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iPhone Home Screen: September 2014

I am trying something new with my homescreen this month. It is mostly in anticipation of a new, unwelcome larger iPhone1 the thoughts of how to actually use a phone with that much screen space has been on my mind. After using the Galaxy S5 for a few weeks, the point was driven home – I need to tailor the layout of the icons on the home screen to effectively use the dimensions of the device.

These considerations sound elementary but I consistently see home screens laid out in a way that will require some gargantuan thumbs (or two hands) to operate with a bigger phone no matter what messy interface hacks Apple adds to assist with navigating these massive devices.

Since I keep my phone in my back left pocket, I tend to use the phone with my left hand. The apps that get used most often have their icons closest to the bottom left corner. Launcher apps like Launch Center Pro and Contact Center have their icons arranged that way as well. While this makes my phone very left-hand-centric, when I am in a hurry or have my hands full, this set up helps. By orienting things this way, apps that I need the fastest access to (TV controllers, phone or contact apps, peripheral controllers, Netflix, Touchpad, etc. are right under my thumb when I activate the phone.

All that said, here’s what I ended up with.2

Row One

Fantastical remains my favorite calendar app. I like the presentation across all of my devices and it fits in well with my workflow. I wish they provided a way to view my whole day but I can get that elsewhere (like Omnifocus’s Forecast view or Tempo) so its not a showstopper.

Editorial on the iPhone is hands-down the best text editor on iOS, especially when dealing with Dropbox-based markdown documents. It uses TextExpander snippets, has a very smart keyboard, and supports user-created workflows, writing statistics and tons more. It’s a tour-de-force of iOS development and well worth whatever Ole is charging these days.

The folder is my overflow for things that I’m trying out or have fallen out of favor. If I want to see if I can live without a particular app for a while, I stick it in here.

Tempo has a great day-view as well as a nice week view and unique two-week view for all of my calendar events. I use this to get a bird’s eye view of what’s going on mainly to get a sense of how full my calendar is on a given day. I don’t use many of Tempo’s more innovative features like the phone/contact helper or email data mining because I find it doesn’t do a great job of parsing the phone numbers for the myriad conference call formats I need to commonly use. Fantastical handles it a bit better but I put common conference call numbers into my Contacts app (replete with pauses and menu commands3) and then map them in Contact Center for quick dialing.

Row Two

1Password has become more important than ever given the security issues we have had lately. Gabe told me about Vault sharing and I’ve been using that to share passwords that my wife might need to know in a pinch. With iOS8 on the horizon, integration with 1Password gets even better and one of the biggest excuses most people hold up as an impediment to using 1Password – inconvenience – will evaporate.

VSCOcam has the best filters and the best photo editing capabilities of any iOS app. That said, I stopped looking at new ones once VSCO hit my homescreen because it did all I needed it to. Maybe something better has come along since then but given the width and depth of features that have come to VSCO in recent years, I somehow doubt it.

You Need a Budget is my home budgeting and money management app. The iOS app helps with on-the-spot entry of new transactions and it’s really well done. My wife and I use it every day to keep our accounts up to date and knowing where all the dollars and cents are going has removed a weight of stress that has been on my shoulders for years. I regret not using it sooner.

Awful is where I keep up with the somethingawful forums on beer, homebrewing, Destiny, the Playstation 4 and Buddhism.

Row Three

Tweetbot remains my favorite Twitter client but Twitter itself is on my shit-list. Their dumb decisions in the name of creating a social network I have no interest in will ultimately ruin for those who choose people to follow based on what they actually say, not what Twitter allows me to see them say. A curated feed will mean I stop using Twitter. Once Twitter’s algorithms control what I see, its not what got me to use Twitter in the first place. It has me wondering if we were too quick to abandon ADN or if I need to use a social platform at all.

Slack, o Slack, how I love thee. I mean it. Slack is the best chat and collaboration service on the planet. Finding Slack changed how I collaborate with people on some important projects and it has custom emoji. What more can you ask for?! How about file storage, app integrations, a stellar iOS client, a full featured Mac client, private and public channels, one-on-one chat with other collaborators? If you want any or all of those things, Slack is what you have been looking for.

