Should We Organize Apps by Color?

The iPhone is a great piece of kit, no doubt about it. Apple’s iOS 7 is the gold standard for interaction design and its app market is the envy of every product company on the planet. It is therefore quite bewildering that the company has not been able to provide an adequate system for categorizing and finding those applications. Sure, iOS 4 introduced folders, however much like Apple’s oft-criticized photo categorization, the iOS folders fail to provide any context or meaningful cues to the contents within.

Folders in the physical world help to organize loose-leaf sheets of paper or documents, a collection of one-offs or similar documents. This concept translates well into the desktop world where one-off documents can be grouped with other similar documents and given a label to help you retrieve them at a later time.

I would argue that folders on a mobile operating system do not work and are in fact a lazy application of the folder metaphor. Apps are not like those photocopied receipts or draft blog posts, but are in fact more akin to books, entire end-to-end experiences designed from top to bottom including the cover or app icon. We don’t put our books in folders or boxes unless they are going away for long-term storage. Our books are often displayed proudly on a bookcase much like apps on our home screens.

If you buy this line of thinking you may be intrigued by a current interior design trend of organizing one’s bookshelf by color. On the surface this may seem like a ridiculous method for organization, however, I suggest that organizing your phone’s apps by color offers the following advantages.

1. Natural order. Maintenance becomes much easier and less cognitively taxing. Since the color spectrum is borrowed from nature there is a set order for organizing apps, and nothing is left to subjectivity. The phone will also take on an organic feel as it begins to mimic nature.

2. Faster recall. Muscle memory requires that the operation we want to remember is repetitive, that it supports learning, and is focused on a task (Designing with the Mind in Mind, Jeff Johnson). Color coding your apps supports muscle memory as it supports repetition (you see the apps in the same place each time), fosters learning as each app icon is exposed to reinforce its existence, and since your behavior to find and open an app is entirely task-based, all of the elements for muscle memory are in place.

3. Aesthetics and performance. Your phone will look much better and, since we know that things that look better work better, you are actually improving your phone’s performance. (Emotional Design, Don Norman)

If you find yourself struggling with how to organize apps, you should give color-coding a try. Organizing your phone’s apps by color takes the effort out of categorizing and finding your apps, makes your phone look better and may even improve your device’s performance.

About the Author

Dustin Chambers is lead experience architect at EffectiveUI, where he leads both client engagements and design to create transformative user experiences. Dustin’s passion for design lays in his deep-rooted desire to solve problems that help make the world a better place. He enjoys working on projects with a large human value component.

A skilled user experience (UX) designer with an extensive background in human factors, psychology and design, Dustin firmly believes that user-centered design can change the world for the better. Prior to joining EffectiveUI, he held senior UX strategy and design roles at Factory Design Labs, Local.com and UserWorks. During his career he has contributed UX design to major client initiatives, including work with Amtrak, AstraZeneca, Boeing, NASA, NIST, Oakley, Ogilvy and The North Face. Dustin also previously worked in the UX Mobile division at Samsung, producing projects for touch and non-touch devices.

Dustin earned his Bachelor of Science in psychology from Frostburg State University and a Master of Sience in human factors from Loughborough University. Born and raised in the U.K., he now lives in Denver with his wife, daughter and two dogs. However, he remains a borderline fanatical Newcastle United FC supporter.

About EffectiveUI

This article first appeared on the EffectiveUI blog.

EffectiveUI is the go-to UX partner for high-technology companies, including industry leaders within aerospace and aviation, biotech and healthcare, consumer and industrial electronics, defense, energy, financial services, software and telecom. In making technology more useful, useable and desirable, we help our clients reinvent significant aspects of their business — from the experience they provide to customers, to the tools used to streamline operations, to the products brought to market. We work collaboratively with clients to solve complex business problems and drive transformation through four tightly integrated areas of expertise: user research and insight, digital strategy, UX design and UI development and integration. Learn more at effectiveui.com.