Home Improvement

Modernizing the iPhone Home screen

Nine years after launch, the slab of icons that is the iPhone Home screen is dated. Granted, there have been incremental improvements — multiple screens, folders, Notification Center, Search, Quick Actions — but they all amount to fiddling about the edges of its X, Y, Z dimensions.

The fundaments of the Home screen have never changed.

And that’s okay. You don’t just mess with one of the most visited screens in the world. Apple is smart to evolve the core experience conservatively while exploring new idioms and arrangements in peripheral sandboxes like Search and Notification Center.

A tale of two Search screens. Fraternal twins you keep mistaking for identical.

But those secondary screens have grown crufty and ambiguous (two Search screens?). And at this point a modern home screen ought to be more than a digitized keypad with apps for buttons. It should hand you the information and apps you need when you need them.

After nine generations of iOS, it’s time to retire Home Screen Prime, harvest the fruits of those peripheral sandboxes, and redesign the iconic screen for contemporary needs.

So I did.


Before getting into it, though, it’s worth taking a look at what initially motivated this exercise: a specific itch I’ve wanted to scratch for some time. An unnecessary friction in the everyday flow of moving among apps.

When you’re in an app and want to escape to a different app, you have two main options. Press the Home button and rifle through your Home screen(s) for the app. Or double-press the Home button and flip through your recently used apps in the app switcher. In my experience the app switcher tends to be the better bet, thanks to temporal locality.

If you studied computer science, you’ll recall the principle of temporal locality: the more recently a resource has been used, the more likely it will be reused soon. Canonically, this pertains to storage & caching algorithms but it applies up & down the stack and manifests in the core iOS UX as the app switcher — a sequence of apps ordered by recency of use.

It’s a nicely evolved piece of work, the iOS app switcher. A carousel of screenshots capturing the state of each app as you left it. When it first opens, the app most prominently afforded is the one temporal locality would predict you’re most likely to need: the last one used.

The app switcher. The previously used app is initially the largest tap target.

The app switcher also slips the current app (from which you’re escaping) into the first slot of the carousel. And if you glide past that you’ll see a screenshot of your Home screen in the zeroth slot — a nice entry point to your app library should you realize the one you’re looking for wasn’t so recently used.

But clever as it is, the app switcher drives me bonkers.

First, it’s slippery. The carousel spins so fluidly I often end up in a series of back-and-forth course corrections to finally target the app I need. Annoying, but perhaps just a matter of fine tuning the scroll behavior.

Second — and here’s the rub — the app switcher is a royal pain to access.

Double-pressing the Home button is a delicate operation.

You have to not only overcome the natural impulse to deliver a single, satisfying press, but you have to get the timing and pressure of the double-press just right or risk triggering Siri (long press), Reachability (double tap), or the Home screen itself (single press). I’ve been burned enough over the years I’ve developed an actual aversion to double-pressing — despite finding the app switcher generally more useful than the Home screen.

But how much more useful really? My intuition said plenty but I had no data. So I recorded my own usage to find out.


For one day, I logged my escapes from app to app via single-press to the Home screen and via double-press to the app switcher.

I also logged what I call misguided escapes. That is, going to the app switcher for an app I hadn’t used that recently, or to the Home screen for an app that I had.

I escaped to the Home screen more often. But the app switcher would’ve been more useful more often.

Of 33 single-presses to the Home screen, 12 would’ve been better off as double-presses to the app switcher. That’s 36.4% misguided single-presses.

And of 21 double-presses to the app switcher, 2 would’ve been better off as single-presses to the Home screen. That’s 9.5% misguided double-presses.

If I’d pressed optimally for all app-to-app escapes that day, I would’ve used the app switcher 31 times versus the Home screen’s 23. The app switcher would’ve been more useful more often — yet is harder to access.


One person’s one day of self reporting is, let’s just say, limited. But it was enough for me to explore some design implications. First and foremost: what if recent apps were afforded on single-press? And since whatever screen appears on single-press is the Home screen, the question became:

What might a modern iPhone Home screen look like?

