The way we interact with our smartphone home screens is older than the phones themselves, and the founders of Flow Home think we’re overdue for an update.
Developers Matt Hall and John Watkinson have been making apps since before people really knew what apps were. They met in school at The University of Computer Science in Toronto and have been working together for 15 years, since starting in mobile with the T-Mobile Sidekick.
If you look at pictures of the phone now, it may seem a little clunky and a bit like a tech novelty, but Hall said it was a “modern smartphone ahead of its time.”
Around then, Hall and Watkinson fell in love with mobile and ended up making about 40 apps for the Sidekick before writing apps for Android. (This was back when Android was just starting, which was around the same time that the iPhone was released.)
As they were making apps for the Sidekick and then Android, they started to think about the place where all of these apps lived — our home screens. Hall told me that, even though we think of it as only a container for iconic representations of our apps, it’s an important part of the interface.
He said, “It’s something you see … on average close to 100 times a day … You just assume that it’s always been this way.” But they started thinking, “If you could figure out something better to do with it, then it would be really important.”
Flow Home is their latest effort to revolutionize the home screen. It’s an app that replaces your home screen with a social feed of your choice, in addition to notifications and your top apps within thumb’s reach.
They were posted on Product Hunt on March 17, but they’re still in a very flexible beta phase because they want to continue to really finesse the app and “keep launching.”
Hall gave me a peek into the process behind their mission to replace the smartphone home screen.
Flow Home wasn’t their first try at changing up the home screen. In 2009, Hall and Watkinson made a “radical” attempt at an info-focused, text-only home screen app. Hall described it as successful, but said they just didn’t know what to do with it.
Now, with Flow Home they’re blazing a path all their own and finding that there’s definitely an audience for it.
They started working on Flow Home in late summer of last year and have been hammering away at it since then. As app-building pros, they knew several things about what Flow could and couldn’t be.
Hall said that they were looking for an app that didn’t require a “critical mass of users like a lot of social apps.” He added, “We wanted to make sure it would be useful to the first person who used it.”
Hall and Watkinson aren’t the first to attempt to reinvent the home screen, but Flow Home certainly seems to be the most thoughtful, well-rounded experience that maintains a balance of personal and universal.
Hall said other attempts have given more appearance and performance options, and some even give you predictive functions — kind of like if-this-then-that functionality for your home screen. Hall thinks that the predictive features seem extraneous.
Rather than adding an extra layer of “smart” functionality on top of your home screen, Flow Home is an attempt to reimagine how we interact with the apps we’re already going to our phone to use, while bringing more beauty and information to the home screen. He said,
“[The home screen] was just something that was always taken for granted as the pre-ordained way that phones should work, but it might not be the case. So that’s the big idea.”
Home Screen 2.0
That’s been Flow Home’s manifesto, a.k.a. Home Screen 2.0.
Hall and Watkinson are completely aware of the drastic change and level of commitment that it takes to accept a transformation of the habitual interface and refocus it in a kind of foreign way. That’s why they want to learn more before officially launching the app.
They do know that, as smartphone screens get bigger, clicking on icons at the top of the screen is beyond the comfortable reach of our thumbs. In response, they’ve put all of your top-used apps in the bottom right corner for a quick launch of your favorites. Hall said they’ve found that most of the time spent on your phone is between the same four or five apps anyway.
Flow Home gives you the option of including social feeds from Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc. as your main home feed and putting all of the other apps on your phone in a grid easily accessed by a left swipe.
Still, Hall admits, “It seems like it is a pretty overwhelming change. That’s what we’re trying to address right now.”
There are users who have already adopted the new home screen as true believers, and in general those are the people from whom they get the most feedback. So to make sure that they’re getting the full picture, they’re keeping an eye on stats and analytics to find where they can improve.
Balancing the Big Picture and Details
Making progress with Flow Home requires a constant back-and-forth between the big picture and the details. Thinking big picture, Hall said, “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to us that your most important, most frequently accessed interface is just these little static pictures of apps … It feels like something from Windows 3 or Mac plastic.”
Even with the big picture clear, Hall said they’ve had situations where they got the big idea right, but when they hone in on the small details, they realized that the execution wasn’t good enough.
