Willi Wu and his team of iOS developers at Robocat are obsessed with weather apps. They’ve made three so far — including Haze, which we covered here. Now they’re launching their first physical weather product on Kickstarter: a tiny thermometer called Thermodo, which plugs into the audio jack of an iPhone. Let’s put the question of "why would you use this thing?" aside for a second, because "why would you build this thing?" turns out to be much more interesting.
Most designers make things to solve problems. Before making Haze, Robocat designed a weather app called Thermo. The problem: How to make the simplest weather app possible. Robocat’s solution: Put a giant red thermometer on your iPhone. "We love to make the analogy to something that is real and tangible, something that’s 'physical’ that the users can recognize immediately or relate to," Wu tells Co.Design. It was a hit: The app has been downloaded over 2 million times. A skeuomorphic slam dunk, right?
Not quite. Robocat started getting nasty 1-star reviews for Thermo from a small subset of users who were angry that the giant red thermometer didn’t act exactly work like, well, a giant red thermometer. To quote: "I checked the temperature in our bathroom and then went to our fireplace and it still said -2 degrees!!1111 It doesn’t work, it’s a waste of time!"
Was this user an idiot for thinking that a pattern of pixels on a screen should actually be able to sense the local temperature inside his house, just like a glass rod full of liquid mercury would? Yeah, kind of. But on the other hand, Thermo’s skeuomorphic appearance was, in a way, lying about the app’s range of functionality. After all, Thermo doesn’t display a cartoon picture of a thermometer: It’s a lushly detailed, photorealistic facsimile of one. Why make it look exactly like a thermometer if that’s not what it is?
Most other designers would either write off this kind of feedback, or maybe use it as food for thought about the pros and cons of skeuomorphs. Robocat, instead, used it as inspiration: What if your iPhone really could act like a glass rod full of liquid mercury? And lo, the idea for Thermodo was born.
The obvious question that follows: Does anyone really care about knowing the exact local temperature badly enough to stuff a tiny dongle into their iPhone? I have to say, I’m pretty darn skeptical. Wu admits that Robocat is launching Thermodo as a Kickstarter project "to find out if our idea is viable and if users are actually interested in this." In theory, joining a physical thermometer with a handheld computer opens up possibilities that the ol’ mercury could never afford. "People can use it to monitor temperature intelligently," Wu says. "That’s one of the reasons we are providing an SDK, so people can integrate Thermodo into their own apps."
Who knows, maybe Thermodo will tap into a desire people didn’t know they had. If so, does it really matter that it was inspired by a weird collision of skeuomorphism and a small cohort of overly naive users? "I wouldn’t say that we made a mistake [with Thermo’s skeuomorphic UI]," Wu asserts. Apparently not—especially if Thermodo’s Kickstarter campaign proves successful.