I’ve been designing my own custom Android home screens for over ten years now, and first started exploring the concept of making Android phones easier to use with low vision when I was a sophomore in high school. My first custom home screen design featured custom app icons with photos of my best friends that I had designed in a photo editing app, as I liked being able to see large photos that made me happy on my phone, instead of having photos on my home screen masked by a bunch of icons. Over the years, I have experimented with a few different Android home screen layouts and launcher applications, and discovered that gesture-based UIs/interfaces with a colorful phone wallpaper work best for me.
After my previous favorite home screen customization app was discontinued (RIP Buzz Launcher), I went looking for another custom home screen app that would support a custom gesture UI and other customization features. I found that the Microsoft Launcher app would work perfectly for what I was looking for, and have been using it every day since. Here are my tips for how to create a custom Android home screen with Microsoft Launcher, aimed at users with low vision/vision loss.
Set up Microsoft Launcher for Android
Microsoft Launcher is a free Android app for creating custom home screens and replaces the default Android launcher/home screen for devices with Android 7.0 and higher. Users can still download Android apps onto their phone and Microsoft Launcher does not replace any other applications like messaging, camera, phone, gallery, or otherwise affect the usability of the device. Microsoft Launcher requires users to have a free Microsoft account, but they do not need to have Microsoft 365/Office or any other paid services. Microsoft Launcher does not replicate the user’s PC home screen on their phone or allow for users to access Windows applications on their phone.
When first opening Microsoft Launcher, users will be prompted to set Microsoft Launcher as the default Android home screen in order for the app to work properly. If the user was using another third-party launcher, they will also have the option to import their current home screen configuration to be used in Microsoft Launcher, though I found that this didn’t import gestures.
To customize Microsoft Launcher, users will need to be familiar with two different menus. The first is Overview Mode, which can be accessed by long pressing with one finger anywhere on the home screen. The other menu is Launcher Settings, which can be accessed by pressing the gear/settings icon on the Add New Screen menu or by typing “Launcher Settings” in the search bar.
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A note on Microsoft Launcher accessibility
Microsoft Launcher works with large print and magnification on Android, and text can also be read out loud with Select-to-speak. As of publishing time, Microsoft Launcher’s gesture settings are not supported by TalkBack, as TalkBack gestures override Microsoft Launcher’s gestures.
Microsoft Launcher complements several other Android accessibility features, including the accessibility shortcut, third-party font apps like Big Font, and Android’s Health and Safety app/emergency medical cards.
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How many pages do I want for my launcher?
Whenever I start creating a custom Android home screen for low vision, one of the first things I ask is how many screens or pages should be added- the term screens and pages are used interchangeably in this context. Each page can store widgets, applications, and folders, and users can decide where they want each item to be located on the screen and how large they want it to be. New pages can be added in Overview Mode by swiping to a screen and selecting the “add new page” icon, which looks like a plus sign.
Some of my friends prefer to have 3-5 pages for a custom Android home screen, and typically display 1-2 widgets and 6-8 applications or folders of applications on each page. To navigate between pages, users will swipe left or right with their finger, though Microsoft Launcher also allows users to switch between pages by enabling “scroll up and down” in the home screen settings menu within Launcher Settings.
For my parents who only use a few apps on their phone, I set up one page that has their most-used apps and 1-2 widgets that display the clock, weather, or similar information. If they want to use another application, they can open the app drawer by swiping up from the bottom of the screen or with another custom gesture- more on that later.
Choosing a phone wallpaper with low vision
Users have a few different options for choosing a phone wallpaper, though I have found that the best phone wallpapers for low vision are ones that feature vibrant colors that are a different color than the app icons- having a blue wallpaper with blue icons can make it difficult to see app icons.
Options for choosing a phone wallpaper with Microsoft Launcher include:
- Choosing a wallpaper from the phone gallery/downloaded images/Your Photos
- Choosing a wallpaper from the Microsoft Gallery
- Choosing a wallpaper from Bing, with an option to have rotating images as part of the Bing Image of the Day. These images are usually nature, architecture, animals, or other cultural photos
- Setting a live photo or live wallpaper- I do not recommend this for low vision users as this can drain the battery and may be disorienting to look at
Users can set their phone wallpaper by opening Overview Mode, and then selecting “Change Wallpaper.”
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Gestures and swiping shortcuts
Instead of pressing on icons to open applications, I prefer to keep my home screen free of icons and use gestures to open applications and perform other tasks. Gestures can be configured in the Launcher Settings menu under the Gesture section. There are 10 different gestures supported by Microsoft Launcher, and users can configure launcher shortcuts, applications, or other shortcuts for each gesture.
Supported gestures include:
- Tap home button from home screen
- Swipe up
- Swipe down
- Two fingers swipe up
- Two fingers swipe down
- Double tap
- Double tap swipe up
- Double tap swipe down
- Pinch in
- Pinch out
Once a user selects a gesture from the Gesture menu, they can assign an action that will take place when the gesture is used. Gestures can be made anywhere on the screen and do not have to be in a specific location
Launcher actions are related to Microsoft Launcher and include actions such as screen lock, recent apps, open app drawer, and similar tasks.
