Two weeks ago we asked you to brainstorm with us about how to create a new weather index or scale that will be used to communicate our weather forecasts. Many of you responded with excellent suggestions, and I'd like to respond to some of them here and add my own thoughts on where I think this endeavor should go. This continues to be an interactive exercise, so please keep those comments coming.
The goal of the index will be to add value to our weather forecasts by making them more meaningful to you in an innovative and entertaining way. Ultimately, the index would help further define our forecasts and this web site, keeping us a cut above other forecast outlets in terms of providing useful information with a sense of style.
Right now the index is still at the conceptual stage. My hope is that through this column and your further input we can move this forward and roll out a rough draft of the index by the end of April.
One of the common threads that ran throughout many of the comments two weeks ago was that there should be a way for the user to calibrate the index to their personal weather biases. After all, one person's idea of great weather may be another person's atmospheric nightmare.
Personally, I have a very different definition of good weather compared to most people, having spent some of my happiest moments in life getting pinned to the ground by 90 mph winds and freezing rain on top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire.
Making the index interactive to take into account each user's weather preferences makes a lot of sense. It would help us make sure the index is meaningful rather than assuming tastes and preferences, which could result in alienating users. For example, if the index were to simply rate cold and snow lower than warmth and sunshine, it would probably offend snow-lovers, who are emotionally frayed from this winter's snow drought.
Several users offered up suggestions for what an interactive index should look like. For example, "rtwx" said that we should create a set of "weather types" that users could pick from based on a set of criteria, such as liking or disliking stormy weather.
Other commenters, such as "Kenny," also suggested making the weather index interactive, rather than an icon that appears on the screen without any input from the user. "Jake in Reston" presented a great analogy in favor of the interactive approach by likening it to "something along the lines of the build-your-burrito calorie counter that Chipotle's website has."
Jake also suggested that one of the screening questions that could be posed to users in order to assign them a weather type would be to ask them about what kind of activities they have planned for the day.
This would go a bit too far, since it would be nosy and cumbersome to ask readers on a daily basis what they're up to. That would be the web site version of my parents, who always want to know who I am text messaging at any given moment when I am home for a visit. "No one you know, Mom."
The last thing the index should be is a deterrent to users. Therefore, if we were to pursue an interactive approach that would require assigning weather personality types, there would need to be a way of letting users opt-out of providing their weather preferences.
Some questions that could help in assigning weather types may include a query about a user's average commute time and typical means of transportation. That way an individual's weather preference and daily routine would be included in the weather index to make for a more meaningful product.
Some commenters thought that the issue of subjectivity should instead be sidestepped by keeping the index as simple as possible. "Hymncat" said the site should steer clear of a scale that would be based in part on an emotional response from the user, writing, "I'm wary of anything which presumes an emotional response to a given weather condition."
The simplest option I can think of would be to assign a numerical value to each day, and I proposed this idea in my column two weeks ago. However, after giving this more thought I don't think this is the right way to go. It's just too simple. What value would this add to the forecast?
I agree that the index should not be overly complicated, but if we were to avoid any consideration of peoples' emotional response to the weather, then that would overlook a core component of how people experience the weather on a day-to-day basis.
Another idea that resonated with me was that of a weather threat index. Some government weather web sites already provide a threats breakdown, but they're quite complicated and largely meant for emergency managers. For example, check out the NOAA National Weather Service web site in Paducah, Kentucky (thanks to weatherdudeVA for the tip). It's innovative, but hard to figure out at first glance. We already provide a breakdown of severe weather impacts when conditions warrant, so I'm not sure where a daily threat assessment briefing would come in handy, except for our readers at Langley and Fort Meade.
In summary, we have an exciting challenge in user assisted development ahead of us, and you've provided enough information for us to get started. It's my hope that you'll now write in with more thoughts on where we should go with this via the comments tool, and also feel free to email us.