One of the details that Hall is surprised people love as much as they have is the small shortcut launcher in the bottom right corner. He said people really like the motion and animation and “that was more important than I thought it would be.”
Another detail they’re honing in on is the way that the search function works — they want to make it faster and more obvious. Hall said one thing that people seem to miss from their typical homescreens is having folders to categorize their apps, which can be a bit of a sticking point. With a new search function, he said, “We think that [search] might be something worth highlighting or rethinking.”
Taking the Leap
There’s a lot of pressure to get this app as perfect as it can be because, if it’s going to replace your home screen, it’s got be reliable. Hall said,
“If you’re not getting something fairly significant out of making the switch to [Flow Home], then why bother, right? Because you know how to do [things] already on your current home screen … When you know how to use your phone and it’s the interface you use the most … to try to change that is a really high bar.”
On the technical end, it obviously can’t crash. But if the UI and UX aren’t designed so that it quickly feels like second nature, people will bail out.
Still, Hall is convinced that on the other side of that high bar is a new kind of home experience that will enhance how we use our smartphones. It’s just a matter of making the onboarding as fluid as it can be.
He said they’re constantly asking themselves, “Is the interface too radical? … Are we asking too much for people to leave behind the thing they’re very comfortable with in order to get these benefits?”
“If [this] is the case, then we might rethink some of how the interface is structured. Try to make it a little more standard in some ways, but still get the same upsides,” he added.
Keeping It Fool-Proof
Part of the appeal of Flow Home is just how lovely it looks. It seems to fit very well in this new place where the designs of Android phones and iPhones seem to be playing more nicely together.
They’re giving people enough customization to make their devices feel personal, but keeping the primary design so that it’s hard to make it look bad. Hall said that was a big part of the process.
If you often go to your phone for a break from work, you may want to make your layout show only Instagram photos wide across your screen. If you regularly check your phone for news updates, you can have two columns of your Twitter feed in an endless scroll. If you go to your phone for notifications, they’ve put those at the top along with access to widgets that you know and love.
Even though Apple has allowed for a bit more customization in their design, the flexibility of Android is the only platform on which an app like this can exist, at least for now. As a user, the design benefits of each are becoming much more comparable. But Hall said that, on the back end of things as a developer, the difference is still huge.
Staying in Private Beta
Right now, they’ve made the access code for the app easily accessible on the Flow Home Twitter page and to communities like XDA and Product Hunt for people who are willing to jump in and start using the product with the idea that it’s still a work in progress.
“We wanted to get to a … continuous improvement situation without the fatigue that comes from continuous relaunches of something, so we’re basically calling it a work in progress. Beta. Whatever you want to call it,” Hall said.
By keeping it available only via access code, but making the access code easy to find, they’re putting the app just within reach of people who understand the beta process. For others, it’s a little too much effort and that’s good for preventing early (but lasting) negative comments in the Play Store.
It also gives Hall and Watkinson the freedom to change things that aren’t working until they really whittle down what this new home experience needs and what it doesn’t. “We’re not really married to any one particular thing,” said Hall. “We want to make sure that we stand out … but we do want to make sure that it’s not an overwhelming situation.”
The first users of the app were Hall and Watkinson themselves. “We had it working pretty [well] and then I made the jump and I switched to it and I actually used it on a trip. It was sort of eye-opening because I was finding every bump. Like if you’re using something as much as that, if there are problems you see them right away.”
At that point, he was using it during the day and working on it at night, fixing the glitches he was experiencing firsthand.
Flow’s Future Beyond Beta
With a few hundred thousand downloads in beta, Hall and Watkinson are keeping tabs on the numbers to map out the next steps.
He said that phase two will come when people want the app, download it, and keep using it. “Until then, we sort of reserve the right to make fairly major changes if it’s not a really smooth thing for people to adopt,” he explained.
It’s rare to see people approaching the beta phase of an app with such care and patience. It seems that often beta is treated as just an in-between period; but for Flow Home, it’s pivotal in being able to release a totally revolutionary app that casual users and power users alike will quickly appreciate and understand intuitively.
It’s proof that, even in the tech world, it’s not always the first or fastest innovation that’s best— it’s the lasting one. From the looks of it, Flow Home will be that.
Images provided by Flow Home.