What would a Home screen look like that affords recently used apps and assimilates the riper fruits of the peripheral Notification Center and Search screens, without overhauling things so radically as to send a planet of thumbs into whiplash?

I think that it would look something like this:

Bringing it all back home. Recent apps, notifications, complications, search.

Search

At the top is Search. Straight from the ambiguously redundant duo of Search screens — which can retire to /dev/null.

Affording Search on the Home screen would radically improve its discovery and regular use. And for good reason. Universal search has been convenient across web, maps, and the app store, but it really levels up as more apps hook into it. It’s like searching your entire device.

It’s also great for exhuming old apps like that barcode scanner you suddenly need but can’t remember where you stashed it.

Complications

Below Search is a section containing two small widgets exhibiting a new format. This section supplants the Today tab in Notification Center.

The Today tab is cumbersome. I want the contextual dynamism it promises, but I’m repelled by its unwieldy widgets. The problem lies in the huge canvas available to developers — they can basically build mini-apps and so they do — and the solution lies in severely limiting that canvas so designers must present the most critical nugget of info in a dense, efficient treatment. Leave complexity to the app itself, which would open on tap.

This is essentially what complications do on Apple Watch, and quite nicely I think. The term “complications” is from horology, but if Apple can repurpose it for their watch, I reckon they can stretch it a bit farther for vernacular consistency across device categories. Or would that be a grave horological offense? (yikes!)

Weather and Calendar complications are shown in the mock, and I imagine those would be the default. But Apple could offer plenty more, and open the section up to developers for a new form of Home screen customization.

Notifications

Notifications are front and center here, commensurate with their emerging status as a platform for opportunely surfacing the functional essence of an app, and reinforcing this design exercise’s theme of affording the apps you need when you need them.

But persistent notifications on the Home screen is a non-starter if iOS can’t make it super easy for folks to cultivate their personal notification zen amid the Cambrian explosion of apps competing for attention. At a bare minimum we need an entry point to an app’s notifications settings in the notification itself rather than exclusively in Settings.

Inline menu entry point for tweaking an app’s notification settings

Recents

Recent apps live at the bottom of the Home screen, in thumb’s reach of the Home button that was just single-pressed to get there.

I’ve mimicked and resized the existing app switcher for this feature. Other formats could be explored — a list perhaps? — but one nice aspect of the carousel format is the elegant entry point to Apps.

Apps

Despite advocating a new Home screen, I don’t advocate fully eliminating the old one. It just needs to be relocated and renamed.

s/Home/Apps

The Apps screen (or Launchpad for consistency with OS X, but really they should both be named Apps) is, for many, the trusty junk drawer you rummage through for that thing you know is in there somewhere. It can be messy but useful. A natural complement to Search. And a familiar fallback that would ease the transition to a new Home screen for many.

In addition to having a convenient visual entry point on the new Home screen, Apps could be reachable by single-pressing the Home button while on the Home screen. Or, indeed, by double-pressing it at any time.

Siri

Beyond Notifications and Search, another peripheral experiment ready to graduate to the single-press Home screen is Siri.

The long press to summon Siri is nearly as annoying as its cousin double-press. And a device constantly listening for “Hey, Siri” is creepy.

Instead, what if the device automatically listened for “Hey, Siri” only while on the Home screen? Makes sense if you think of the Home screen as the default place to look for or summon… anything.

And for those of us who refuse to say “Hey, Siri”, what if you could also conjure it by simply bringing the device to your ear while on the Home screen? Talk to your phone as a phone and stop looking troubled in public.


One final aspect of this concept worth highlighting is its extensibility. Not just via Complications but in how the screen is sectioned.

Sectioning the screen in a simple vertical fashion would empower users, organizations, and Apple itself to make the best Home screen they can.

Individuals could choose which sections belong on their screens, and in what order.

Organizations could deploy custom sections to employee devices for one-press access to critical information, people, and process.

And Apple could use Home screen sections to continue sandboxing experimental functionality and formats across iOS generations, evolving those that show promise.

And retiring those that grow antiquated.

Like, say, Home Screen Prime.

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