UI Playgrounds

A retrospective on how fertile ecosystems drive design experimentation

June 7th, 2021

I was recently given a design exercise to update a Twitter app and I was instantly struck by the throwback nature of it. I haven’t thought about 3rd party apps for Twitter in a long while and it made me realize a few things about how underlying business factors can drive design experimentation in non-obvious ways.

For those that don’t know, 3rd party apps were a UI playground from the early days of Twitter’s existence, thanks to a relatively open API and exploding community interest.

It was a truly exciting time for indie developers and businesses alike as Twitter matured from an app to a platform and then eventually it’s own medium, with a vibrant smorgasboard of different apps tapping into the feeds. You had productivity-centric business apps built on Twitter like TweetDeck, as well as fun consumer timewasters like the Spymaster role-playing game.

Then, as Facebook’s walled garden grew to dominate advertising and eyeballs, Twitter responded by trying to also become a closed platform, clamping down on the extended ecosystem in an attempt to drive eyeballs to their own apps instead. Among other things, they severely limited the API to cap the amount of data you could access and kneecapped the aspirations of indie developers hoping to develop the next big thing.

Out were the fun distractions and vibrant playground, driven out by the impossibility of viral apps. Now you’d be punished for creating something popular if you couldn’t afford it. The slow unstoppable commercialization of the web marched on…

App Store & Subscription Pricing

But wait. There’s another chapter in our story: the rise of weather apps for native mobile, a new vibrant ecosytem driven by Apple’s changes to their app store pricing.

After the API crackdown, indie developers didn’t continue creating Twitter apps and turned their sights to other areas to ply their trade instead. Burned by the twin flames of restricted API access and the inherently non-commercial nature of social media, they began looking for more useful ideas that regular consumers would actually pay for.

Recently, Apple responded to developer unrest of their own by allowing subscription pricing. This was a huge development for indie devs in particular, since the app store was littered with free and 99 cent apps. It made people unwilling to pay more upfront for apps that were priced sustainably and were more than mere timewasters.

Now, with subscription fees encouraging the slow build of consumer audiences and indie devs looking for fun areas to exhibit new thinking, the two trends collided and smart indie developers tried their hands at re-imagining the stock apps that shipped on the home screen, venturing into areas that were previously untouchable. Messaging, photos, notes… and the weather.

So that's the abbreviated story on how weather apps became the new UI playground. It feels like every week I’m seeing a new one featured on blogs, whether hyper-accurate apps for data nerds like AccuWeather, or fun playful ones that emphasize quick bites of info like HelloWeather. The weather topic on Product Hunt is dozens of entries long and has thousands of followers!

They all have access to two things that Twitter devs don’t anymore: unrestricted data and consumers willing to pay for it. Hence the Cambrian explosion of interesting approaches we’re seeing now.

AL ABUT is a product designer & startup veteran.

Follow @alabut on Twitter.