I have always been a big fan of weather apps and a long time complainer about the gazillion different designs you can find — many of them beautiful, especially those on Dribbble or Behance where it seems that every designer creates one- but I never found one app that was customizable to everyone’s specific circumstances, apart from the obvious, picking the location where you are or where you want to go.
So I started thinking about designing an app myself too but I wasn’t going to go through all the work just to get some dull comments on designer sites, if I was going to do it, I would do it for real… but a weather app? there is hundreds of them… Yes because there is millions of users too!
It doesn’t matter if you build an app for everybody and face a huge amount of competition or pick a niche with no competition but target a very small segment of users, if you create a great experience the amount of installs would be huge one way or the other.
I’ve been designing mobile apps for quite some time now, starting from my time at Microsoft where I was lucky enough to be part of the team that created the foundation of the Metro user interface for the Windows Phone 7 and after that helping companies with top iPhone apps to be redesigned for the new Microsoft platform. Later, I designed more apps for Fortune 100 companies as an interactive Creative Director at RG/A in New York, then more apps for start-ups like Pixable or Contactive and as of now, as head of Experience Design at Sports Illustrated Play, but I’ve never been able to completely “own” the full cycle. There was always somebody else to do things that are not purely “UX”, PR, Promotion, marketing, Social reach, etc. So I took the challenge of embarking on a moon-light solo journey as a sort of experiment.
I started following the UX process that I apply to most of the projects I do on a day to day basis:
Definition & Discovery > Ideation > Refinement > Validation > Development
I was going to focus on bringing a new approach to a weather app, a stagnant category where innovation happens most of the time not at the function but at the aesthetics level.
Definition & Discovery
I had a clear vision of the goals the app should accomplish. A user should be able to see themselves on an hour by hour timeline on any activity their daily routine may take them and glance at what the weather will be at that very moment. Am I going to be biking today at 7PM? Will I be under the rain tomorrow while I’m shopping in the city? I want to see if the snow will cover the streets from noon to 3PM, and so on.
Other conventional weather data of course should be available but again, glanceability has to be key. Therefore, some sort of data visualization should be created to be able to assess how cold or hot the day, or the week, will be.
So I designed an hour by hour timeline where the user could recreate their typical daily routines. Most of us have a routine with some variations during the week, leaving home and going back, running, going to the gym, commuting by different means, etc. I then created a table to map the range of temperature from very cold (grey) to very hot (purple). This color coding scale tells you if the temperature moving forward will be going up or down without checking the degrees.
I also had a clear idea in my mind on the mechanics of how that graphical timeline interface may work and how the visual design and user interface might look like. Given that I didn’t have to sell it to anybody but myself saved me from mood boards, storyboards and all the stuff that is crucial when a client is involved. But, having a developer as a part of the equation miles away was not going to save me from creating precise user flow charts, wireframes and a precise topographic map of the app.
Time to get the user experience nailed down and start designing the pixel perfect visual assets. In order to support the minimalist vision I had for the app, creating a simple and elegant interface was going to be key. The interface also had to be color neutral as the color coded graphical visualization of the temperature was going to be pivotal.
Then, I was going to need a library of icons for users to represent everything from mundane to more exciting daily activities. The requirements were clear: the icon should be simple, easy to identify even on an Apple watch, gender neutral, and easy to animate. I used Illustrator as I can create vector illustrations easily and quickly and the integration with Photoshop nowadays is great, then I used PNG Express to automatically export all the assets to all the required resolutions needed for IOs and Android in one single batch process.
Definetively what took more time to do were the animation of the walking icons and weather elements such as rain, snow, wind, and the like. Instead of exploring unknown animation software, I stuck with my area of expertise and decided to leverage Photoshop animation capabilities -very limited and buggy as I discovered- so it took me a good chunk of time to manually do most of them, including renaming hundreds of layers in order to run the PNG Express export functionality, but the results were satisfying and the effort was worth it.
A good chunk of the usability testing efforts happen through the validation phase but I didn’t have the time to create prototypes. I was eager to start development, so I took the paper cutout prototype approach: simple, fast, and cheap. This consisted of printing the UI elements and cutting out the interactive assets, placing them on a board, and asking somebody to perform tasks by moving the elements around on the board as if they were doing it on a touchable screen; definitively not the same as a digital prototype, but good enough to uncover functionality gaps.
It’s not a big revelation to say that you can have the greatest design and the greatest documentation, but if your developers doesn’t know what they’re doing your app will be a fiasco.
I’m no superhero and although I may have different levels of expertise on many of the facets that touch the user experience, I have very limited programming skills -I mean, not counting the times when Flash was DA thing- so I was able to secure a great iOS developer for hire in Ukraine, and with just a couple of Skype calls, he got rolling and after a couple of months, my MVP was ready and on the App Store.
