Usability presentation: do people understand weather?

I made this slide deck for the report on a usability test on the Weather Underground web site. The slides are intentionally dense with information because this was meant as a high-level deliverable as well as a presentation. The project was done for Kent State University. I did everything myself.

The weather: it’s more than rain or shine.

View as a slide show


Everyone talks about the weather–Weather Underground does something about it. Wunderground.com a beautiful weather and climate site absolutely packed with information. The site can be a bit intimidating for a new visitor or someone who is not a weather geek. This usability study looks at the experience of these new users.

Summary

Although the home page and search functions work really well, There is some friction in the interface and critical paths to user goals are cluttered. The resulting cognitive load causes some slowdown and failures.

The people who completed the tasks took a long time going through the site. For 6 out of 10 task failures, users thought they had actually completed the task, or were uncertain about it. Sometimes people found the right place by accident.

Because of some difficulty in finding the information people wanted, there was a low satisfaction level. Some of these problems are due simply to a low level of general understanding of weather science.

To summarize: although the home page and search functions work really well, There is a lot of friction in the interface and critical paths to user goals are cluttered, the cognitive load causing some slowdown and failures. The people who completed the tasks took a long time going through the site. For 6 out of 10 task failures, users thought they had actually completed the task, or were uncertain about it. Sometime people found the right place by accident. There was a low satisfaction level. Some of this is due simply to a low level of science understanding.

 

Weather underground started out as a weather database created at the U of Michigan in 1995. It later became commercial and was bought by The Weather Channel (Now The Weather Company and owned by IBM) in 2012. Thousands of personal weather stations feed in from site members. The Wundermap is famous for it’s layered visualization of complex weather data. The shear scope and quantity of information there is amazing.
There is an ad-free version for subscribers. It is generally used by citizen science weather geeks and scientists. Yet, the site could be made more accessible to non-technical uses. That’s the purpose of this study.

 

Each task required using specific skills and we had our own idea or expectation of the steps we would take to complete it successfully. In almost all cases, participants used a different path to reach their goal than we thought they would. Some still got to the destination, most did not complete task 1. These paths and failures were what was most interesting and offered deep insights into how the site could be improved based on common default behaviors.

 

Our participants were mostly female, for reasons I’m not sure about. These were the people who agreed to the study and weren’t culled out for one reason or another. A little less than half had use wunderground.com before, and age was somewhat biased towards the over 40 crowd. All rated themselves as web experts and had at least a bachelor’s degree.

 

Participants were impressed with the depth and aunt of data on the site, but were overwhelmed and intimidated by it. This made a lot of it inaccessible to them. The default wether maps that came up of their location worked really well to ground people in their own starting place. Also they were comfortable with the main location search bar, and gravitated to that when they felt lost.

 

I swear I did not doctor this data. The ratio or previous users vs new users came out the same as the ability to perform the 3 tasks. This tells me the site has a pretty good learn-ability, but poor recognition—it’s not as self-explanatory as it could be. In addition even some of the veteran users didn’t think it was intuitive.

 

Satisfaction with the site is correlated with whether people completed their tasks and how much anxiety they felt while searching for the right information. Time on task is also a part of this perception of difficulty. The two people who dropped out did not understand the tasks.

 

The ads are necessary to support the site. Still, they add to the visual clutter, in this case visually overwhelming the complex data graphics being presented. Having to sort through a lot of information creates a high cognitive load. There’s also something called choice paralysis in retail marketing: if people are presented with too much information or too many choices, they often don’t make any at all. You could also call this multi-tasking, which research has shown is not efficient.

 

The ads are necessary to support the site. Still, they add to the visual clutter, in this case visually overwhelming the complex data graphics being presented. I was not shopping fro shoes while doing this. Having to sort through a lot of extra information creates a high cognitive load. There’s also something called choice paralysis in retail marketing: if people are presented with too much information or too many choices, they often don’t make any at all. You could also call this multi-tasking, which research has shown is not efficient.

 

Most people started out looking for a weather forecast 9 months in the future. This was a fascinating finding since weather can’t be predicted more than 5-7 days out. It seems to reflect the poor science and math skills taught in schools. Everyone looked at the 2015 or 2016 weather for that day. No one found the Average precipitation for August 21, 2017. It was hiding in plain sight in the data table.

 

This was an interesting sequence to watch, as a user wandered through several types of wether data looking for things, not knowing what anything is. She eventually did find the radar maps for her area, but through a maze-like roundabout path.

 

This participant missed the Webcam checkbox (in plain sight but very small) and found the Community photos near the bottom of the age. She thought she had found a photo of the sky over Melbourne (she didn’t ) but couldn’t be sure of where and when the photo was taken. Although she remarked that it was a cool image.

 

Success! Another participant found the golden easter egg. It was a moment of good feeling for her. One puzzle was the time difference. I chose Australia because it was likely to be daylight there when people in North America took the test. This person was not sure if the photo was recent or not.

 

The usability issues on the site are mainly a blend of two factors:
Site information architecture and typographic hierarchy is unclear. This plus the visual clutter makes it difficult to scan the data.
2. Most visitors seem to be hazy knowledge of weather, climate, math, and science in general. The challenge is to explain things to new and intermediate visitors in a way that does not impede advanced users.

 

This research was general and high level. We recommend more targeted research be done in the future on specific interactions to find detailed the best design solutions.
FIND seems to be the key word and find-ability was the point of each task. Finding things is the main goal of users on the site and was related to their satisfaction with using it.

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