Space Weather creator discovers simple solutions for displaying complex information

While developer Timothy Stewart knew his Space Weather app needed help, he approached Microsoft design lead Dave Crawford with just a slim ray of hope.

But Tim left the design consultation much more enlightened than he had thought possible. Watch some of his enlightenment for yourself:

“Dave really reimagined my application, from when you first launch it to the Live Tiles to some of the alerts and even the lock screen,” Tim says. “He really took my blank canvas and started anew.”

Beforehand, Tim didn’t believe the consult would make too big a difference to Space Weather, a solar-activity app for Windows Phone. He supposed that Dave might just offer advice he had received in the past or could easily find on his own by doing a little homework.

“Boy, was I wrong,” he says. “Dave distilled my application down to what really matters to me, to the very essence of why I created this application in the first place.”

The issues: Too much information at once; unclear priorities

Space Weather enables users to monitor the Sun’s effects on planet Earth. It serves up data about solar flares, geomagnetic storms, solar radiation, and — of special interest to Tim — auroras. As fascinating as the whole subject can be, it can also get pretty complicated.

The pre-consultation version of Space Weather had a strong foundation in terms of concept, content quality and depth, and branding. The app also had a following of mostly happy users. But it wasn’t perfect. Space Weather was “a little overwhelming and a little bit dense,” Tim told Dave in the session. It was difficult to actually determine if there was a chance of seeing the aurora – the primary use case of the app – especially to the novice user. Tim’s goal: to learn how to improve the presentation of Space Weather content.

Dave dug into the project with special enthusiasm. “I’m a bit of a space geek,” he told Tim. Once he finished evaluating the app, Dave’s advice to Tim boiled down to three little words: Keep it simple.

“A common thing that happens across these apps that have this quantity of info is the developers get bogged down in showing minutiae,” Dave explained. The result is that such apps can become “inaccessible” to users.

The solutions, in Space Weather’s case? Dave emphasised two in particular.

He advised Tim to help the user answer the fundamental question ‘will I see an aurora tonight?’ first and foremost. As Dave said ‘everything else is just detail for hardcore users’. Following this, he advised Tim to create a hierarchy and structure for the rest of the information, simplifying the layout using design tricks such as colour, weight, and size. Make the most important content stand out first by making it larger or by giving it a higher contrast from the background, then work down.

Dave also urged Tim to turn to the Pivot control, instead of relying on the Panorama control. With the Panorama control, users view content on a pannable canvas that extends beyond the confines of the screen. By contrast, the Pivot control presents content in the form of pages that users can click or flick through.

Why does Dave favour the Pivot-control approach for the information-rich Space Weather? “Because Pivot controls are quite detail-focused, it’s fine to have lots of scrolling text and lots of different things here,” he said. By contrast, the Panorama control was making it overwhelming for users to “go through all the bits and pieces.”

The new Space Weather

After his consult with Dave, Tim saw the light. “My application is information-dense, and he helped me break it apart by redesigning my layout into pivots,” he says. “This helped me organize related content and display it in a more consumable manner.”

For Dave, this basic solution for Space Weather was clear. “Simple and clean is the way to go with these kinds of apps,” he says. “And have a way to get to the detail for the guys who want more stuff.”

So, with Dave’s expert feedback in hand, Tim redesigned the entire app and released Space Weather 4.0. He continues to tweak the new version — also known as Pelican — and you can find the latest Space Weather in the Windows Phone store.

Pelican has attracted glowing reviews. Says one user: “Gorgeous layout. Easy to use. Spectacular job here.” Another writes: “The redesign of this app has taken it from ‘useful but makes my eyes bleed’ to ‘useful and delightful, beautiful’! Well done, great update!”

But why the name Pelican? Because Tim Stewart names all of his app updates after types of birds. And, well, because the pelican happens to be Dave Crawford’s favourite.

The takeaways: Pivoting, packaging, and paring

  • If you’re using Panorama control in an information-dense app, explore the option of switching to Pivot control.

  • When designing your app, be sure to present concise information on the Start screen. For example, Dave simplified what users see when Space Weather starts up, focusing on the day’s forecast and key indicators and also creating a prominent place for aurora activity.

  • If a lot of information is packed into your Live Tiles, consider paring it down to the real basics to make it support the ‘glance and go’ ethos of Live Tiles, and improve the design.

  • Leverage images to enhance your app’s UX. For instance, you might have content scroll over a background image on one or more pages (for “quite a nice experience,” Dave notes).

  • You can strengthen your app’s branding by using a simple design device on Live Tiles, on the lock screen, and throughout the app itself.

Resources to enhance your Windows Phone apps

Additional guidance for designing great apps is available in the Design Library of the Windows Phone Dev Center.

Specific to this consultation, be sure to check out Pivot control design guidelines for Windows Phone, Essential graphics, visual indicators, and notifications for Windows Phone and Tile design guidelines for Windows Phone.

Also consult Design.windows.com, and find sources of inspiration in our Design Gallery. Apps that use the Pivot control include Epicurious, First Great Western, and Tube Map.

Ready to improve the design and UX of your own Windows Phone app? Design consultations are available as rewards from our DVLUP programme, including an introductory one-hour consultation with the experts from Toledo Design. Also be sure to check out the new Live Tile and Splash Screen Design Consultation reward.