Digital Anthropology

What’s on your home screen?

I always look forward to whenever I travel, particularly when I am going somewhere on a plane. Obviously, travel and vacation are great and clearly are the primary draw here. However, to me, there is some supplemental benefit in the form of seeing how others engage with technology to pass the time while in transit.

Think of this as a sort of digital anthropology.

Source + iPhone as my own edit, not part of the original (duh)

As someone who works in the technology sector and spends a great deal of time thinking about special purpose programs that can help optimize my workflow, it can be really easy to fall into the trap of what I find personally “cool” or useful for my needs to be a good metric for what makes an objectively good feature or product. Most people don’t interact with technology as the primary purpose. It is for most people merely a tool to achieve something specific. It is the means to an end, and any bonus features they don’t need or flair on top of the core experience can harm the utility of the thing rather than enhance it.

It is important to every once in a while take a step back and remind yourself, “I am not the customer”, and to think critically about what the actual customers that are your reason to come to work truly need. By working on and being an expert in whatever space you focus on, you are already working with assumptions and knowledge that your customers do not understand or have an appreciation for. This is what leads users of a product to exclaim, “what idiot decided to make it work this way?!” Typically, the truth behind this is a smart team with the best of intentions having to balance multiple considerations that the customer never has to think of. That said, this is not to excuse bad design and unreliable products, but to highlight the importance of getting it right.

When you walk down an airplane aisle, what do you see?

Airlines are moving away from headrest screens since most people bring their own, anyway. Probably for the best. (source)
  • Are people using traditional laptops? What are they using their clamshells for? Are they using a privacy screen protector? Is there duct tape over their webcam? Is it clear that it is a personal device, or one provisioned by their workplace? MacBooks or ThinkPads?
  • What about iPads? With or without keyboards? What accessories are they sporting?
  • Did they opt for entertainment provided by the airline? Does the airline still provide headrest-back screens? (Probably not.) Are the Digiplayers or something similar popular?
  • Are they using a phone?
  • Are they plugged into power? Or do they wish they were?
  • What are their headphones of choice? Noise-canceling? Bose? Beats? The EarPods that came with their iPhone?
  • Who is actually paying for the Wi-Fi?

All of these questions are a tiny piece of information about that specific individual, and in aggregate can lead to some interesting insights about technology as the world actually experiences it. For example, when the Surface Pro 3 launched, it was everywhere at Microsoft (naturally) as part of the IT department’s deployments, but it took quite some time to see the device being used on airplanes by members of the public. And, once these devices started becoming more commonplace, what were people doing with them? Were people using the touchscreen Windows Apps that Microsoft has been hoping will gain traction? (naturally: no)

In my own experience, everyone I have ever seen using a Surface device in public is invariably doing some sort of Office-oriented task just as they would on a traditional laptop or desktop and do not utilize Windows Apps, the touch screen, or the pen for writing content. External USB mouses are terribly common, too. At Microsoft, we seem to find a way to work all of these features into our daily rhythm, but it is abundantly clear that using ourselves as a litmus test for our customers is not representative and therefore misguided.

The fact that people just want traditional form factors of computing hardware to get things done was tacitly admitted as the Surface Laptop was unveiled in early May: no fancy flip-around keyboard attachments, no detachable display, no forced pen or touch interaction — just a laptop. And you know what? It looks great, and has been pretty well-received by the media. The primary open question that many want to know is how the fabric based palm-rests will hold up over time, and having to “care for it like a luxury handbag” is a recommendation unlikely to resonate with the masses.

From the Surface Laptop product page

Accessories are also a really interesting area, since the ones people seem to buy are rarely made by the manufacturers of the devices themselves when seen in the wild. It tends to come down to what is convenient, such as what happens to be on a kiosk stand next to where they are making their purchase. Most people opt for an iPad case from a firm such as Incase or OtterBox rather than the Apple-official option. For example, I know exactly which case Verizon Wireless tries to sell to people who buy iPhones from them, so when I see someone sporting this particular case in the wild, without knowing anything else I can be almost certain I know who they buy cellular coverage from.

It is an interesting dynamic where people will spend hundreds of dollars on devices and stuff them in cheap plastic cases that were not envisioned by the creators of the device. However, metal and glass are fragile and do not handle the rigors of daily use all that well, so we feel pressured to protect our devices in ways that their creators did not necessarily intend.

Devices and their accouterments aside, what do people actually do with them?

Here are the home screens for the two main mobile devices I use:

My primary home screen on my iPhone 7 (my daily phone), and on my Android test device I use on occasion.

