Rebuilding the toy box

Tech Life

In the last weeks, I’ve been reading a few contributions to the argument ‘The iOS Home Screen is broken and needs a rethinking’. I have already written something about it, but I wanted to delve into it a bit more, trying to ask some challenging questions to those who voice their dissatisfaction with this allegedly problematic iOS Home Screen yet don’t seem to be clear about exactly what kind of changes they’d prefer.

Most of iOS’s interface is a container, a toy box defined by its contents. Look at your iPhone or iPad and mentally remove all the applications (toys): what’s left? Very little. It’s like a big folder with zero elements. The interface basically consists of icons you push to get what you want. It’s also modular: you extend it by adding applications (both in the sense of new software and new uses/features).

In the beginning, iOS had only two major layers: the Springboard, showing all the installed apps, and the Application layer, that is whatever you see when you’re inside an application.

Then, after the launch of the App Store, and as more and more apps were created and made available, some adjustments to the toy box (I prefer this term over ‘container’) had to be made, because having screens over screens of apps was quickly getting unmanageable from a usability standpoint. So Folders were introduced. Perhaps for some it hasn’t been an elegant or definitive solution, but at least has mitigated the problem (I had reached nine full screens on my iPhone before, now I’m down to five).

Then multitasking came, and with iOS 5 Notification Centre came too, so that now iOS has four major layers (from top to bottom):

  • 1. Notifications
  • 2. Springboard // 3. Multitasking tray
  • 4. Applications


Now, in my opinion, Apple has managed to do something incredibly difficult: on one side it had to make the toy box more complex to accommodate new features and keep it manageable as users pour more applications into it; on the other, Apple has been able to maintain the user interface as simple and as consistent as possible. Compared to the first-generation iPhone, very few new gestures or commands have appeared during these years. The learning curve has remained consistently low. Yet, feature-wise, if you put the first iPhone with iPhone OS 1.x and an iPhone 4S with iOS 5 side by side, there’s an abyss between them.

Let’s get back to iOS’s interface as a container. As I said before, an iOS device without applications is an empty shell, with an empty screen save for a status bar at the top. Some of iOS’s main functions, when it comes to user interface and interactions, are:

  1. Providing a way to organise and arrange its contents
  2. Providing a way to manage active applications (multitasking)
  3. Providing ways to handle documents and data produced by applications
  4. Providing ways to handle certain data across applications (e.g. copy/paste)
  5. Providing ways for applications to communicate/interact with the user (e.g. notifications, statuses, etc.)

Of all these functions, only No. 1, 2 and 5 are pertinent to the ‘iOS Home Screen is broken and needs fixing’ argument. iOS’s model so far has been quite simple: everything is built on applications represented by icons, virtual buttons you push to activate. So, if the Home Screen is broken, how can you fix it, how can there be innovation without changing the model? And if the model has to change, what is a better (simpler, more usable, friendlier) model? I may have missed something, but I can’t think of any change in iOS’s model that doesn’t also complicate things conceptually, visually, and gesturally.

iOS and iOS devices need applications to have sense. So the interface has to deal with them one way or another. It’s a touch interface, so the ‘apps as buttons to push’ makes sense. Then you have more apps, more buttons you need to arrange inside the toy box; if you want to change the Home Screen, you have to introduce some change that is bound to be disruptive in a way or another. Some people seem to like the idea of introducing app icons that are more informative and animated, like the Live Tiles of Windows Phone 7. Sure, I for one think that it’s about time for the Clock icon to start moving and showing the current time. It’s 10:15 since 2007! Same goes for the Weather app, stuck at “Sunny — 23°C” since forever. But any more than that, and you have to increase the icon size to be able to show more detailed information.

A ‘simple’ change like ‘let’s make the icons bigger, animated and informative’ is likely to create a snowball effect. Do you make all icons bigger, allowing any application to have its icon with such characteristics? That means changing the whole iOS UI. Or do you change just the Home Screen, transforming it into some sort of powerful mix of Dashboard-like live widgets and Notification Centre? The tradeoff of such a change would be interesting: on one side you could have areas where apps show live information which could also work as a shortcut to the apps themselves (like Weather and Stocks in Notification Centre); on the other the Home Screen would get in the way if you want to have quick access to certain favourite and frequently used apps, especially if the Home Screen allowed only for a limited range of widgets to choose from.

A few days ago, Shawn Blanc wrote:

If I were a betting man, I would wager that the iOS Home screen as we know it today is not Apple’s long-term plan. My hunch is that the Home screen is still the way it is because the long-term ramifications of what it could be are huge.

A reimagined springboard is a prime opportunity for significant innovation. And significant innovation takes time.

Rebuilding the Home screen isn’t just about increasing usability. It is also about innovating at that “front-door interface” of how and where we get to the stuff on our devices (you can hardly do anything on your iPhone without going through the Home screen).

My hunch is that the Home screen is still the way it is because it has come to a point where there’s little room left to innovate inside the current model. What’s faster than seeing an app icon and tap on it to launch it? We are back to my previous question: if the model has to change, what is a better (simpler, more usable, friendlier) model? When you think about possible alternatives, remember that there is a delicate balance at stake here, the balance Apple has been so good at maintaining so far: increasing functionality without complicating the user interface and user interaction. Remember that iOS’s interface is what has won lots of non-tech people and has shown them that computer and devices can be friendly, useful and fun to use. Any future innovative move has to take into account all these factors.

What’s my take on all this, anyway? Believe it or not, I don’t think iOS’s Home Screen is as problematic as many seem to argue. The room for innovation inside iOS, in my opinion, is somewhere else, more behind the scenes than in the foreground. If you go back to my list of iOS’s main functions, those where I see room for improvement are No. 2, 3 and 4. As an improvement for 2 — Providing a way to manage active applications (multitasking) — imagine an enhanced multitasking that gives you the ability of having two apps opened at the same time, side by side (or up and down, in portrait mode). On a powerful iPad 3 with that high-definition Retina Display, it doesn’t look so far-fetched. Imagine having Pages and Safari opened side by side, importing images from the Web into a Pages document simply by tapping-and-holding, dragging and dropping from one app to the other.

As an improvement for 3 and 4 — Providing ways to handle documents and data produced by applications and providing ways to handle certain data across applications — think of iCloud. Think of an iCloud layer working as a connective tissue among apps to handle their data and providing an easy interface to interact with documents in a more cohesive manner. (This idea came to me when I saw the iCloud document storage interface in Mountain Lion).

Usability isn’t necessarily something that has to be visible in the foreground. An evolutionary step for iOS now could be in the way some things work under the bonnet. While as for the Graphical User Interface, at this point I think that any step forward has to be a revolutionary one.

The Author

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