembering to click the link, the main epost page is displayed. The email notes that they don’t link directly to the log in screen from the email due to security concerns. I’m not sure what value this really has, as a phishing attack could simply replicate the main screen as well as the log in page. So the epost customer is delivered to the same page that any new user would see upon first going to the site, which is focused on getting people to sign up for the service. The “Sign in” button is also in a non-standard location, and perhaps even below the fold for some people.

eposthomepage.gif

Given that the security concern is a real one, why not pass a parameter via the email’s url so that the page swaps focus from “sign up” to “sign in”?

Simple changes to the email and landing page might prevent thousands of people from having to stop and think—twice—every time they receive a notification from epost.