Tech Life Something to say

Rands Useful App Awards 2024

You’re not going with that title, are you?

I might.

There are no actual trophies or awards.

Correct. There are three Rands Useful App Awards this year, but before I award them, I will define the criteria I used to select these products.

  1. The application has substance. This is not a one-shot utility that does one thing well; the designers and developers have built an application, a service with deliberate weight. There is a richness in functionality and depth. This is because…
  2. The application effortlessly provides domain expertise. The humans who built this application care deeply about the domain for which this product was built. After you know the application, you think, “Gosh, I wish it does X.” It does X. It does Y. And it doesn’t do Z because you don’t need Z — what you need is Z++, and when you discover that, the application becomes indispensable because…
  3. Each of these products integrates many different data sources. This is not obvious to the end user because the designers and engineers have to great lengths to make this integration seamless and allow users to move between views of data effortlessly.
  4. A by-product of deep domain expertise is quality. A motivation to deliver a high-quality application or service can be created in many ways, but well-defined motivation comes from experts. The humans who understand the problem space and these humans will go the extra mile to ensure the product is built correctly and works as expected. They also…
  5. Obsess about every detail. Obsess? Too strong a word. Design, for design’s sake, makes the product approachable and perhaps more usable. Design motivated by deep domain knowledge gives each decision defensible meaning. When users encounter these design decisions, they think, “Uh, this product just read my mind. That’s amazing.”
  6. Finally, the product has voice. It has an opinion about what it is. This is the hardest attribute to define (and build) but the easiest to observe. When you fire up the product on your phone or web browser, the product has something to say.

With these attributes in mind, I give you the 2024 Rands Useful App Awards.

Really? Sticking with this whole bit? Ok.

Windy For the past two years, during the rainy season, I’ve been sending out an update to a Messages group composed of my Dad’s group. The point: give folks a heads regarding rain for the following week. A hyper-local forecast based on a handful of data sources. At the core of that forecast is Windy.

Weather nerds build Windy. Click on that link and observe the vast array of weather-related resources at your fingertips. Unlike WatchDuty, you’re on your own in terms of getting answers to your weather-related questions, but the answers are there in terms of wind, rain, temperature, cloud cover, waves, thunderstorms, air quality… and those are just the layers I can see in my current configuration. There are dozens more.

I augment my local forecasts with other sources besides Windy (Weather Underground is particularly accurate in my region), but Windy is where I start because Windy has a weather answer for everything.

WatchDuty WatchDuty provides a rich real-time map of nearby wildfires and firefighting efforts. This is probably less immediately interesting to you if you live somewhere with less combustible dry fuel, but we’re all going to care about this more over the next couple of decades.

Pre-WatchDuty, when a fire flares up nearby, you’ll spend hours discovering the following:

  • Major news networks are slow and lack detail,
  • Social networks are full of noise, and,
  • There is a dizzying amount of structured data regarding any fire in the form of maps, satellite imagery, weather forecasts, and other tools.

WatchDuty meets all the Rands Criteria™. I check the fire situation in California a couple of times a week, and — at a glance — I can quickly see hot spots in the state. It quickly conveys location, size, containment, and recent news updates. Also, seeing the real-time status of all aircraft involved in the fire is fascinating. These updates are the core of WatchDuty and are supplied by a curated set of reporters who are sifting through all the noises to find the best and freshest signal.

Flighty A recent addition to a familiar problem. Everything works when you’re flying except when it doesn’t. Complex systems fail complexly, and when they do, the difference between spending a night at a crap hotel in O’Hare and making the next flight to Newark is timely information.

Flighty will not rebook your flight to Newark, but Flighty will give you every opportunity to become aware of emerging complex disasters. The application crushes all the criteria listed above, but the outstanding aspect is, “These designers and developers fly. They fly a lot.” This is best demonstrated by the Flighy Passport, which clearly shows all your past flights, total number of miles, flight days, airports, and airlines. How do they know this? Because, of course, you put all your itineraries in TripIt, right? Of course you do.

The immense amount of pertinent travel information built into Flighy is staggering, but if you haven’t obsessively kept track of your travel for years, just put in the flight number of your next flight and see what Flighty can teach you.

A Function of Focus

I originally called these the Rands Indie Awards, and while each of the applications is some form of independent, I think the larger observation is they aren’t a product of a large company. Flighty looks like it’s three humans. Windy is owned by a billionaire but appears to be less than twenty developers. WatchDuty is a not-for-profit and appears to have less than twenty full-time humans.

Why is the size of the team important? The size of the team directly correlates to how well they can focus. For each of these products, it’s clear they picked a domain or a problem space they deeply understood, and with a small set of hands, they focused on building a substantive, high-quality product with voice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

3 Responses

  1. I forget where I learned of Windy, but it’s been a go-to for me for some time now. Just marvelous.

  2. Windy is seriously complex, with a confusing UI, but also really impressive.