July 17, 2023

Balancing abstraction and detail. Or, why I love weather radar.

Sometimes abstraction is good: I don’t care that much about where the next train is; I only care about when it’s coming. When my computer updates, I mostly just need a little bar to make me feel like it hasn’t frozen.

Then there’s stuff that you really don’t want to be distilled. How much flour is in the cake recipe? Where does the screw go on that piece of furniture? I want to know exactly what’s happening here.

Weather is one of those things in between.

“Did you ever cancel the bar mitzvah because of the barometric pressure?”

That was a punchline on a stand-up tape from comedian Jackie Mason that we played on countless road trips when I was growing up. Mason complains about weather reports, “Is it hot or cold? Why are they mixing you up with all kinds of information because the weatherman has to make a living?... The wind is northwest but then southeast. Who cares? Do you care?”

Most of the time, we just want that. Is it hot or cold? Should I bring an umbrella? That’s pretty much it 90% of the time.

But when there’s a lot of weather, like a summer thunderstorm or a nasty blizzard, we benefit from getting into the weeds. This is where one of my favorite little tools comes in handy: radar.

The app I use is called MyRadar, though there are a number of tools out there, both free and paid. You pop it open, see bands of rainclouds swirling around you, and become an amateur meteorologist in an instant.

This is overkill on most days, but a lifesaver when you’re huddled under an awning deciding if you’ll make a run for the subway, or trying to figure out of its worth pulling over to the side of the highway while the monsoon passes. And regardless if you’re throwing a backyard BBQ or a gigantic music festival, every event host benefits from this level of detail.

By tossing aside the abstraction, you can see how big that cloud is, how fast it’s moving, and how long you will be at its mercy. It’s empowering, and I love it.

Information designers spend a lot of time figuring out what level of abstraction to represent in the tools we use all around us. Abstraction is how we got graphic user interfaces (GUIs) that made computing accessible to the masses in the 1980s, and then a generation later, how Apple designed iOS to make it so easy that toddlers can easily poke around iPads.

But the best designs present as an iceberg: show me the simple top-line information up front, but give me the ability to dig deeper when I need to. Complexity is not at odds with simplicity – balancing both is often the most important part of design.

(Turns out I'm not the only one checking the weather app more frequently these days.)

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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