Pushpin is a great Pinboard client. I use it every day and, other than occasional crash, it does what I ask of it. There are a lot of great Pinboard clients out there but I like this one quite a bit.

Overcast is an interesting animal. I didn’t want to like it and seriously doubted that anything would unseat Downcast as my favorite podcast app but I find that Overcast finds a sweetspot between features and usability that Downcast sometimes lacks. The Smart Speed and Voice Boost options are worth the price alone and I find the web page integration for playing podcasts while on my Mac is adequate. It isn’t perfect but it does a good job and I’ve been using it since release. It has unseated Downcast. Unbelievable.

Row Four

The Phone app is there for convenience and to display voicemails or missed calls.

OmniFocus has just gotten an iOS8 facelift and it remains my go-to GTD task manager. Despite my misgivings with some of their recent decisions, Omnigroup still makes the app that best suits my needs for getting things done.

Dark Sky still works its magic with uncannily accurate hyper-local weather forecasts. I recently used it at a barn party (yes, this is something I do now) when people were wondering when the rain would arrive. When Dark Sky predicted it to the exact minute, I am sure the Forecast.io folks sold a few more copies.

Mail is a necessary evil. I use the stock mail app for work Exchange email. By segregating it from my personal email, it allows me to use any innovative email app I choose for things like Fastmail.

Row Five

Contact Center is a new addition. I’ll admit I was confused when Contact Center was released – is this like Launch Center Pro Lite? The answer is “not quite”. It uses the same interface ideas put forth in LCP but focuses squarely on making things easy to keep in touch with your friends, family and colleagues. Adding a contact “folder” makes an icon for them in the app and when you tap that icon, it opens up options for ways to contact them – iMessage, phone, Facetime Audio, etc. I tried to recreate this using LCP but found that it was much harder and more time consuming that I wanted to deal with. Buying Contact Center added an icon to the Home screen but it has quickly become one of my most-used apps.

Safari. It’s great and made even better with Duck Duck Go integration. I’m no longer using Google in any facet of my phone use and it feels pretty good.

TapCellar is an interesting project that exists and this is a beta of the app. More on that later.

Dispatch is not really perfect for how I handle my email these days. Using Sanebox for dealing with my email has really kept me sane and using it has meant that my Inbox actually contains email that I should read. The downside of Dispatch is that I can’t quickly see the Sanebox subfolders and their item counts like I can in Boxer. Unfortunately, Boxer doesn’t play well with the iOS8 beta so I’ll stick with Dispatch for now. It has some great features but that folder issue is a real bummer.

Home Row

Launch Center Pro is great and it’s spot in the bottom left on the Home row should make it clear that it is something I go to often for important functionality. It’s the Swiss army knife of apps and once you build the muscle memory, you will come up with all sorts of ways to integrate it into your app use.

Messages is easily my most-used app. There are anecdotal tales of people having an awful time with it and I have friends who can’t get it to work consistently. That said, I still find it incredibly useful and I am relieved to report that it works fine for me. There isn’t really a chat client that comes close to it in terms of convenience. The next app on the Home row comes close though.

Trillian is my platform agnostic chat client for people unfortunate enough to be using Android phones or using Windows machines at work. Lately however, Skype has been in use more than Trillian so Trillian might lose its spot on the Home row if the last two or three contacts I chat with move over to Skype or iMessage as well.

Drafts is an app I should probably use more. I understand that it can shuttle text into most apps that I use and I can just type everything there and ship it off where it needs to go but I don’t use it that much. I’ll use it to note locations, jot down quick things that I’ll need in a digital format later (since the Field Notes have taken over a lot of things that get jotted down quickly). Drafts waxes and wanes in usefulness for me but it still is used often enough and ubiqitously enough that it seems stuck to my Home row for good.

* * *

A lot of apps have changed but iOS 8 is going to change everything. With the ability to extend apps to interoperate with other apps, the field will once again be wide open and ripe for innovation and I can’t see how things change over the next few months.


