00-all

It’s the very definition of a “first world problem”: you have way more iPhone apps than you ever expected to use, and finding the one you want is becoming more and more of a chore. So much so that you’ve resorted to using the search screen to find them by name – which is clunky and doesn’t help when you can remember what the app does but not what it’s called.

I’m a pretty logical and organized kind of guy, so my first pass at organizing my apps was by category. All travel-related apps on one screen, all entertainment ones on another, and so on.

That worked fine for a while, but as the apps and categories grew, it became less and less effective. That Entertainment category, for example, contained a mix of apps I used daily – like Music – with ones I used rarely, like iBooks (usually read on my iPad). Then there were those apps I could never remember how I’d categorized. Is Dropbox in Business, or in Network? Is my Meetup app in London or Social? And what about apps that span two or more logical categories?

So I recently tried a new way … 

Rather than organize my apps by logical category, I organised them by occasion. I have one homescreen containing only the (very few) apps I use frequently at home:

01-home

If you’re wondering why the Camera app belongs there when it gets used more outside the home, it’s because the phone lives on a dock at home/office, so the app is one touch away. When out & about, the phone is in my pocket, so it’s quicker to access it directly from the lockscreen. It’s thinking about usability rather than category.

Homescreen two contains the apps I use most frequently when out & about locally. Within the screen layout itself, there’s some categorisation. For example, Music and Podcasts next to each other followed by four transport-related apps together, but the apps span a whole bunch of categories.

02-out

I considered home screens for other categories, but decided that everything else could live in folders on screen three, and be quicker to access. There are then a few miscellaneous apps that didn’t seem to fit any particular category (and were typically the ones I couldn’t find when I forced them into one) that sit beneath the folders.

03-rest

And that’s it! The only other homescreen I have is this one, which is essentially just a way of storing the junk Apple apps I don’t use but can’t remove, plus the App Store.

04-junk

My dock then holds the four apps I use frequently no matter where I am: Phone, Messages, Skype and Settings.

Admittedly I have far fewer apps than some people. My iPad goes pretty much everywhere with me, so that’s the device that does the heavy lifting where mobile app use is concerned. It’s the reason Safari is relegated to an ‘also ran’ on my iPhone, and why only a small subset of my travel apps are on my phone. My iPhone has the apps I want quick access to without having to pull my iPad out of its bag.

But I reckon this approach – occasion rather than category – would actually work even better with more apps. You’ll probably also find that you delete a fair number of apps you no longer use as part of the rejigging process.

I’ve been running the approach now for several weeks. In that time, accessing the app I want has been both faster and easier – and I haven’t had to resort to searching even once.

If you try it out, let me know in comments what you think. And if you have a better way to organize your apps than either category or occasion, I’d be really interested to compare!

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47 Responses to “How to: Organize your iPhone apps with less logic, more usability”

  1. An Interesting approach! I’m a more visual person myself so I don’t feel this would work for me. I also find groups to be a fail, in that if something is in a group, it basically gets forgotten and is almost never accessed again (probably again for visual reasons – out of sight out of mind, etc.)

    I do think it’s a good idea to keep the number of screens to a minimum though. Any more than three or four and you are kidding yourself you remember what’s on them.

    I organise by category, (main, entertainment, games, and “other”) and then spend hours and hours organising within those screens to get some visual harmony going between the icons. It’s all patterns within patterns for me. :-)

    I find that once it looks good, I can remember where everything is without having to actually think about it.

    • And then suddenly Google updates YouTube and the icon changed from white to red…
      I am into visual order myself and I hope it will be better with iOS7.

      I have the first screen full of apps I frequently use and everything else is on screen two. So basically first screen visual order and second by categories.

  2. Jamey Howard says:

    Is this really a news story? Even if this was a conversation down the pub I’d be bored hearing about it, but an actual news story on a website? Jesus. Slow news day much?

  3. This is similar to the way the Getting Things Done methodology approaches tasks, slicing them by where you are (GTD calls it a context).

  4. Steve Grenier says:

    I prefer to organize mine in pages. I have a primary page, a tools page, entertainment page and games page. I try to limit how many folders, but each has an “extras” folder for apps that fit each category but are rarely used.

    • David Webb says:

      I like the idea of an “extras” folder. I have numerous apps that I like, but only use rarely. But I’ve never cared for the idea of a page-based organization; too linear. I wish iOS would allow folders within folders

  5. I use the category approach, which works pretty well for me. It looks like I also have probably three times as many apps as you do. I’m not trying to knock your approach, I actually like some of your ideas and similarly have a pretty sparse main home screen, but I can count on one hand the number of apps that are not in a folder. I even have folders in the dock (only two). I have been contemplating doing a little rearranging though and sorting the folders by screen category (or situation sort of like your method), but I like having only three to four screens. I recently got a used iPad 3 which I use completely differently than my phone (naturally) so I’m still trying to wrap my head around how to organize the (much fewer) apps on that.

