The Inelegant iPhone Home Screen

A simple hack for those of us drowning in apps

Four hundred nineteen apps

That’s how many I’ve tried in the last three years… depending on how you count friends’ TestFlight demos and whether two dozen Flappy Bird clones really qualify as distinct.

I don’t just rapidly install, try, and delete; that’s fine for a game, but not for a social or productivity app that’s meant to become part of your life. But that means I have… sort of… a lot of apps installed at any point in time. And if they’re all buried out of sight, they have no chance of being used casually and serendipitously, like they’re meant to.

Organizing a metric buttload of apps

Example: this is my “Social” screen; that emoji by “SOCIAL” is pretty much a photorealistic image of me.

Here’s how I organize hundreds of apps so that I actually notice and use them, and don’t forget they exist in an unending sea of screens.

Hint: “folders!” is the start of the answer, but far from the end of the answer.

“Misc” is a catch-all.

I’m an iPhone app developer. Ever since I quit my job as a high-frequency trader in 2013 (yes, at one of the companies discussed in Flash Boys), I’ve been catching up, and trying to keep up, with the world of apps. (Especially educational apps, but those tend to be tablet-based so you won’t see many on my phone.)

I’ve met scores of folks who make apps. I’ve visited app shops like the ones that make Yahoo’s Finance and Screen. I’ve worked on an app that summarizes the weather for you in the morning (Dayo), an app for chatting pseudonymously with a group about any topic (Underground), and an app for making Kindle-style highlights and notes in real-world books (eHighlighter). Plus a good half dozen apps that never made it out of alpha.

And I’ve tried out a good 419 apps, according to iTunes.

Designing for serendipity

In our information-overloaded lives, there’s no way to read everything, remember everything, sort everything. We have no choice but to wade into the chaos and immerse ourselves. But we have guiding principles that can help us keep the noise at bay and hold onto some signal. One of the most important is to design our lives for serendipity.

“Office” is a vague group; these are my outwardly “boring” applications (which I find deeply thrilling!)

A bookshelf in your home is a classic example. You don’t have any specific plan to read A Visit From the Goon Squad or Cryptonomicon. But you keep it where your eye is sure to glance at it every month or so, figuring that when the time is right, you’ll pull it off the shelf.

Plus, if you organize your books just a tiny bit — foreign language books sorta here, guidebooks near those, two travelogues spilling onto the next shelf, with a novel about Mexico thrown in — then when you reach for the São Paolo guidebook, you’ll notice that textbook about Brazilian Portuguese you forgot you had. Plus maybe Pelé’s memoir.

Staring into the abyss

The danger with having tons of apps is that you’ll forget they exist.

Finally, this is my home screen. For me, Evernote and Kindle are the only non-default apps that make the cut. The “My Apps” folder is great for quickly showing people my stuff, and the “To Try” folder helps me keep track of the competition.

Not just, “What was that Mario Bros.-style game that the Ridiculous Fishing guys made again?” Not just, “Wasn’t there some cool programming app for kids I wanted to show my daughter?” But forgetting even to ask, “Where else can I try sharing that selfie I just took?” “What else is happening in photo sharing?” And oh yeah, “What can I use to decorate my photo before it goes up?”

For each of these questions, Apple’s approach is to assume you remember the name of the app you’re looking for, and then search for it; or that you will group them in folders with titles like “Photo” and “Shopping”.

30 apps before breakfast

That’s fine for the typical user, who has about 30 apps installed. (For 30 apps, I recommend following Gina Trapani’s “Good tools have verb based interfaces”.) But what do you do if you have far more than 30 folders?

My “Games” page; note the separate “To try” folder, starred so it’s easy to find

You could browse around until you find the right folder. But now you have the problem that you don’t remember if you even have a “Selfies” folder. And if you place a sorta-selfie app like Frontback in a “Photostream” folder on a separate page, you might never look at it when you’re thinking about selfie apps.

After all, it’s far from obvious what you should call any given folder, and boundaries between types of apps can be fluid. When you forget that an app even exists, you’ll probably never find it — even when you’re looking for that type of app.

You could throw every social app into a huge “Social” folder, but then you just have the same problem over again — scrolling through screens and screens, trying to remember the difference between Dwell and Swell and Tell and Shell.

You need an approach more like a bookshelf.

Apple don’t tag

Those of us who have learned to organize our life’s information around tags — whether our gateway drug was Evernote, del.icio.us, Workflowy or something else — find it hard to go back to anything more hierarchical.

It’s incredibly helpful to have development-related builds and tools in one page.

A wonderful aspect of using many fine-grained folders to organize apps is that the folders allow you to associate a specific category with small numbers of apps; as you can see, I find this useful even with folders containing a single app, as a way to sort of pseudo-tag it with descriptive text.

And of course, you can make a folder with nothing inside it at all — or at least, nothing but a common web bookmark —and use it purely as a label.

How to make elegant homescreens

The elegant homescreen is based on the ability to make folders with no real apps inside, which act as page titles for each screen page of the homescreen.

Having these in the same place on each screen — eg., the upper-left corner — enables you to rapidly scroll through your different topic screen pages.

Step 1: Make a folder with a dummy bookmark inside (since iOS folders need something inside or they disappear).

Go to any site whose favicon isn’t going to annoy you. Tap the Action button in the middle to bring up the Action menu:

Step 2: Tap “Add to Home Screen”:

Step 3: Click “Add”. Don’t worry about the name of the shortcut; it’s just a placeholder:

Step 4: Repeat 1–3 to make another bookmark like this.

Step 5: Long tap and then drag two of them together to make a folder:

Step 6: Name the folder how you like; I like all caps and an emoji, to make it stand out.

Ben Wheeler is an independent developer and teacher in Brooklyn. See more about him (me?) at techno-social.com .

Cover photo by Walter Benson, Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Independent programmer, chatterbox. http://techno-social.com

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