Springboards and You

I’ve been thinking a lot about the state of user autonomy in modern computing lately, and have come to a pretty stark realization about a design pattern present, if not focal, to almost every popular operating system today. I don’t know if Apple were the first to invent this but they’re certainly the first to come to mind when I think about it, so for the purposes of this post I’ll be referring this pattern as the Springboard, and explain why I don’t like them.

For those of you wondering what my grudge against gymnastics is, springboards are a UI element that lays out a collection of widgets, for the purpose of showing little bits of information and, principally, launching applications. In the case of mobile operating systems, namely iOS and Android, they are the default view and typically the first thing you see upon unlocking the device they’re running on. On desktops, they are less prominent, and are usually restricted to simply launching applications, in the case of Launchpad on macOS and the App Grid of GNOME Shell. Due to this distinction, my argument more strongly applies to mobile OSes, but don’t believe that desktop environments aren’t also culpable.

An iPhone X displaying the Home Screen of iOS 14, featuring an arrangement of apps and widgets.

Springboard on iOS 14.

Now, why am I making such a fuss over such a handy little feature? Put simply, springboards are detrimental to user autonomy. They present a colorful arrangement of little tiles representing bundles of utility with no regard for the user’s intentions. The first step in accomplishing a task using a springboard is to wade through a pile of every app and widget that you don’t need before finding the app or widget that you do. Instead of empowering you to accomplish whatever task you’ve set out on, it presents a literal smörgåsbord of distractions, a tiny jab reminding you of its existence every time you see it, which could be hundreds of times over the course of a single week.

While it’s true that springboards are often user-customizable, in that you can organize and arrange widgets as you see fit, the result is static. It doesn’t actively seek to accommodate your needs in the moment. Take this in contrast to, say, a search-based launcher, like Spotlight on macOS or (shameless plug) Synapse. Upon activating it, you’re presented with a blank slate. Nothing, not even suggestions, appears until you start typing, after which results relavant to the inquiry begin to populate the drop-down. This is a model of information retrieval that respects users. It is additive, rather than subtractive.

The Pantheon Desktop Environment, featuring an unobtrusive search application, Synapse.

Synapse on a Pantheon desktop environment.

In defense of springboards, they can serve a purpose. Sometimes we’re searching for something, but we don’t have the words to describe it. Rather, we’ll know it when we see it. This is a perfect use case for springboards; lay everything out and examine each item one by one until we’ve found what we’re looking for. This is an exceptional problem, though, for which only exceptional solutions should be applied to.