How Smartphone UI Should Work

My current home screen

Grids of app icons drive me crazy. It was bad enough when they were an unruly mess of random colors (or blue) coated in sticky-looking gloss, but it's even worse now that they're all flat, white patches with something blue in the middle.

The problem is that these icons do not neatly correspond with the actions I want to take from my phone, and since they're so indistinct, I end up staring, studying my home screen when I should be doing something and then putting my phone away. That's frustrating.

Since app economics are driving big platforms like Facebook and Google to unbundle their services into a bunch of little apps, the problem is getting worse. Now, not only is the starting point for actions less clear, the various starting points are taking up home screen space and crowding out all the other things I need to do with my phone.

There's a much more sensible way for a phone OS to work. There are probably a variety of Android doodads that already work this way. A few things would need to change about iOS for it to work, and it's a radical departure, but this actually feels like a more Apple-esque interaction to me, and I sincerely believe it's the right way. So if I were a different Jonathan, I would rip out Springboard in iOS 9 (or, hell, iOS 8) and do it this way:


Sound |  Text  | Photo

  Map |   Pay  | Video

   files   |   apps

The unlock screen should look just like the new post screen of Tumblr for iPhone. This app has been doing it right for so long, and Apple should have been raining down design awards on it ever since. When you unlock your phone, you should be presented with all the basic kinds of actions you can take with your phone. They'd have awesome icons, but I am a word guy, so words will have to do:

When you tap on one of these icons, the OS should do everything in its power to make your next action be the task at hand. When you tap 'Sound,' the microphone should open. 'Text' should open a text field. 'Photo,' the camera, and so forth. Then you take the action immediately, and when you're done, you choose a destination app. The app then launches straight to an action on your input. Each action screen should also accept voice input ambiently.

The top row, 'Read,' 'Watch,' 'Listen,' and 'Play,' are for media and games, so they would show menus. They'd show recent items you were already watching, reading, or listening to, as well as notifications of messages (which would leave badges on the corresponding action menu icon, too). Finally, you could pin favorite books, sites, movies, records, games, or apps to those screens. You could, of course, immediately say "Play Osmos" to launch the game straightaway.

A key OS feature that iOS would need to make this UI sing would be the freedom to choose default apps for certain actions. If you didn't choose, the best choices would be displayed intelligently, but if you always want to launch Camera+ when you open the camera, so be it.

The two drawers at the bottom, for files and apps, should cover the rest of the cases. When you hold down on either of those, a menu should pop up showing groups: media/file type on the left, app category on the right. Launching an app from the apps menu would be an alternative way into any action you'd be able to take from the action menus.

If I haven't thought of everything, please educate me in the comments, but this seems pretty ideal to me.

For now, the existing app that brings the iPhone closest to this way of living is Launch Center Pro(disclosure: I have proudly done paid work for Contrast on Launch Center Pro and other apps). It works around the limitations of iOS that prevent us from living in the world described above in every possible way. I urge all iOS developers to build extensive, powerful URL schemes into their apps.

For the past week, I've been working with a totally clear home screen, starting almost every action from Launch Center Pro in the dock. My LCP actions are organized into groups that correspond as closely as technically possible to the above list of actions. I keep communication apps with notification badges on the second page. (The only reason Vesper is in my dock is because it's not yet compatible with LCP.) I've shared screenshots of my Launch Center Pro setup if you're interested.