If you’re one of the millions of people who visits the National Weather Service’s website when things go downhill, you’ll notice that they’ve made some changes that’ll either make it easier to read their forecasts or confuse the everloving hell out of you. Progress!
The Last Update
The government’s agency of prognostication had the same website design for decades before it underwent its first redesign last year. Ignoring the old cliché “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” they overhauled and modernized their website to the point that it was practically unrecognizable.
The old website was an iconic mix of dark blue, gray, and white, providing all of the links and forecasts you needed in a compact, easy-to-read format. After the redesign, the website is now mostly white space with just about every useful link hidden behind an array of drop-down menus.
They updated the local forecast page as well, giving users things like current observations and the seven-day forecast in bubble boxes that required about two miles of scrolling to get to the bottom of the forecast. It was off-putting—especially for people used to the streamlined services of organizations like The Weather Channel or AccuWeather—and they half-solved it by making the site a little more compact in an update a couple of months ago.
Today’s redesign is completely focused on the local forecast page, with forecast icons and watches/warnings the focus of the sprucing-up.
The only things they didn’t touch in the 2014 update were the icons, which give you your forecast at a glance. You could waste ten seconds reading Wednesday’s forecasts, or you could look the icon for Wednesday that shows giant yellow ball with a cloud and a 20% next to it, and know that there’s a 20% chance of thunderstorms that day.
There was one problem, though—these icons looked like they were drawn by an abstract artist and uploaded to the internet from a Fisher Price laptop. They were blurry, vague, and created ambiguity, which are three characteristics you always want in a weather forecast. As a result of thousands of comments received by the NWS during a feedback period, they unveiled a new set of icons this morning.
Now when the forecast calls for clear and windy conditions, you can actually tell that they’re calling for clear and windy conditions instead of an army of giant windmills marching down a hillside to terrorize the village below. The redesigned icons are great, and the descriptions that will accompany them are even better.
Each icon in the “extended forecast” section depicts the weather every twelve hours, and they can be further divided down into six-hour blocks. If the weather is expected to change rapidly—say, clear in the morning with storms building in the afternoon—they can show you these changes with relative ease.
The new set of warning boxes is where we’ll probably see the greatest amount of confusion. In addition to the new icons, the local forecast page will now show you the type and duration of a warning in a series of threaded blocks that appear behind the icons. If there’s a hurricane warning in effect from today through Thursday morning, for example, they’ll show a red box behind the icons for Tuesday, Wednesday, and the first half of Thursday to show when and how long the warning is in effect.
It’s a great idea in theory, but it remains to be seen how it’ll play out now that they’ve implemented the change. The problem with these boxes is that when you’ve got really bad weather in the area—flash floods caused by severe thunderstorms that formed in a tornado watch, for example—you’d have layer upon layer of boxes with truncated text.
Here’s an example from southern Indiana this afternoon, where there’s a flash flood warning, a flood warning, and a flash flood watch in effect all at the same time.
The flash flood warning is in place for such a short amount of time that it only appears as an ellipsis in the warning box. When you click the information boxes for details, it tells you how long each alert is in effect—in this case, the flash flood warning stretched through 1:15 PM EDT.
If you have strong feelings about the government’s weather agency changing a couple of pictures and adding a few red boxes (we know you do!), you can email the National Weather Service at email@example.com and provide your constructive feedback so they can improve their products so they continue to suck just a little less than before.
[Images: weather.gov | Corrected to fix a broken image and reflect that the icons represent twelve-hour forecast blocks with six-hour increments, not six and three as originally stated.]