    • Ben Lovejoy says:

      We seem to have opposite iPhone/iTablet approaches – I have lots more apps on my iPad than my iPhone. And I still have to come up with a better way to organise that, as my usage is different …

  6. This is actually how I organize my kitchen, much to my wife’s distress. But when she starts doing all the cooking, she can reorganize the cupboards.
    Within arms reach of the food prep area, I have all the non-perishable things I use most frequently. This means, for example, that most used-spices are separated from rarely used spices, which are in a less convenient cupboard. When I need one of those spices I’ll go digging for it.
    And lately I’ve been thinking “I should do this with my phone too” so this is very timely.

  7. Wido Poerwo says:

    i don’t usually post comment when reading 9t05 but this article caught me because I’m quite meticulous about organizing my apps. interesting method of yours but that won’t work for me because too many screens for my like, it doesn’t look as organized as i’d like. too bad we can’t post screen shot. i group my apps in folders, categorized them as with my own criteria. the ‘primary criteria’ is the row itself i.e. for chat & social i grouped the non-essential in a folder and leave three of my fav (path, instagram, whatsapp) out thus forming a row. i continued doing for that to the other apps and if you can visualize my best attempt describing it.. voila neatly organized 130 apps in only 2 screens. works very well for me in terms of usability & easy access because essentially you have 3 of your fav/most used apps on a single category. i’d rather flick a folder to open rather than swiping screens.
    and i can’t wait for iOS7 so i can put that ibook shelf in a folder!
    what works for me may not work for you of course

  8. Hardly a major problem that needs advice imho. I go by regularity of use, using folders within that. So the apps I use most often are nearer the front page and vice versa. Where I have more than one app with similar function, they go in folders such as “Camera” “Photos” “Social” “eReading” “Games” “Travel” “Banking” “News” “Notes” “Weather” except where one of them is the predominant app, in which case it goes near or on the front page.

    I do find it quite bizarre when I encounter someone who leaves their apps untouched since they downloaded them, and go through a search process every time they need to find one. I know several people like this ….

  9. I gave up organizing iOS apps. I organized my apps into folders and pages. Later I would hand the iPhone to my kid. Before handing it over I would enable parental censorship (no in app purchases, no 17+ content, etc..). Censroed app icons disappeared (as desired) so the kid wouldn’t see them. All fine. Then when I undid the censorship, the icons showed up in random places (instead of say, my news folder on page 1, Drudge Report app is now out of a folder on page 7). This is infuriating and the first thing Apple should fix. I also have to completely re-specify my censorship settings each time I turn them on. Double infuriating!

  10. I’ve been doing exactly the same since iOS 5. It works great!
    Maybe not exactly, but I put all the apps that I use everyday on the first page, I just had to make a social folder there. The next page has apps I use a little less frequently and so on

  11. I follow a similar logic, although I have far more apps on my home screen than you. I also took it to another level by putting the apps I use most in the areas easiest to hit with one hand. I also take into account how I would launch an app and the color of the icon in accidence with the icons around it.

    For example, maps or camera might need be launched very quickly and without looking so they are placed at the top along the edge where a less urgent app like Facebook, while used often, can be placed closer to the center because I would not be in a huge hurry to press it, I could waste the extra second for my eye to look for it. Along the same lines, settings are at the very bottom right so no matter where I am I know where to find it quickly at all times. Last, just to touch on color, I try to avoid grouping similar colored apps near each other to minimize confusion in the event i am in a rush. I put a lot of thought into what stays on my home screen and then the second page has a few lesser used apps like weather or movies at the top followed by folders which then separate items into categories.

    iOS7 makes searching much more accessible by swiping down at any time and by removing almost everything except for contacts from the search results (via settings) I can usually swipe down, press the first letter of the app I want and launch faster than looking through folders or extra screens.

  12. Why not make a folder in your dock? Saves up home screens/folders!

  13. wmilliam96 says:

    This is stupid, what a story!

  14. I have my apps organized by color. This makes it extremely easy to find an app because you will automatically remember each app’s icon anyway.