Apps will open the app of a user’s choice, and all installed apps on the device are displayed in a list.
Shortcuts actions may vary from phone, and include options for direct dialing or direct messaging a given contact, sharing location, and calendar shortcut. The direct dialing and direct messaging features would be especially helpful for family members who have trouble accessing phone dialers or texting apps.
My phone’s gestures
My phone currently has the following gestures assigned in Microsoft Launcher:
- Swipe up: App drawer
- Swipe down: Phone
- Two fingers swipe down: Camera
- Double tap: Messages
- Pinch in: Direct dial
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Icons and widgets
My current Android home screen does not have any icons or widgets on it, as it is fully controlled with gestures, by searching for apps in the app drawer, or by asking Google Assistant to open an app. However, users can add icons and widgets to their home screen for easy access to their favorite apps, as well as have a pinned dock that is visible across all home screen pages.
Adding icons and widgets
To add an app to a Microsoft Launcher screen:
- Open the app drawer by swiping up with one finger or by selecting the app drawer icon in the dock
- Long press on the icon for the app you want to add
- Select Add to Home screen
- Drag the app to the desired location. To add the app to another page, drag the app to the edge of the screen to advance to the next page
To add a widget to a Microsoft Launcher screen:
- Open the “Add New Screen” menu by long pressing with one finger
- Select Add Widgets
- Choose the widget you want to add- some widgets come in multiple sizes
- Touch and hold the widget to add it to the desired location. To add the widget to another page, drag it to the edge of the screen to advance to the next page
Determining icon layout and size
Icon layout and size can be customized in the Home screen section of the Launcher Settings menu. Available customization options that are helpful for low vision users include:
- Number of columns/rows. Icons that are displayed on a 4 x 4 grid will appear larger than those displayed on a 12 x 12 grid
- Icon size. I have mine set as “largest”
- Font size for icon labels. I turned off text labels for icons because I don’t use them- this can be done by turning off “show app and folder names”
Changing the appearance of icons
In the Icon Appearance menu, which is located under Icon Layout and Size, users can change the appearance of their app icons, including the shape of the icon and the icon appearance itself. Microsoft Launcher does not support uploading icons from the phone gallery, though users can download third-party icon packs from Google Play and use the icons with Microsoft Launcher. Individual app icons and shapes can be configured by long-pressing on an app on a page or in the app drawer and selecting the Edit Icon option, which is the sixth option on the screen.
Customizing the dock and app drawer
A dock is a bar of icons that appears at the bottom of the Microsoft Launcher screens and can be customized to include frequently used apps or folders. Users can enable or disable the dock within the Dock menu in Launcher Settings, and add apps to the dock by adding them to the home screen and then dragging them to the dock.
The app drawer displays applications on the phone in a horizontal grid layout, vertical grid layout, or alphabetical list. This can be configured by swiping up from the bottom of the screen to open the app drawer and selecting the options menu in the corner, which looks like three dots. Users also have the option to hide apps that they don’t want to see in the app drawer by selecting the hidden apps menu- these apps are not deleted and can be opened by selecting the app icon from the hidden apps menu, which can be configured to be password protected if needed.
Some users may prefer to organize their apps in folders, which can be opened in a full screen view or in a smaller viewing window within Microsoft Launcher. To create a folder in Microsoft Launcher:
- Open the app drawer
- Long-press on an app icon and choose the Select option
- Select the other app icons you want to add to the folder
- Select the folder icon at the top of the screen
- Change the name of the folder, if desired
- To add the folder to the home screen or dock, long-press on the folder icon and select Add to Home Screen
- Drag the folder to the desired location. To add the folder to another page, drag the icon to the edge of the screen to advance to the next page
Create a custom feed
One of my favorite features of the Microsoft Launcher app is the ability to create a custom feed of quick-access applications and widgets, which can be opened by swiping to the left of the home screen, and customized by selecting the Settings icon in the top right corner of the screen. There are two different views for the feed, including Glance and News, which can be customized by the user or removed by unchecking the check box next to each heading.
Available options for the Glance feed include:
- To-do list (from Microsoft To-Do)
- Sticky notes
- Frequently used apps shortcut
My most-used item in the custom feed is the sticky notes feature, which creates notes that can be synchronized in my Outlook email and in the Notes app on my iPad. This was especially helpful when I lost my voice and needed to quickly type messages during a conversation, and I use it frequently for taking notes during phone calls as well.
Other tips for how to create a custom Android home screen with Microsoft Launcher
- There is a search bar in the app drawer and a few other locations in Microsoft Launcher that is great for running quick web searches or getting information- on some phones, the search bar is faster than using Google Assistant
- The search function can be customized to search for apps, emails, people, tasks, notes, documents, and other information- this can be configured in Launcher Settings in the Search section
- Light mode and dark mode options are available in Microsoft Launcher- I prefer to use dark mode as it provides high contrast for device menus
- Swiping down from the top of the screen will open the status bar for the phone, unless Android settings have been configured to hide this
- Another option for making icons easier to locate/organize is to design or download a phone wallpaper with defined sections, and to drag app icons into different sections