Moving Things Around: How to Efficiently Organize iPhone Apps

Wednesday, 07 October 2009

A few months ago, Fraser Speirs — developer of the Darkslide Flickr app — wrote about what's on his iPhone. It really got me thinking about my own iPhone app organization strategy and how things could be done more efficiently. What follows is an outline of my method for organizing iPhone apps and why I use it.



I'd say that most iPhone users I know haven't bothered changing their home screen, let alone their dock. For some reason this is Apple territory. This must be my most important stuff since Apple set me up this way. Many people just remember where a new app lands after they download it, and it stays there. Any time they want to use it, they end up hunting for it until it's launched. This really hit home for me when a new site called "First & 20" was recently launched. First & 20 showcases a "collection of iPhone Home Screens from some very talented designers, developers, and tech writers." I was very curious to see how these power users — or, at least what I had perceived to be power users — had chosen to organize their iPhone, but what I noticed was that few of them had made any significant changes to the default home screen that shipped with their iPhone. Mostly they had simply rearranged apps or had replaced one or two apps with those that they knew they needed on the first page.

On the other end of the spectrum are the few people who do try to organize their iPhone Apps. Usually they start off by categorizing their iPhone Apps and then putting those categories into pages. This is what I did after getting tired of trying to remember where an app was when I needed it. It's generally a good idea and I think it works well for most normal iPhone users. The problem is, I am not a normal iPhone user. My iPhone is a huge part of my workflow (and playflow) and I spend a lot of time on the thing, so getting the most out of even the smallest interactions with it really adds up. I need fast, predictable access to my most used apps.

Utilizing the Built-In Shortcuts

The iPhone comes with different "buckets" and/or shortcuts for accessing your apps.

In order of priority, they are:


  1. Double-tapping the Home button: This should be your most used app. (Or the app that you need fastest access to.) Unfortunately, it's limited to Phone Favorites, Camera or iPod (and search, but that's not really an "app" per se) at this time. Hopefully one day Apple will open this up and allow you to use any app in this position, but for now, those are your only options.

  2. Dock: This is the next fastest place to access apps since you can get to them no-matter what page you're on. These four slots should be filled with your next top four priority access apps.

  3. First page of apps: Version 3.0 of the iPhone OS enabled another handy shortcut. You can get to your first page of apps from any other page by simply single-tapping the Home button. Therefore, the first page of apps should be filled with your next level of important apps. I call these the "essential" but not necessarily "urgent" apps.

  4. Other pages: This is where you can go back to categorized app pages. For example, I have a page dedicated to just games. These are non-essential but you want to have them all organized and in one place so you know where to go when you need them. Grouping similar types of apps together helps you remember where those lesser-used apps hide. If I'm looking for a game, I know it's only a few swipes away on the games page.

A note on the Spotlight Search (introduced in 3.0): I go back and forth between how I feel about the usefulness of the Spotlight Search as an App Launcher (a la Quicksilver or LaunchBar). I suppose that if you had very many apps and/or pages this might be more helpful but I find that the precision needed in typing out an app's name while on the go just isn't justified when I could do the far-less precise action of screen-swiping to the page where the app is located. But of course, that's only because I have a good idea of where all my apps are. (If I didn't have a good idea where everything was, searching for an app would probably be the only reasonably fast way to find it.)

The key to fast, predictable access to your apps really is organization. With this setup I find that I spend most of my time on the first or second page of apps with only minimal need to access other pages. A trip past the second page usually means I'm looking for some specialty app that I don't use nearly as often.

On To The Examples

First and foremost it should be noted that I use the built-in iPhone camera a lot. It may not be my most essential app, but it's definitely my most urgent app. When I need it, I want to be able to pull my phone out of my pocket and have the camera up and running as soon as possible so that I don't miss whatever it is I'm trying to photograph. That's why I've set the camera app to come up when I double-tap the Home button. It's the fastest way to get an app launched and luckily it's one of the three built-in apps that are allowed to be assigned there.

Secondly, my dock houses Phone, Mail, a Twitter client (currently Twitterrific 2.1 while I wait for Tweetie 2) and Things. Definitely my most used apps. I try to keep any apps that have a notification badge on the first two pages since those are the two pages I'm most likely to notice.

Here's a quick breakdown of the rest of my pages:


Page 1: Essentials

Most of these are used several times daily. Tumblr, Birdhouse, an RSS reader (currently Newsstand while I wait for the next version of Byline) and Instapaper Pro are all used heavily on my daily commute to work via the glorious bus. QuadCamera is also here because next to the built-in photo app, I probably use this camera app the most and I like having quick access to it.


Page 2: Widgets/Second importance

Used daily or every few days. These are usually apps with one or two very specific functions. Yes, I realize that half of this page is filled with photography related apps. What can I say, I take a lot of photos with the iPhone's built-in camera.

You might be wondering why the Groceries app is here. Well, although I may not go grocery shopping every day, if I realize that I need to pick something up at the store, I'll add it to my shopping list in Groceries right away. Having relatively fast access to this page makes this quick and easy to do. (Which means I'm more likely to do it.)


Page 3: Reference/Third importance

Generally used weekly or a few times a week.


Page 4: Games

Yay, games. (Mentally, this page also acts as a faux-end to my app pages. Anything I use often should be before this page.)


Page 5: Misc/Occasional

These are apps that I very rarely use but I want to keep on my phone so I don't have to re-download them to use in that rare instance I might need it.


Page 6: App Graveyard

This page is for apps that I either a) can't remove because Apple won't let me, b) don't currently use, but want to check out again if there's an update, or c) don't need to have access to by hitting the actual icon.

For example, I never use Voice Memos. Ever. So it's on this page since I can't actually delete it.

Part of the reason I keep Byline, Tweetie and Birdfeed here is because I want to be notified of updates to these apps so I can check them out. It's a constant battle between Byline's speed and Newsstand's feature set; Tweetie's speed, Twitterrific's feature set and Birdfeed's elegance, etc. Keeping them here keeps them out of the way, but I'll still get notified when they get updated. Unfortunately Tweetie 2 will be an all new app so I won't get notified when it's updated. Regardless, I still use it on occasion — mostly to lament Twitterrific's scrolling performance — so it stays on the phone.

Tweet Push sends me Notifications of @replies on Twitter and then launches my Twitter client of choice, so it can do its job perfectly well on the last page without getting in the way of anything. And since the Camera app is set to my double-tap Home button action, it can stay here and keep from taking up valuable space on another screen.

A Couple of Last Tips

If you use your phone a lot on the go and wear headphones, don't forget that you get an extra button on the headphone wire. This is really handy since it can be used to control the iPod application in the background without leaving whatever other application you're in. I use a Shure Music Phone Adapter with my SE-530s. It's a bit cheap feeling but it gets the job done and adds the correct overall cable length when hooking it into the SE-530 cable without the extension cord.

Also, don't forget, this is just a snapshot of what my apps look like today. One of the really important takeaways from this whole thing is that as apps move up (or down) in importance, their position in the shortcut hierarchy can change as well. For example, if I'm expecting a package or two, I might move the Deliveries app to the second page for easy access.

So far this is working quite well. If you have any other tips, I'd love to hear about them.