The former gets more use than the latter, as the iPhone is the one where my SIM card actually resides. The apps on the screen and how I have chosen to lay them out tells you something about how I use the device, and what matters to me.

My home row on my iPhone can be pretty plainly explained: I need a web browser to get to things; Facebook Messenger is the easiest way to get in touch with any arbitrary person or group of people; iMessage is the easiest way to stay in rapid communication with specific people; and I’m a slave to email, so Outlook needs to be accessible. Yes, I’ve kicked the Phone app off the home row since I do not use it frequently, but I keep it on my main home screen so I’m never struggling to find my Phone app on my, you know, phone.

My Android device is a bit less carefully thought out as I use it less, but you will notice there is a complete absence of the calling and messaging apps since I do not have a SIM card in this phone, and stick to Wi-Fi only activities.

Especially on iOS, those four apps in the dock are essential, and used all the time. In iOS-land, there are two types of users with regard to this canvas:

  1. People who stick to the default layout of Phone, Safari (web browser), Mail, and Music
  2. People who change these four apps for others of their choosing — and, more interestingly, what they change these four apps to from the defaults

I do not have data handy to back this up (Apple only does), but I would venture a guess that most people fall into the second category, if only to punt the Music and/or Phone apps from the dock to make room for iMessage (how interesting is it that in 2017 that the default SMS/IM application is not in the iOS dock by default?) and other chat-oriented apps, or perhaps the Camera app for folks who do not want to futz around with the quick-access methods provided at the lock-screen.

For Android, it is a bit harder to make generalizations on layout of icons insofar as what it means about the person using the device since many manufacturers customize the “flavor” of Android in a way that benefits them or their advertising partners. As a result, there are many unique and bizarre configurations of device home screens out in the wild, but many of these are due to the creators and sellers of these devices rather than their owners.

Let’s be honest: having an AT&T Settings app, a Samsung Settings app, and the Google/Android-native Settings app all at the same time is absolutely user-hostile, and is only the way it is because of corporate agreements and money. As they say, “If something doesn’t make sense, follow the money.”

People Don’t Download Apps

By virtue of reading this, you are almost certainly in the minority subset of the smartphone-owning population. Here is some information that shocked me when I first encountered it:

Half of U.S. smartphone users download zero apps per month (source)

Could it be that usage of apps has largely hit a critical mass, and that everyone who wants Facebook and Snapchat have already installed them?

In addition to the fact that roughly 50% of smartphone owners are not downloading apps on a regular basis, more than half of all app downloads that do happen come from a paltry 13% of the smartphone owning population. You, reading this right now, given you’ve read this far, are almost definitely in that 13%.

This is a significant concentration of activity in a small group, a group to which I definitely belong. I have multiple hundreds of apps on my phone right now, many of which I have in a “testing” folder to see if they are worthy of a permanent stay on my device.

On top of all this, an amazing 13% of Americans don’t even use the internet in any capacity, and of those who do use the internet, an ever-increasing percentage primarily use their mobile devices as their internet connection. For many, the smartphone is their only internet connection at home (15% of 18–29 year old individuals have smartphones but no internet at home), their lifeline to an increasingly interconnected and digital world.


This is something that I just find so fascinating, seeing how others use technology for passing time, for work, and for anything else. By spending a lot of my free time thinking about technology, that alone disqualifies me from being able to as myself think on behalf of most people who use technology as they go about their day-to-day lifestyle.

By virtue of being in the software industry, it is a dangerous trap to lose sight of the fact that things that we absolutely take for granted (multiple people lately have asked me what Venmo is when I suggest it as an easy way to pay people, for example) are still novel and slowly being adopted by the broader population.

Mobile banking is something many take for granted, but this is still the stuff of science fiction to many. Some “anec-data”: a friend of mine was telling me how she was using mobile banking to quickly snap a photo of a check to deposit the funds, and this garnered a bemused look from a bystander who said something along the lines of, “I’ve always heard that was possible, but I’ve never seen anyone actually do it!”

Taking the time to interview and study customers as they engage with software you are building is of utmost importance, because if you fail to understand and address their very core, basal needs, any other work you do on top of that without starting in the right place is going to be a fruitless endeavor.

I do not necessarily expect to glean anything truly earth-shattering from my “field research”; it’s just something that I always find to be humbling and a source of continuous learning.

So if you ever catch me glancing at your phone, I’m not trying to see your passcode — I just want to see what’s on your home screen. 🤓📱


Next Post: Hey Alexa, Play _My_ Spotify Playlists


Thanks for reading!

Blake <@b_t_walsh>