I believe I had the name even before the day I started designing the app. There are many places where you can learn about ASO (App Store Optimization) so i’m not going to cover it here but I imposed three conditions on myself: 1) It should start with an “A” so in all the listings that are ordered alphabetically, it would come out on top, 2) It obviously had to have the word “weather” in it, 3) It should be catchy or maybe have a double meaning, something that would make it memorable.
“A Weather Way” was born and luckily enough, the only place the name showed up was on some streets somewhere, but no brands or products and even the domain was available. Perfect.
Given that Apple allows very long names, I then added the tagline along with the name so on any app search the description of the app gets displayed after the app name.
One of the things I was not planning on spending much time on was the website. I was wondering how to get this task out of the way quickly when I discovered Weld.io, a web based tool that allows non-techies to make websites in a jiffy. I recycled some of the graphics and, and within a day or two I had built www.aweatherway.com and www.ojoaltiempo.com (the Spanish version).
One in a million
This was a moonlight project and I knew I was not going to cover all the fronts needed in the battle to take an app to the top of the charts. Doing that is basically a full time job and I already have one that takes most of my time, so PR, social media presence, daily monitoring of stats, analytics, fine tuning based on all those learnings, and so on were going to have to wait.
The day came and the app was up on the store. My only PR was going to be sending a link to all my friends and family, wait for them to review it and give me those precious 5 stars, and hope they took the time to share it with their friends as well.
The app has a Premium upgrade that gets rid of the ads and gives access to a full library of icons to create your daily routines. In order to get as many eyes on the full experience as possible, I set up the Premium upgrade to be free. This was a good move. We all know how much people hate paying, so I got a lot of reviews with 5 stars. I knew the one star reviews would come at one point or another, so having a good buffer at the beginning to “absorb” those reviews would come in handy when that day came.
Get ready for success… or not
I was still procrastinating on the marketing effort when, all of a sudden, one morning I saw feedback emails popping up almost at one per hour. I thought that maybe somebody had been talking about the app, so I asked one of the email senders how he had discovered it…
“Didn’t you know? It’s featured in the App Store as Best New App.”
You have got to be kidding me! I couldn’t believe that one email I sent to the App Store Promotion mailbox had actually been read by somebody.
So there I was with 12,000 installs in one day! For how long this was going to last? Well I figured out that at the rate of new best apps hitting the App Store, mine would be featured for about ten days. That could be awesome… or not. Thousands of installs and, because my “In App” purchase was still set up to free, I was getting zero profit. Unfortunately although changing the Premium from free to $1,99 could be done easily the copy on the App-Store could not be changed without uploading a whole new build, another learning, if you need to change the app description you need to submit a whole new build! Obviously i was not going to make users pay while the description is telling them the Premium upgrade was free so I uploaded a new build identical to the prior one but with updated copy as soon as I could, but to my surprise, it was turned down, (the same build could be rejected or not depending who reviewed your app). So by the time the new build was live with the Premium wording updated, the app was no longer featured. I was still getting 2,000 installs a day, but the buying rush was winding down at fast pace so I missed all the revenue of all that tremendous exposure. Epic fail.
However, not soon after, I got an email from the App Store social media channels’ manager requesting files to promote the app on their social accounts. Great news! By the time the installs had diminished, I was going to have an extra push by having the app showcased on Facebook, Twitter and who knows where else. Awesome… not. It seems like this opportunity is a mirage on the horizon because, to date, the app hasn’t been featured yet and sending emails to that team is a waste of time.
Less than one month after the big hit, the app has gone down to about a hundred installs… on good days. I can’t believe an app can go from glory to misery in such few days!
I know Apple runs those algorithms that promote apps based on different parameters, I imagine aspects like retention, crashes, store views are taken in consideration and nailing those percentages is key, but this article is already too long to go on detail over every one of them, that’s going to be on a next article maybe. However I’m eager to see if the retention that is getting better with every update is going to make a difference any time soon.
Some interesting facts:
It took less than 48 hours to go from 3 to 12,000 downloads
It took 25 days to go from 12,000 to 300 downloads.
The app made it to #12 overall in the Guinea-Bissau app store
It became #3 in weather apps and #390 overall in the US app store.
Ranked #1 in weather apps in 55 different countries.
Downloads per country: 50% USA, 10% Spain, 6% China, 5% Mexico, 29% rest of the world
So here I am, planning to dedicate some more nights and weekends to send my baby to the top charts again, so far the experience has been worthwhile. A bit of a roller coaster no less, but full of new learnings and rewards.