  15. Zeus Kronos says:

    I also use folders on the doc which greatly enhances usage
    [PHONE] [Social folder: iMessages, whatsapp, skype, mail, FB, TW, etc...including gamecenter] [Desk: with calculator, weather, calendar, notes...and related accessories] [tools: settings, browser, itunes, ibook, podcasts,maps, find my phone, appstore....]
    then on the 1st screen most important folders by activity, with some important icons directly.
    this speeds my usage patterns a lot

  16. Fao Dlis says:

    Organizing by category folders is the traditional approach. Organizing by occasion is interesting but why not take it one step further – organizing by frequency. I am sure we all have a zillion apps on our iDevice but probably only access a small portion of these on a regular basis, and an even smaller portion of those often, and all the time. This obviously changes with interests, priorities and as new apps appear. So you could organize apps by placing those you ALWAYS use on the first page (or in an appropriately named folder), those you REGULARLY access but not all the time on Page 2 (or folder), LESS FREQUENT, RARELY, TO TRY, and so on… in subsequentpages or folders. Even better, iOS8 could have smart folders that would help us with this task. Mind you this is just thinking outside of the box while reading this article and eating some pasta – I have not tried it yet, but… Who knows?

    • Ben Lovejoy says:

      This is more-or-less what I currently do on my iPad. Works fairly well, but I can’t help feeling there’s a better system …

    • David Webb says:

      I use a combination of frequency- and occasion-based organization. I keep a couple of folders on the dock, one called “Work Space” which contains writing, scanning, illustration, data access apps; and a “Quick Access” folder which contains most of the other apps I use often but in a casual (non-work) setting, like my favorite game, a music app, Facebook, etc. This of course places those folders directly reachable from any screen. After that I place other more frequently used apps on the first home screen, less used on the second home screen, etc.

      I think the most important thing to take away from this discussion is that there are multiple ways to organize your apps, and if folks are so inclined, they can find ways to optimize their access that fits their particular needs.

  17. I organize by _action_ via folders, and all on one page. Only my Dock icons are non-folders (ie, apps – Music, Newsify, Rdio and Mail). My folders, from top left to bottom right are: Eat and Drink, Get Fit, Jot, Listen, Look Up, Navigate, Organize, Photograph, Play with Kids, Play, Read, Set Up, Share, Shop, Talk, Travel, Treat, Watch, Newstand (ugh) and a remaining blank spot for anything extra. Sometimes Play needs two folders (Play 1 and Play 2) which then fills up the entire Homescreen nicely.

    Again, this is all on a single Homescreen.

    Occasionally, I’ll switch out the Dock apps based on what I’m using more lately.

  18. Where does Yelp go? Is it Social or Shopping? It’s the only app that I wish I could create a shortcut.

  19. Frank Lowney says:

    If you remember MacOS 9, you’ll also remember the Location function. Your idea is a good one but iOS won’t fully implement it because you have only one category per app. Yet, I use Mail in several locations. Thus, we need to be able to alias an app to more than one location named folder.

  20. Nice to read.
    Myself I use the same method for the home screen. A few apps I use a lot are there, nothing else.
    All the other apps (120+) are arranged on the other screens by colour. I prefer to have things neat.
    At any given time if I need an app not on the first screen, I use the Finder: two letters, even of the type of app it is or function, and Finder ‘finds’ it for you! After a few days, it even sorts them by how often you use it.
    Defenitely the most-used feature on my iPhone (3, 4 & 5) = Finder

  21. I have done that for a while and it has helped immensely. Looking forward to all the extra space on my 5S!

  22. Jonny Mack says:

    Interesting approach. I myself organized based on ease of use – where my thumb easily reaches things. Most used apps on the first home page. Then on the second page one or two apps out in the open and the related category folder next to them – for example Facebook, Messenger and Twitter and a folder of social apps beside them. Or Fandango and a bunch of movie-related apps in a folder right next to it. The main most-used apps run down the left side of the screen since I find that easiest to hit with the tip of my thumb. Least used on the right… Works pretty well for me and has kept the number of pages I have to thumb through to three. I have a fourth page where brand new uncategorized apps fall…

  23. Rafael B. says:

    Better don’t upgrade to that new Google Authenticator app.

  24. Achim Dan says:

    App Stat Version 1.0

    Frequency of use
    Use of time.
    Recent use.

  25. Good article! Great comments…minus negative detractors who had nothing to add…

    With an upgrade to iPhone 5S from 4 this week, this was on my list to organize with the extra screen real estate, and obvious need to clear away some of the wasted time I must admit I fall prey to daily when access is not immediate.

    So, thank you all!

    After reading all comments, I thought this idea might be helpful to add…though it does oppose the article’s premise…

    problem:

    differences between devices (and desktops) means 3x more organizing or at least 3 structures to learn and remember…

    solution:

    determine method, apply same on all devices. yet, that means applying your method not only 3x to get organized, but also 3x every time a new app is added or deleted.

    Launchpad sync across all…?

    It’s odd with such emphasis on iCloud sync within apps across devices that Apple has yet to provide sync of how we organize our apps, whichever method we determine best fits our preference.

    Or, have they?

    If not, maybe they will…