Designing Air Lookout

There were many design challenges and learning opportunities I experienced during this process, not all of which took place in Photoshop.

I spent a year of nights, weekends and what spare time I had to complete my biggest side project ever: Air Lookout. Not only did I have to majorly cut back on most of my hobbies, it put a lot of unnecessary stress on my relationships with friends and my significant other while I was working towards the first release.

Now, after all that time and added stress I am selling it for $1 in the Apple App Store. And, after launching earlier this spring, I just recently broke $100 in sales. To be clear: I am very excited about that $100.

I honestly didn’t expect to have more than $10 in sales. I sure hope to find a way to market and sell this app so that sales continues to grow, but a false promise of money or profit certainly wasn’t what motivated me.

Salt Lake City during a mild inversion causing moderate air quality

I love to learn and I’m naive

Outside of the long term goals of improving the environment and bringing awareness to air pollution, I wanted to learn as much as I could. I’m also incredibly naive. I had no idea I would learn that China produced 25 million tons of sulfur dioxide in 2006, or that the World Health Organization considers airborne particulate matter as a Group 1 carcinogen.

I also didn’t know that I would end up challenging myself to adjust the EPA’s Air Quality Index color scale to visually work and communicate for those with protanopia and deuteranopia color blindness (I did however receive final color consultation from my girlfriend Valerie Jar). It wasn’t easy, but it sure was fun.

The colors are one of the most important design systems I used in Air Lookout. I needed to make sure they would work even if users were color blind.

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises, what I thought should have been a known known, was how much building my own designs in UIKit would change my perception of layout on iOS. For a long time I have worked very closely with experienced iOS developers that are great at communicating with designers, but I really didn’t understand it until I built my own views. Even with just the basics under my belt, I’m more confident in knowing when and where it’s appropriate to push the medium or create a simple layout with solid design fundamentals.

The biggest hurdle, which I was aware of going into, was configuring a server to handle all the app’s requests and synchronize with the EPA’s API. This part alone easily took five times longer than I expected.

When I first wrote the EPA hourly data import script it took almost two hours to run. This isn’t particularly helpful for a background script that needs to run at least every hour. After rewriting the script more than 50 times over the course of three months, I got the execution time to under 30 seconds.

But, here’s the thing: these are all design challenges. Not once did I feel as if I wasn’t designing. If I didn’t understand the various pollutants and the difference between µg/m3 and pbb how could I create visual design solutions that explained their relationship? If I didn’t understand the data architecture how could I organize it for my users? These are all smaller problems that need to be understood to create the larger design solution.

In an ideal world, maybe I could hire someone more experienced than me to handle the programming and data modeling, but as a designer who wants to see his side project turn into something real I had to build it. All of it.

I’m excited to learn more (and stay naive)

There will undoubtedly be a lot more that I will need to learn with Air Lookout. It should be an interesting challenge for me to continue supporting an app, evolving the brand and figuring out how to market the app to a larger audience of users. But what excites (and scares) me the most is all the stuff I don’t realize I’m going to learn

With everything I learned, the result may not seem like much, but I feel confident that the design fundamentals are solid and will continue to improve the more I learn about air quality, the technical challenges and the possible visual solutions.

Thank you

I didn’t learn everything I mentioned above in a vacuum. I had lots of friends, family, coworkers and mentors that were able to help me in a multitude of ways. First and foremost I need to thank Valerie Jar for supporting me, understanding the late nights, giving lots of feedback and helping make the colors in Air Lookout really good. A huge thanks goes to Anson Schall. Without him, I would still be struggling to get through Swift “Hello World” tutorials and have no idea what database indexing is (he has a really good analogy, you should ask him about it). He sat through my ignorance and gave priceless technical and design feedback at coffee shops on dozens of ocassions in his free time.

I also had an awesome group of beta testers who would help me diagnose problems, give feedback and found a way to live through the late night Test Flight notifications. In alphabetical order: Eric Atwell, Matt Carney, Ben Cline, Alan Dangerfield, Jim DeBrock, Pedro Gomez, Dane Hanrahan, Tyler Kealey, Adam Luptak, Tyler Martin, Paul Mayne, Ben Mingo, Wes Pearce, Brijan Powell, Bryan Quello, Craig Ruks, Karl Weber, Mark Wills and Zach Wood. I also need to thank my growing group of real users. If you’re one of them: thank you.

Rally Banter: 02 — Side projects: When I started writing, I intended this to be a brief overview to our latest episode of Rally Banter (you can find that writeup here). But as I was listening and writing, I couldn’t help but become a little retrospective about what I have learned over the last year creating Air Lookout. A lot of the above topics relating to Air Lookout are touched upon (and others) in the episode. Listen and let me know what you think. With Rally Banter, we want to help showcase your side project before our show. Please share it with us at

Rally Banter: Episode 2 — Side Projects

You can support my continued writing and work by purchasing Air Lookout on the App Store. Thank you.

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