  1. I can hear you asking “Then why get one?” The short answer is that I use iPhones for work. We need to test and use the latest versions and get a feel for the UX and how it relates to our app. And, yes, we’ll have a few iPhone 6Pluses taking up large tracts of desk space too. 

  2. That is, indeed, a Field Notes background – Shelterwood Edition. 

  3. When editing a contact on the Contact app’s editing screen, hitting the key with the ”+ * #” opens up the doors for solving this particular dialing dilemma. The pause key will insert a comma into the text field collecting your digits which represents about a 1 second pause. The asterisk and pound/hash do what they say on the tin – they will insert those at the appropriate moments in the conference dialing script. 

Field Notes Every Day

I never pictured myself becoming the kind of person who carries a Field Notes notebook. I hate the thought of not having all my information at my fingertips all the time. The main idea behind my workflow with nvALT, OmniFocus and Dropbox was a focus towards making things searchable and ubiquitous. Plain text and markdown furthered that goal as well.

Another issue with writing things down was that my penmanship is terrible. I mean really terrible. My handwriting is a mish-mash of cursive letters, printed letters, cramped shapes and scribbles. Moving some of my note-taking to a written medium meant addressing how badly I expressed thoughts on the page. It was a project I didn’t want to deal with and have been effectively avoiding since high school.

Introducing a physical medium to gather my thoughts meant that I would now have multiple places to search when I wanted to find things I had written down unless I copied each page to one of my text files which, given how little time I have these days, was unlikely to happen. It all seemed like a lot of hassle and the last thing I needed was another workflow to forget.

So about two years ago, when the whole Field Notes thing blew up (at least in the circles I ran with), I decided that keeping notes electronically in plain text solved a lot of issues. I could easily search my notes for scraps of remembered text, I could avoid horrid penmanship and I would have my notes in one place in a format that was more or less bulletproof from a backward compatibility perspective. As things like markdown and plain text editors started to grow in popularity, it became clear that I had chosen well and I never looked back.

“That’s a relief. No need for pens or Field Notes or more pocket clutter.”, I thought. Bullet dodged.

+ + +

After seeing a buddy’s Field Notes and Fisher Space Pen being useful on a recent trip, I noticed there were some advantages to go along with the disadvantages of having to lug additional crap around.

For one, I tend to remember things visually. Often it is the shape of my notes on the page or the formatting of titles that jog my memory more than remembering the actual content. That’s why outlines and mindmaps work so well for me. They play to the strengths of how I remember things on the page or screen. Sketchnotes is something that intrigued me because it was a way to take note-taking to its visual endgame. A way to showcase your remembered facts in a visual way rather than worry about getting all of the words down in the right order.

Second, I liked the way Field Notes books look. There are Tumblrs and Flickr groups devoted to their aesthetic appeal and they appeal to those enjoy a joining of form and function. Can you get by with a few folded 3”x5” cards? Sure. But wouldn’t you rather pull this out of your pocket?

The other thing that Field Notes books did for me was make small writing notebooks less precious. I had been given various Moleskine books over the years and never made a dent in them because I was too precious about the empty pages. Poised with pen above paper, I would second guess myself. Is this thought really important enough to capture on paper this nice? With that thought, the pen cap would be replaced, the book would be closed and the pages would remain unused. I was a sucker for a well-made blank notebook but I had learned my lesson – buying them was a waste of money and desk space with the evidence of this fact being a handful of empty notebooks littering the bottom of a desk drawer.

Field Notes, on the other hand, are forty-eight pages of dot grids (my personal preference) on thin (but high quality) paper. There is nothing intimidating about them. Fill one up, move to the next. I am as apt to use a page to write down a take-out order as I am to write down a design idea. Sold relatively-inexpensively in packs of 3, using a page here or there for a doodle doesn’t have the gravitas of sullying an acid-free, archival quality notebook page from a book of fifty.

+ + +

So where does that leave things on the “analog technology” front? Well a more comprehensive post will cover that, but for this post, I’ll sum up by saying I’ve been carrying around Field Notes and a Space Pen for about two months now. I have filled up three books and I am about to start a fourth and they have proven useful in ways I hadn’t envisioned before I started this little experiment. Given that I use them so freely, I decided to buy a Field Notes COLORS subscription so I have a deep supply of new books to write in.

