Smartphone weather apps are supposed to be the ultimate in no-muss-no-fuss utility. Whether they offer a panopticon of forecast data (like The Weather Channel app) or simply tell you if it’s going to rain in the next hour and nothing more (like Dark Sky), we want to get in, get the info, and get back to Instagram. But what if there were a weather app that was designed to make you want to spend time looking at it? Solar aims to deliver that kind of user experience with a minimalist gestural interface and gorgeous full-screen color swashes to represent temperature data.
Solar’s UI completely avoids buttons and chrome. On top of that luscious-looking blended color background, the app displays the current temperature, the name of your current city, and a clock icon representing the current time. Swiping upwards over the screen scrubs the clock forward and backward in time, so you can see how the weather changes throughout the day by watching the colored background shift alongside the temperature indicator. Pull down from the top edge of the screen to see a simplified forecast for the next three days; tap the screen once and the sparse icons disappear, letting you bask in Solar’s Rothko-like background imagery.
"The top color represents weather conditions and the bottom represents temperature," Justin Dionisio, founder and CEO of Hollr, the firm behind Solar, tells Co.Design. "We didn’t want it to mirror the outside view—you have a window for that." Basically, Solar is barebones weather info tricked up with a lot of eye candy—and intentionally so. "It is absolutely design for design’s sake," Dionisio says. "The idea was to build a modern accessory for the savvy future sophisticate. Something that dazzles—looks cool."
I should have hated Solar. Its weather info is thin at best, and scrubbing my thumb up and down the screen to display the day’s forecast felt inefficient and sometimes irritating. And short of insulting my mother, bragging about "design for design’s sake" is probably the fastest way to make me hate whatever it is you’ve built.
But I don’t hate Solar. In fact, it’s become my default weather app. Why? Because while it may be a weak sister in terms of deep forecast information, I realized that "deep forecast information" isn’t something I actually want out of my default weather app. It turns out that I’d rather have "good enough" utility embedded in a pleasing sensory experience.
Checking the weather on your phone is something you do multiple times every single day, like checking the time on your wristwatch. Few wristwatches are designed to be used as data-rich multimodal chronometric dashboards; instead, they’re designed primarily to look appealing, because you will be glancing at them quite often. Their purpose is to tell time, but their use is primarily aesthetic. For almost all of us, it’s not enough to have a watch that merely tells the time. You have to like it. That’s what Solar is: a weather app designed first and foremost to be liked.
"Weather is pure sensory information," says Dionisio. "I just felt like there are those of us who’d prefer to not be inundated with maps and charts on the 3.5-inch screen of our mobile devices. If we find a better way to communicate something—something that both suits and serves—we will work it in, but we won’t add information for the sake of doing so." Is that so wrong? Not in this case, despite my own efforts to convince myself otherwise. If I have to look at my weather app all the time anyway, why shouldn’t I be able to enjoy the experience?
[Download Solar here]