iOS 16’s Most Important Feature Might Be This Search Button

Discoverability is everything

  • iOS 16 adds a new Spotlight search button to every Home Screen. 
  • Spotlight has been on the iPhone since 2009. 
  • Apple’s habit of hiding features makes it hard to discover them.
Someone holding an iPhone that shows the app screen with the Search button.

Kevin Hart (Screenshot) / Pexels / Mockup Photos

Spotlight Search has been in iOS forever, but how many people use it? iOS 16 adds a tiny button that will make it easier for millions of users to discover.

One big problem with modern devices is discoverability. App developers, and OS developers like Apple and Google, keep adding new features, but unless the users know about them or can easily find them, they won't know they are there. Take Spotlight, for example, the built-in, system-wide search feature on iOS devices and Macs. It has been on the iPhone since iOS 3 in 2009 but is so hidden, most people don't know it's there. A new button, front and (bottom) center on the Home Screen, is designed to change that. 

"The pull-down search has been my first stop for search for maybe 3 or 4 versions of iOS instead of in a browser. By putting "Search" right on the Home Screen, it seems like Apple thinks it's ready, and encouraging regular users unfamiliar with the pull-down screen to search with Spotlight first," said iOS power-user Ipedro on a MacRumors forums thread. 

Apple's Spotlight Search

Spotlight is Apple's search utility, and it is embedded pretty much everywhere. It first appeared in Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger in 2005, and has been thrashing hard drives and eating batteries while indexing ever since. Prior to that, there was no built-in way to find a file based on its contents. You could search by name, and the Mac would brute-force its way through all the files on your system until it found it. 

Spotlight changed things by indexing the files and their contents as soon as they were created, so searches were more comprehensive and near-instant. Today, Spotlight allows you to search for text inside the photos in your library, handwritten notes in the Notes app, and way more. The problem is, it's hidden. 

A more discoverable app is an app that is more likely to be used.

To make a Spotlight search, you drag down on the Home Screen to reveal the search bar, then type. If you ever directed somebody else to do this, you'll know how badly it's implemented. People will drag the home-screen icons, swipe from the top of the screen, and trigger notifications or the control center. Anything but the rewired gesture, which is to touch a blank spot on the Home Screen and swipe down. 

In iOS 16, Apple has added a Spotlight button. It's right there, under the grid of icons, on every Home Screen page. You can't miss it, and this is the whole point. If you hide a feature, the only people who use it are those who read websites like this one. 

iOS 16, which should launch in the next couple of weeks, also adds new features to Spotlight. For example, it can now search for text and images (based on recognizing what's in the photos) in Messages, Notes, and Files, as well as in your Photo library. iOS 16 Spotlight will also trigger quick actions, right from the results panel. You can start a timer, see all Shortcuts available in a certain app, and lots more. And you can still do all the other Spotlight stuff, like quick-searching the web, looking up contacts, launching apps, and so on. 

Discoverability Equals Usability

To many users, adding the Spotlight button will probably look like Apple added a whole new feature. That's the thing with computers. They don't have knobs and buttons for every function. In fact, they have so many functions that many of them have to be tucked away until needed. 

On the Mac, those features usually live in the menu bar, which pretty much every Mac user knows how to use. You mouse up there, click, and look around until you find the function you need. If you're fancy, you might type the name of that function (Copy, Export, etc.) into the Help menu's search field, and it will show you exactly where that function lives. 

An iphone sitting on a book with the home screen display on, showing the search button at the bottom of the screen.

SpeechCentral (screenshot) / Unsplash / Mockup Photos

Apple's recent design language hides most of these features. This results in a clean, uncluttered interface, making everything hard to find. Even essential features, like sharing or opening something with the Share arrow, require several taps and waiting for a menu animation between each one. 

"The first reason [discoverability is so important] is for a better user experience," iOS and Mac app developer Stavros Zavrakas told Lifewire via email. "A more discoverable app is an app that is more likely to be used."

Hopefully, this is the start of a new trend in Apple's design—making things easier to find and use. And if you don't like the new search button? You can remove it.

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