Locating an App Within iOS is Too Hard

“The best way to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear is to start with a silk sow.” -- Norman Augustine

On the Mac, finding the location of an app and running it has always been trivial. However, in iOS, finding the exact location of an app isn’t so easy. And it’s getting worse as the iPhone screen grows and the number of apps we have increases. The whole apps-on-a-page system needs a tune up.


When the iPhone first launched in 2007, it made perfect sense to have a grid of apps on a few screens. Tap the app and it launches. Swipe to see some secondary pages. Easy.

Five years later, things are different. The iPhone 5 has another row of apps, and with 11 pages of folders, one can have thousands of apps on an iOS device. If one wants to verify that a particular app is installed, reassign an app to a new folder, or simply inspect the icon, it can be very hard indeed to locate the position of an app. For example, as your collection of apps grows, you may need to create new folders, rename folders and reassign apps to different folders. If you can find them.

Where was that app again?

Launching an App

Of course, launching an app is easier than finding it, and one might almost surmise that the iOS philosophy is exactly that -- it’s more important to launch an app than to know where it is. Except for those people who need know where things are.

The first attempt to deal with this was in iOS 3, Apple added a Spotlight search. You get there by quickly touching the Home button when you’re on the Home page. It looks like this:

Spotlight page finds an app, sort of.

There, you can type in the name of an app (if you can remember the name), and then touch the result. The problem there, as I see it, is that the app instantly launches without first showing you where it was, page and position. In iOS 6, one minor change adds a label to show which folder the app is in (see above), but that doesn’t help you know which page that folder is on. So you still have to go hunt through every page to find that folder, assuming you’re on a mission to find where the app is.

Swiping through pages to find an app or a folder is a huge waste of time.

Another way to launch an app, starting with iOS 6, is to use Siri. Simply say something like, “Launch Settings,” and Siri will run that app.

Again, these methods are a workaround. If it’s hard to find the app on the pages or in a folder, then it needs to be easier to launch. Oops. That’s a band-aid approach.

iOS Knows But Isn’t Telling

The fundamental problem, it seems to me, is the whole idea of having to swipe through multiple pages in order to find an app, if that’s how you want to do it. In other words, why supply an affordance that invites one way of thinking, swiping pages to find an app, and then develop iOS methods that either steer one away from that or make life difficult if one does want to hunt and peck. Some outsiders have affectionately called it “whack-a-mole.” Ted Landau also delved into the situation awhile back in a piece: “Hoped-for iOS 6 fixes for search and navigation.

Another problem that’s a result of this grid and page mechanism is that one needs a Mac/PC and iTunes to easily, reliably reorder apps amongst all the pages. The business of touching and holding an app icon as it’s dragged across multiple pages on an iPhone is error prone and tedious. Worse, the visual scrambling of apps on the pages that pass by is alarming, not to mention the possibility of accidentally creating a new folder if your finger slips. A newbie will wonder: What just happened? Where did my app go?

In short, iOS is getting bogged down and needs fresh UI thinking.

One idea that Ted Landau mentioned to me, for finding an app, is very nice. On the Spotlight page, if you tap an app that’s been found, it launches it. But he proposes that if you tap and hold en entry, it takes you to the page on which it resides. I would further suggest that, if the app is inside a folder on that page, the icon begins to blink rapidly. The app has been located.

End of the Line

Apps reside in places. We swipe to see those places, so it’s only natural that we use that facility. However, when confronted with hundreds or maybe even thousands of places, other methods must be used, as a crutch, to find an launch the apps. That’s fine, but we still visit those places and do housekeeping. Accordingly, if one has a mind to use the geography of an iOS device to locate, identify, sort, file and generally manage apps, then finding them (as opposed to launching them) shouldn’t be so hard.