Apple’s New iOS Customization Options Are Long Overdue

Photo: NurPhoto/Getty Images

I usually wait a few days — okay, maybe a week or two — before I update the operating system on my iPhone. But when I heard that, for the first time, Apple allowed for customization so thrilling that it became a TikTok sensation, I downloaded the new iOS the day after it came out.

What should have been a joyous occasion, though, ended up being a subpar disappointment. iOS 14’s customizations are laborious and minor; for those willing to put in the work, these new customizations can transform the iPhone experience, but the rest of us, who are impatient or simply cannot dedicate literal hours to customizing our home screen, it’s a minimally impactful development. Even so, these minuscule customizations are a significant diversion from what the dictatorial Apple typically allows.

Since Steve Jobs started the company in 1976, Apple has not been amenable to allowing users to assert control over their own experience. “Historically, Apple has taken the same approach as McDonald’s — that everybody on Earth should consume the same product, with a few localizations,” says Torkil Clemmensen, PhD, a professor of human-computer interaction at the Copenhagen Business School. “Which is okay, very American, but in my opinion kills off innovation and diversity of technology use.”

iOS 14’s customizations are laborious and minor.

Apple hasn’t often allowed for users to customize their own products or software, and this was fine for a good portion of Apple’s life. Its philosophy — which hinges on the idea that Apple and its designers know best — certainly rang true when computers and, later, smartphones were still something users had to learn and acclimate to. But for at least a few years now, that hasn’t been the case for many of us. I’m 30 years old; I have been using computers since I was a child and have had my own cell phone since I was 14 (what a sensation my pink Razr was! The only 15 minutes of my life in which I was popular). Many of today’s teens and those in their early twenties emerged from their mothers’ wombs clutching an iPhone or had one stuffed into their hand by a desperate, exhausted parent only a few years later.

Designers do not necessarily know what’s best when a sizable segment of their customer base either learned how to use a phone before they learned to say “mama” or, at least, has spent over a decade honing their digital skills. Most of those users have some degree of personal preference in terms of how they want their technology to look and function. Kevin Park, an assistant professor of UX/UI design and development at the New York Institute of Technology, says it’s possible that the growing demands from young people may have influenced Apple’s decision to introduce more customization into its latest iOS. “I have a 13-year-old, and the way she uses her phone is completely different than I do,” he says. “Because I’m older, I’m using it in a more utilitarian way.” In contrast, his daughter’s phone use focuses on social media and entertainment, he says. Customization is one way to make the phone faster and more efficient for these divergent use cases.

Multiple studies have found that user interface customization makes for a better user experience. One 2016 study had participants customize their phone interface on a Nokia Lumia 900, installed with the Windows Phone 7 operating system. Users assigned to the customization task found it relatively easy to customize how their app icons appeared, and they found the end product to be more intuitive, engaging, and easy to use.

The study also found that the users cared more about editing their phone’s layouts than how it functioned, indicating that the form and aesthetics of each person’s screen are highly individual and important.

In a 2014 study, people who were allowed to customize the user interface of a specific program made significantly fewer errors, found the program more useful, and were happier with the program than those who didn’t. Finally, a 2015 study found that users given the option to customize their cloud computing interface (such as Google Drive or Dropbox) found the programs easier to use than those who did not customize. Both the 2014 and 2015 studies found that merely giving users a sense of control was critical to how they felt about the software.

iOS 14’s new customization options are limited and, in some cases, incredibly labor-intensive. So while Apple allows us some control over how our phone’s home screens look, it really wants us to work for it. You now have the ability to create custom icons for apps, at least sort of — you have to make a shortcut, update the appearance of the shortcut, and then hide the original icon in the newly introduced App Library. When you open the custom shortcut, you’re actually rerouted through the Shortcuts app before the intended program launches. It’s like passing briefly through a hallway before entering another room, and it’s very strange and clunky for a company that has historically prided itself on seamless design. “The app icon changes, they’re not easy to do,” says Park. These additional steps, he says, “are there to prevent people from doing that. So I don’t think they’re fully there yet… they’re still testing this in wider public release.” It’s possible Apple is waiting to see whether only hardcore users are willing to go the lengths necessary to update their icons, says Park. If enough people appear interested, they might make it quicker and easier to customize the app icons.

The growing demands from young people may have influenced Apple’s decision to introduce more customization into its latest iOS.

Though Apple has included widgets in extremely basic fashion on iOS since 2014, they’re now more useful and easier to implement. Long-pressing on the home screen now brings up a plus sign in the upper-left corner, which brings up a limited array of Apple-approved widgets to choose from, including a music widget, a world clock widget, and a calendar widget. Users can also download the now extremely popular third-party widget apps, like Widgetsmith, which offer an additional handful of color and font-customizable widgets.

The author’s new and improved home screen

Abby Norman, an editor based in Maine, is one user who labored over her home screen. “Sometimes at 2 a.m. you just want some control over something that makes you feel kind of okay,” she says. “It was so nice to be intensely focused on something for no other reason than joy. It’s also paid off because my phone feels like a safe place now.” Her home screen is now populated entirely with blank, monochromatic app icons that, she says, establish a sense of calm.

Abby Norman’s custom home screen

Sam Allmon, a podcast host based in Madison, Wisconsin, is pleased with how his updated home screen turned out, but he says “it was hell to do and it’s needlessly complicated and basic functionality has to be hacked in.” Creating custom icons, he says, is especially frustrating. “Custom icons are only done hackily, and using shortcuts as a middleman. When we could just, like, change the icon, you know?”

This is probably intentional, according to Christian Tuskes, an instructor of mobile app development at the University of California, San Diego Extension. “I don’t think that [Apple] would want to infringe on a developer’s intention of what the icon should be,” he says. By way of compromise, perhaps users could be given a “library of icons” from which they could choose icons that suit the developer’s vision, but also allows for more creativity and control on the part of the user.

While the widgets rollout has been more seamless and intentional than Apple’s weird, clunky app icon customization, the widgets are also lacking. I want more options — right now, I only have Apple’s weather app widget and a Widgetsmith widget that clearly states the date and time (since I am no longer capable of remembering what day of the week it is), but I’d like an Overcast podcast widget and a audiobooks widget, as those are the two other apps I open most often and don’t regret doing so (I currently have Instagram and email in a folder hidden on the second screen and titled “SOCIAL BAD,” though unfortunately it hasn’t decreased my use of either). Drew Jones, an editor based in Houston, is frustrated with the extreme limits of custom widgets, which often have limited functionality. Still, he created a custom home screen after watching a Marques Brownlee video because, he says, he had nothing better to do.

Drew Jones’ custom home screen

“I think that the increased ability of users to customize the kind of core software experience — I actually think it’s a little bit overdue,” says Todd Masilko, an associate professor of Interaction Design at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California. “I actually think they’re probably doing some of this a little bit later than they had hoped.”

These updates are certainly a little bit later than I had hoped. Many Apple users are advanced in their tech skills and clear-eyed on what they want from their smartphones, but by not offering us decent options to customize our phones, Apple’s insinuating that, in fact, we do not know what we want and need. It’s pretty paternalistic, to be honest. But decades of experience have taught us much of what we need to do, and like a good parent, it’s time to let users step back and create our own spaces as we see fit.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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