Windows Phone: To Folder or Not to Folder, That is the Question

Posted on January 10, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in Windows Phones with 3

One of the healthier things I do is I try and challenge my assumptions about everything. With Windows Phone, for example, I had moved to a consistent, folder-based layout for the Start screen across each of the devices I’m currently using. But when my new Lumia 930 arrived recently, I decided to try a different tack. And now I’m pretty sure that my previous approach was less efficient.

Windows Phone Start screen customization, like any other type of device customization, is of course a personal thing. We all work differently and have different preferences. But I have established a few theories about what works well for me. Theories that, again, I revisit from time to time.

Granted, if you’re using Windows Phone you’re already ahead of the game: The Start screen with its live tiles is one of many things that makes this platform superior to Android or iOS from a usability perspective.

With those rival platforms, lifeless dead icons for Settings and many other apps take up just as much onscreen space as do icons for apps—like Mail—that can provide some (limited) form of on-icon notification (a number indicating how many new emails await).


Android offers a bit more choice than iOS, of course: You can arrange icons as you prefer, and not have to stack them from the upper left on down, as with iOS, and some apps have widgets that can express more information about the data from apps: A large weather or clock display, for example, or the most recent music in Google Play Music (or whatever).


But Windows Phone is, well, better. We get three tile sizes so we can differentiate between apps with little (Phone, Messaging) or no (Settings, Authenticator) live information and those with copious amounts of live information, which is most of them: MSN News, MSN Weather, Facebook, Calendar, Mail, and many, many more.

The ability to mix and match tile sizes means that Windows Phone users can fit more app launchers and other tiles onscreen than can Android or iOS users (with icons and, for Android, widgets). It means that we can provide more onscreen real estate to those apps that express useful live information—again, Calendar, Mail, whatever—and less to those that do not. The personalization capabilities are simply better and can make you more efficient too.

My iPhone 6 Plus home screen can only display 28 icons at a time. And the best it can muster is little number overlays on icons for apps like Facebook and Mail that indicate something is happening. Ditto for Android, though I could use widgets for some at-a-glance information.

These systems all support notification centers, and they all support folders, which let you pack more icons/tiles onto the home/Start screen. But folders also require extra taps to get to the apps you want, and they obscure the location of the apps you’re looking for: You don’t have the visual icon display—at least not at a size that is useful if you need to move quickly—to help you find what you want.

As noted previously, I’ve been using folders pretty aggressively on my Windows Phone handsets since Microsoft introduced the feature in Windows Phone 8.1 Update 1 back in August 2014. Here’s what my most recently daily use handset, a Lumia 830, looks like.


Those tiles that look like grids—Read, Office, Navigate, Music + Videos, Photos, Games and Sense—are folders. When you tap one, the display expands to show the tiles it contains, and each contains anywhere from three to 12 tiles.

This kind of organization may seem “efficient.” But I wasn’t so sure, for the reasons cited above. So when my Lumia 930 arrived, I switched over my primary SIM, installed updates and apps, and started organizing the Start screen. But this time, I did so without folders. The criteria here was simple: Thinking back to how I actually use my phones—again, highly personal and your needs/wants will vary—I decided that I would only place tiles for those apps I really do use regularly on the Start screen. If it was something that was only needed occasionally, I will access it from the All Apps list instead.

The result was this.


If you compare these two shots carefully, you’ll see that the tiles are often in basically the same place on each phone, for muscle memory purposes, but that in the case of the 930, there are no folders and no superfluous, infrequently-used apps. The theory here is that this will make me more efficient because I won’t be hunting or pecking as one must do with folders. (By the way, this generally applies to Android or iOS too, though again those UIs will always be less efficient regardless because you can’t fit as much onscreen, and because they don’t provide live tiles.)

One thing I didn’t change was my general placement strategy: I’m right-handed, so I want my most-frequently-accessed apps to be on the right side of the screen so I can easily access them with my thumb. My thumb’s “wing span” lets me easily tap anything in an arc from the top right of the screen (Phone, Messaging) to the middle left (Calendar). So that dead area in the top left is where I put tiles I don’t need to reach often—my “least used of the most used apps,” if you will, things like Store, Finance, Sports, and Health & Fitness—or don’t need to reach at all, like Weather, which provides a wonderful live forecast that negates me ever having to open it: The top left of the screen is the perfect place for Weather. It can just sit there doing its thing.

Anyway. We’ll see if my no-folder theory works for me the old-fashioned way: By actually using the phone like this over time. I feel pretty good about it now, but then I felt pretty good about folders previously too. The point is: Keeping trying to improve. There’s always a better way to do something. Until there isn’t.