Shane BarnhillMonday,29 April 2013

The Snap:

In recent weeks, Yahoo! (don’t worry, I’ll remove the damn “!” going forward — I hate it too) has not only released a new weather app, but has also updated its news and mail apps. The new releases come after Yahoo’s recent acquisitions of a handful of mobile-focused start-ups, such as Summly and Stamped.

The Download:

One usually associates great mobile app design with mobile-only or mobile-first companies such as Path or Instagram. But Yahoo? No way. In fact, a lot of web-first companies such as Facebook, LinkedIn — and yes, Yahoo — have struggled badly to transition their feature-packed website experiences into ones that make sense on smaller mobile screens.

Thus, it’s not surprising that the updated Yahoo Mail app is relatively uninspiring. Its best feature is a mode for swiping sideways to move between messages. Yawn. Welcome to 2011. However, the weather and news apps are not only beautiful, but they may just have vaulted Yahoo into a standard-setting position for mobile app design, due to Yahoo’s use of content overlays over background information and imagery.

The Yahoo Weather app accomplishes this overlay function by leveraging one of Yahoo’s best assets — the immense collection of photography on Yahoo-owned Flickr. Images from Flickr serve as gorgeous backgrounds for weather data that can called up by simple gestures. Upward swipes reveal information such as hour-by-hour temperature forecasts, precipitation projections, and wind speeds. Information for additional locations is found through sideways swipes. But somehow, despite all the data, Yahoo has found a way to employ a very minimalist approach for presentation. As John Pavlus writes in the MIT Technology Review: “No fussy gestures, no neato animations, no infographics to “explore”. No “interactivity” at all, really. It’s more a piece of graphic design than interactive design–and my God, I wish more apps were just like it. ”

And all of this occurs over the top of those sharp, professional photographs from Flickr. It’s a simple, visually-pleasing experience in every way:

Phoenix Phoenix - more data

Yahoo’s main (news-focused) app is a dramatic improvement over the prior version, which employed the drab white background with headines and hyperlinks that its website had offered up for years. The new app is more visually appealing, with of large photographs and overlaid text. But the most impressive feat is Yahoo’s incorporation of the news summarization technology (or rather, approach) that it obtained in March with the Summly acquisition. As Nicholas Carlson of Business Insider writes, “Summly was an app that skimmed the world’s sources of news, edited it all down to fewer words, and distributed it to readers in a personalized way.” And now that brevity-focused, skim-and-summarize approach is Yahoo’s, and it’s fantastic. It’s like Twitter for top news, but with pretty photos and a reduced need to click through to full stories.

Of course, Yahoo is by no means first with a layered approach for presenting information. Path has employed a flyout menu since 2011 that resides over the app’s content. Foursquare’s app floats its check-in button over the main screen. And the “Chat Heads” in both the new Facebook Home for Android and main Facebook app for iOS can be moved around over the top of photos, status updates and more (and even other apps in Android).

But Yahoo’s moves are significant. The company is no longer a mobile laggard, and given the company’s prominence and user base, it may even start to influence the direction of mobile app design. Whether Yahoo’s new approach is due to Marissa Mayer’s guidance or the infusion of new talent from Yahoo’s acquisitions, it’s clear that company’s decision-makers aren’t thinking of mobile in terms of a reduced set of capabilities relative to full-blown web properties. Instead, Yahoo’s designers are utilizing bold photography, data overlays and gestures that don’t translate well to larger screens. The experiences are decidedly mobile-first, and that’s just the mentality that a declining brand like Yahoo needs to turn its fortunes around.

If you’re a designer, then you should be watching Yahoo’s moves carefully.

Take Action!

Hat Tips:

MIT Technology Review, The New York Times, All Things D, NPR, Business Insider, TechCrunchImage Credit: Flickr

Subscribe to get updates delivered to your inbox