The Weather Channel revamps Android app for booming userbase

The weather is in an almost constant state of flux, but the Weather Channel's popular Android application hasn't experienced significant changes since 2009. Until now, that is: The new Weather Channel App 4.0.1, introduced this month, brings a radical redesign highlighted by more efficient access to current weather conditions and forecasts, brief narratives detailing what to expect (e.g., "dry conditions will continue" and "expect rain until 4 p.m."), new localized maps, weather-triggered visual backgrounds, expanded video options and social media sharing.

The free Weather Channel App is launching in partnership with sponsor Toyota and introduces new full-screen ad units dubbed "branded backgrounds"--weather-triggered, dayparted promotions deeply integrated into the app experience. The Weather Company and Toyota also will roll out co-branded promotions running across multiple TWC properties.

Cameron Clayton, president of the Weather Company's digital division, spoke to FierceDeveloper contributor Jason Ankeny about the overhauled app, grappling with Android fragmentation and the illusion of perfection.

Cameron Clayton

   Cameron Clayton

Cameron Clayton on the decision to redesign the Weather Channel App: Around the end of Q3 or the start of Q4, our Android app took over from our iPhone app in terms of active monthly users. We now have 18 million active monthly users on Android, and about 17.5 million unique [visitors] on iPhone. That was a wake-up call for us--we expected Android [eclipsing iPhone] to take another 12 months to happen.

We knew we didn't have the product we wanted in the marketplace, so I challenged my team to re-imagine our Android experience, to make it new and make it top of the line. I also said "Let's re-imagine how we do mobile advertising--let do it much better." Anytime you completely re-imagine an app and a business model, you upset a few folks along the way. But I'm very bullish on what we've accomplished.

It's a whole new app. The design is all new. The most important thing for users is that we're giving them new capabilities to understand their environment in a better way. The app includes a new technology called TruPoint that enables us to tell you to the minute when it will start raining and when it will stop--for example, the rain will start at 1:30 and stop 1:41. It's that precise. It's a major leap forward in the science of weather and weather forecasting. The app also shows what we call projected path to give you sense of timing for when weather will hit.

All of these things were designed to make the app much better and more informative. To me, it's all about telling really great stories. These tools enable us to tell a better story.

Android - Weather Channel Snowy

The Weather Channel app is in partnership with Toyota.

Clayton on developing for Android: Android fragmentation is still the single largest hurdle for developers, including us. It's a real bear, and it needs material change sooner or later. It's disincentivizing developers to build for the platform.

We're fortunate to have the resources and the scale of audience to build for each of the different skews. But we've been forced to make some hard choices--we're supporting some tablets, but not all, and we're supporting some skews, but not all. There are six or seven too many [laughs].

There are innate challenges with any open-source OS that hard to overcome, but Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) has been an amazing supporter throughout this process, and they're doing whatever they can to help wherever they can. It's a very reciprocal relationship--we actively participate with them in a number of forums that allow us to give feedback, and they actively seek out our feedback and apply it. It's not just big publishers like us--they do it with some of the smallest publishers and app developers, too.

The problem is that the scale of the Android OS means Google is working six to 12 months into future, and we're working on an app that's going to come out in six to eight weeks. These are hard problems, and there are not any simple answers.

Clayton on the importance of user feedback: When I took this role a year and a half ago, one of the first things I did was change the way the digital group is organized. We went from a waterfall approach to management to changing the whole group into agile teams with seven or eight people each, like Navy SEAL teams that go out and take a hill.

User feedback is a big part of what each team does. We had hypotheses about what we thought we should do, but we put out mocks and prototypes to test them, because things change in the real world. We made over 200 changes to the finished product--things that are so obvious that we can't believe we missed them, to smaller things. One example is location management--users can add and delete locations, and we thought it [was] really easy. But the add/change function is below the fold on some devices, so people couldn't always find it. So we put it at the top, no matter what device.

[A revamped iOS app] in the testing phase as we speak. It won't be a mirror image of the Android app. We're still putting it together.  

Android - The Weather Channel cloudy

The new app has weather-triggered visual backgrounds.

Clayton on reconceptualizing mobile ads: As we talk to our clients about the challenges facing mobile advertising and how make it better, two things came through loud and clear. One is that the Weather Channel has amazing context: When all the data is put together, it's exceptionally powerful to consumers. The other thing we heard is that we need a bigger creative palette to tell our stories, using sight, sound and motion, and integrating it all into that context. The branded backgrounds we launched are all weather-triggered. They actively change in real time.

Toyota has been an incredible launch partner. They instantly got the combination of context and the improved palette, and how to tell their story to the user.

Long story short, we're in Chapter 2 of the mobile advertising story, but it's a 100-chapter book. We've acknowledged there are more and better solutions that can be brought to market, and we want to lead.

Clayton's advice for aspiring mobile developers: "Done and launched" is better than "perfect." You never get to perfection.

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