I needed to expand my Field Notes supply because my wife has started using the books too. She’s doing garden layouts and planning in her Arts & Sciences edition book (she wanted the Science one, dammit!) and she loves the form factor. I still think the Arts & Sciences books are too big for my purposes. Portability is king for me and the Arts & Sciences books are just too big to carry around with me. They are confined to my desk and I use them to do larger form designs but that’s about it.

That said, I am using my Field Notes books every day and that’s more than I can say for most things. We will see how this experiment unfolds but for now I’m enjoying hauling out these little books to get things done.

App Developers, The Sky Is Not Falling

Unread is a really nice RSS reader for iPhone. I eventually bought it after Newsblur support was added and found that the app is designed with some really nice features that set it apart from its peers. I’ve enjoyed using Jared Sinclair’s apps (like the stellar Riposte) and bought Unread more out of a desire to support Sinclair’s development efforts than my need for an iOS RSS app. I suspect many who appreciated Jared’s previous work did the same thing.

Sinclair recently wrote a post with some revealing data about Unread’s earnings along some details about its design process and some decisions involving the app’s App store distribution. As his blog post made its rounds on the echosphere, developers and pundits alike were pounding out stories about how the App economy is dead since Unread, by all accounts a fantastic app, couldn’t earn above poverty wages.

I think the premise behind many of these pieces is flawed. They take a surface look at the App economy through the lens of an app that, while serving a fairly large overall market1, was ultimately targeting a niche market2 inside a niche market3 inside a niche market4 inside a niche market5.

We can’t know all of the decision points that pushed Sinclair to explore the RSS app market as his next target after Riposte and Whisper (both top shelf apps). While he did talk about some of his thought process in his visit to the App Story podcast (episode 4), we don’t know what type of competitive analysis he did or if it even mattered to him that he was entering a market in which the winners and losers were largely already decided. Doing a cursory look in the current RSS reader market, you can find many capable RSS apps that have been used on iOS devices for quite some time. Some of these apps are free and all perform the common functions of an RSS reader.

- - -

When Google Reader shutdown last July everyone who used the service was forced to decide where they were going to land on the RSS reader front. It caused quite a shake-up since many people were using Google Reader, including me. Some decided to ditch RSS altogether and stick with Twitter, some decided on Feedly, and others decided on NewsBlur among others.

When Unread launched, it didn’t support all of the services that people had flocked to. I know when I saw its original release and noted that it didn’t support Newsblur, it meant that if I wanted to use Unread on my phone I would also need to switch RSS services. Since I had just signed up for a year-long Newsblur subscription, that didn’t sound like a solid idea either.

Sinclair also faced the difficulty in selling a reading app for the smallest iOS device, the iPhone. While he may have built a lot of innovation into the controls for managing feeds and reading one-handed, the truth is I tend to not read RSS on the iPhone, instead opting for a bigger screen which allows for richer navigation and visuals.

When I look at the things stacked against Unread doing well (RSS war fought and won on many fronts months before, readers generally wanting to read longform articles on larger devices, other capable free apps on the market, $5 price tag) I actually thought Unread sold fantastically well. It doesn’t really serve as the best example for why it is hard to make a living solely by publishing apps on the App Store. And as the man once said, “If it was that easy, everybody would be doing it.”


  1. As of 2013, RSS readers number in the 200-250m range. 

  2. Tech nerds who like opinionated software. 

  3. People who haven’t yet found an RSS reader they liked a year after the Google Reader shutdown. 

  4. People who want to read RSS on a small iPhone screen. 

  5. People willing to pay $5 for an app. 

Smaller, Not Larger, Phones

Here’s a good piece by Clark echoing many of the same thoughts I have about the seemingly-inevitable larger iPhone. The gist is that I would prefer a more efficient, smaller iPhone. The thought of a giant, pocket stuffing smartphone is annoying and goes against my goal of minimizing what I carry around every day.

Basically, I want my phone to disappear in my pocket, not fill it.