Locating an App Within iOS is Too Hard

| Hidden Dimensions

“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.

Popular TMO Stories



You think THAT’S bad…

I’ve been jailbroken for a while, and when you jailbreak (and use tweaks like FolderEnhancer, which allows unlimited apps in folders, and folders in folders, etc), it doesn’t use the normal mechanism for storing where apps are (how can it). So when I bought my iPhone 5 and restored it from my the backup of my jailbroken iPhone 4, all the apps that weren’t in folders before I jailbroke (or were added after I jailbroke) were just at the top level, and it was chaos. I ended up creating Random N folders and just dumping apps in folders so that they wouldn’t go off the end of the 11 pages.

I now have maybe 10 “Random N” folders, and am really glad search shows which folder an app is in. However it’s not perfect. If more than one app matches, instead of giving the folder name, it’ll say “Top match” (tempted to create a “Top match” folder, just to thumb my nose at it!).

And after having the phone for over a week, I still have all these random folders…

I think a better choice for the UI for this is the right-arrow “more” button (like you see in Settings and Mail folder lists) just to the right of the folder name. But I agree that a better solution really needs to happen.

And… if they do that, maybe they could allow folders inside folders (if the phone will automatically open up the folder, why not?).


Another possible solution would be to enhance Siri to help with these operations. For example you could say “Siri, find application Foo” and it would reveal Foo in the home-screen.
Dare I say, Android has a slightly better way of dealing with large amounts of apps, in that you have one ‘master list’ of all your apps, arranged alphabetically, that you can call up when you need it, and then ‘curated’ pages of apps that you use a lot. This has the advantage of allowing you to have a very large number of apps installed without them having to live anyplace in particular. You only have to deal with ‘positioning’ the apps you frequently use.


I agree completely, and I don’t have nearly as many Apps as some. I should mention that the Spotlight search screen is next to useless to me. I’m a visual person. I remember that this App has a multicolored icon that looks like a PC board, that Game has a caveman on it, and this network App has a blue Splat on it . I don’t remember names at first. This is only made worse with Launchpad which has many more apps.

How about a Frequently Used screen with the 16 or 20 most often used apps that the system updates continuously. The App icon would still be where you left it as well. These would just be extra links of the Apps you use the most. I think this would solve a lot of the problems. I’d find it much more useful that the search screen. Alternatively the ability to let the device sort the apps automatically. Let it arrange them alphabetically, or, something I’d find more useful, by most recently used. Sure the icons would move but the stuff I used the most would always be on the first page. Once I stopped playing a game then that App would shuffle to the back. Oh and one page just for folders at the back or front.


Seems like the never-ending UI designer wrangle— Does the user want to open apps or documents/files?  The Mac OS has struggled with the same problem. Right now Lauchpad has put the emphasis back on Apps.  But very often I go looking for files and folders on my computer ; not apps. Very conveniently the Dock handles both - and very well too. It always fits on one screen.

Meanwhile I’ve got app overload on my iOS devices.  It would help if I could get rid of apps I don’t use such as Game Centre, Newsstand (Adolf spotted that one), iTunes, Compass and Passbook.

Dorje Sylas

This is what happens when you limit programs to 1 task, thus requiring 100+ “apps” to cover what one or two more robust programs would have been able to do.

What it sounds like is we need is to go back to a filter-able list akin to a iTunes play list, including “use” count (or total time used). Using GarageBand Loop browser like button to cut down by Keyword (tags).


Another way to think about this is in terms of the design requirements for a user interface mechanism. For example, in the standard desktop UI, pop-up menus work great if you only have a few dozen items in the list. Pop-up the menu, pick the thing you want, you’re done.  If suddenly the list you want to navigate has hundreds or thousands of items, a pop-up menu is no longer a good choice. You don’t want to spend the time scrolling, you need searching capabilities and categorization, and so on.
However, when you add the mechanism for dealing with a large number of items, you invariably make things slightly more complex and cumbersome for the case where you only have a few items.
This is another way of saying that User Interface needs to be designed with some sense of the likely magnitude of the data set the user will be accessing.
Now ask yourself, what percentage of iPhone users actually have hundreds of apps. It could be that the people for whom this is a problem are the outliers, and the current design is working fine for the majority.


My complaint has always been the “randomness” of how the apps are placed by default (which appears to be the 1st open “slot” at the time the app was downloaded).  The problem is iOS needs a means to sort the apps across screens.  If this could done and maintained automatically whenever a new app is downloaded I’d be really happy.
However, not everyone would want to sort their apps using the same method.  How about taking a cue from iTunes and providing the means to choose between a couple dozen sort methods to specify how the apps will be sorted?  One user could then go alphabetical by app title, another could sort by app type and date, another chronological, another in order of usefulness (how often that user accesses the app), etc.  This could be a preferences setting.


“Does the user want to open apps or documents/files?”

As a non-iOwner, I am curious as to how many iOS Apps produce documents/files as compared to mere results, like the weather, directions, etc.  Surely – and maybe with the exceptions of photos and a few reminders – apps that produce files should properly be done on a Mac, not an iAnything.  Maybe that doesn’t apply to an iPad, though.

Aren’t you iOwners asking rather a lot?

Lee Dronick

“apps that produce files should properly be done on a Mac, not an iAnything.  Maybe that doesn’t apply to an iPad, though.”

It is certainly easier on a Mac, more screen real estate, a keyboard, and a mouse or trackpad. However, I find my iPad handy for small jobs, jotting down notes, outlines, and such. For that sort of stuff I am using Pages with iCloud on my iPad and on my Macs. The iPad is very portable and when my wife drags me to the mall I drag along my iPad. I can park myself on a bench or at the food court and do some people watching while also doing some creative thinking.  I find my iPhone, iPad, MacBook Pro, and iMac to be tools that have some crossover, but are best suited to what is suited to them best,


Most people don’t regularly use more than a few apps, but over time can accumulate large number of them.  I tend to download a lot of apps when they are available for free, and then squirrel them away to check out later.

I’d appreciate a simple scrolling alphabetical list of all the installed apps.  If I couldn’t remember an app’s name, I could at least find it quickly by scanning the list (much quicker than going from page to page opening folders) .  Once found, I’d like the option of either launching or revealing its icon.
This list could be added to the “left” of the spotlight screen


Having eleven pages of folders of apps is a wates of time. You create your own problem. Do you really use all those apps? No. I sincerely doubt it. It’s just crap you’ve downloaded out of curiosity or whatever and you’ve never gotten rid of.I have two pages of apps and one page with two rows of apps in folders. That’s it. I keep on my phone ONLY those apps that I use on a daily basis or those that I need to have even if I don’t use them everday (like the Zip Car app or the Open Table app). A few games, and some news apps, you get the ideal. That’s it.  Ask yourself why you’re hoarding ELEVEN pages of apps? That’s excessive. and ridiculous. LIke I said, you create your own problem. Try cleaning up your phone, I think it will help you.


A way to deal with this right now, is to sort the apps by color. I have black/white, purple, red, blue, cyan, green, yellow, orange/tan, brown, pages, and so on through the spectrum. Odd colored apps that defy the scheme have their own page, along with games. As long as I can remember the color, I know where to find the app.


And with the iOS-ification of Mac OS, we’ll soon have multiple pages of icons on our Macs as well.  Whoses bright idea was it to make iDevices, and now our Macs look like Windows 3.1?

The whole grid of icons idea needs a reboot


I organize my apps into folders based on their function.  Photo taking, Photo editing, Drawing, Music Creation, Office Doc Editing, Social, Movies, etc.  I would like to be able to see a scrollable list of all my folder names and tap to jump to that folder.  Or at a minimum, have a list of the app categories that Apple already tags apps with and let me select a category and it shows me all of the apps in that category.  Tapping Photography would show me all apps on my phone that Apple has tagged to be a photo app.

The other problem with folders is that the app limit is so small (iPhone 4S only has 12 apps per folder).  I have several app categories that have many folders worth.  So I end up with folders named Games 1, Games 2, etc. and the folders can be all over the place.  I would love it if a folder could hold an unlimited number of apps.  Make the folder contents swipable to a 2nd, 3rd,... page of apps. Tap the folder, the folder contents fill the bottom 3 rows like they do now, but allow for the bottom 3 rows to be swipped to 12 more apps.

The other huge problem with folders is how small the collapsed folder icon is along with the tiny label underneath.  Not only can I not see what apps are in a folder because the 9 tic-tac-toe micro icons are so small, but the label is tiny also.  It is forgivable on the iphone with a limited screen, but on the iPad, the folder icons could easily be twice their size with larger labels.


@ iJack.  If the iPad had the equivalent of a dashboard with widgets i could ditch several of my apps.  But you’re right- in many respects idevices are information display devices.  Nevertheless this “post-pc-push” is driving home the message that they can be used to produce files - even though there’s no file system.

Lee -  have you tried “Notability” from Ginger Labs ?


I don’t understand how hard it can be? You have folders, you have spotlight and you have Siri. How could they make it any easier on a 4” device?


Thank you for common sense!


As I have an iPhone 4 and recently upgraded to iOS 6, I was informed I would get Siri. Being excited and clearly disregarding what I was told when I bought it (that it would not support Siri) I had simply expected to ask Siri to ‘open’ - ‘BBC News App’ or whatever I liked? Can 4S and 5 models not do that as standard? I get from @bp that it is possible but I am not sure what the rest of the comments are trying to do if it is that easy, but similarly agree with @toasted (a good spring clean of apps you haven’t opened in the last 6 months will show clearly what you need and what is pure luxury (its that stat that you wear 20% of your clothes 80% of the time - same for apps I reckon).

Joe Ferguson

I would like to see a list view option and categorized into the default categories that iTunes has with no limits on how many apps are in a given category.

Log in to comment (TMO, Twitter or Facebook) or Register for a TMO account