Homescreens are intimate spaces. The constellation of pixels on each iPhone, Samsung, and Xiaomi is as unique to its user as a fingerprint, and twice as personal. So personal, in fact, that we rarely get to see the homescreens of our friends and family. 

The sheer number of smartphones in use today — 3.5 billion worldwide — would suggest that their visible interface, the homescreen, is a common and unremarkable thing. Yet outside of an upgrade as dramatic as iOS 14, the combinations of wallpaper, app icons and widgets are rarely discussed.

How we design our homescreens is how we design our lives. They reflect not just utility but our needs, our habits, and our motivations. We impose a set of organization on the glass rectangle that fits into our palm. The pixels beam a part of our identities back up at us. Rest of World reached out to healthcare professionals in seven countries. They shared screenshots of their homescreens, and through them, a snapshot of their lives.

  1. The ER nurse loading up on his phone data
  2. The surgical nurse who schedules her hugs
  3. The pharmacist surviving on deliveries during the lockdown
  4. The medical intern who wants to drive trucks
  5. The doctor avoiding distractions on her phone
  6. The pharmacist who doesn’t need social media
  7. The ER nurse ignoring her inbox
  8. The ICU doctor always on call
  9. The specialist sending prescriptions on WhatsApp

The ER nurse who loads up on his phone data expecting the worst: 

I use social media a lot more since the recent explosion. I would spend 15 minutes a day on my social media; now I spend an hour. I’m looking at people’s reactions to everything that happened. I was aggressive after the explosion, especially when someone didn’t share my point of view. 

Now, with everything going on, I’ve upped my monthly data to 10GB. I prefer to stay connected whenever anything happens. I used to walk to work; now I drive in my car. I prefer to have my phone next to me because I never know what’s going to happen. — 26, Beirut, LEBANON

Monthly phone bill: 60 thousand LBP ($39)

Data bundles in Lebanon are very expensive, but when the currency is devalued, it’s better to invest in them. You get better exchange rates than what’s available on the market. 

Phone: Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus

Favorite app: Guitar Tabs. It’s an app that gives me tabs for songs on the guitar. It’s my most expensive app. You can find the original sheet music, and you get it without piracy from verified publishers. You can also make your own version of a song and upload it so everyone can use it. It’s like Instagram but for music. I don’t listen to a lot of Arabic music, but I date people who do, so I want to impress them and play songs they like. Sadly, no one does tutorials for Arabic songs. When I listen to Arabic songs, I make my own version and publish the tabs. 

How expensive is it usually? 

It’s $120 for a lifetime membership, but I got it for around $22 on Black Friday.

What’s your phone background? 

I saw this photo on SeekDiscomfort.com. It’s been my wallpaper since. When I open my phone, I see space; I see planets. I feel happy and relieved. OCD-wise, it’s very satisfying. 

Your phone is really organized. 

I wasn’t so organized before I started working in health care. The job changed me a lot. If you were to see my desktop right now, you’d see it’s all organized too. I can’t open my devices and look at 17 things; I’d look at it and say, What is this disgraceful mess? 

The surgical nurse who schedules hugs with her coworkers:

We can’t move around in different units in the hospital like we used to do before the pandemic. Now we send WhatsApp messages to friends and meet up in “neutral” areas of the hospital like staircases. Sometimes we exchange snacks, or we chat for a while.

In the hospital, many people feel afraid of physical contact, but it gets to a point where we need it. We meet up and we hug, even though we are not supposed to touch. I think that’s the only way I can stand all the stress. — 52, São Paulo, BRAZIL 

Monthly phone bill: 70 BRL ($13)

Phone: Motorola G5

Favorite app: ColorNote. It’s a notepad where I keep notes about everything I need. For example, the cleaning ladies at the hospital ask me to get prescriptions for their medication because I’m in touch with the doctors. When they message me, I have my notes ready. I can keep track of who needs what type of medication — it’s all written there.

What do you do on your way to and from work?

The minute I get inside the train, I put on my headphones. I listen to my music; I watch my series. It is a moment for me to disconnect, when I relax for a while. I usually spend four to five hours on public transportation every day.

What do you listen to when you’re on the train?

I used to listen to the ready-made playlists on Spotify, but I would skip so many songs. Now I create my own, because the “Top whatever” playlists have songs I don’t like. Even if it’s the same singer, it just doesn’t click. I listen to samba and Brazilian country music. I also love Adele and Queen. I add them all to my playlist, so I get exactly what I want to hear.

The pharmacist who bought everything on her phone to survive the Covid-19 lockdown:

During the lockdown, I didn’t dare eat anything in the hospital. I was wearing adult diapers all day, from the time I left home for work until I came home, not eating or drinking anything. I bought those diapers on JD, the e-commerce app. I had to have these diapers to make it through the pandemic.

Since the lockdown, I still haven’t gone to supermarkets or anywhere with a lot of people. —52, Wuhan, CHINA

Monthly phone bill: 199 CNY ($30). That covers me, my mother, and the internet bills.

Phone: Huawei Mate 20

Favorite app: JD and Vipshop. But I use a lot of e-commerce apps — I can’t live without them. If I want to buy larger appliances, I use Suning; for smaller products, I use JD. I don’t use Taobao or Tmall often because I don’t want to end up with counterfeits. With VIPshop, I mostly buy clothes. This year, I didn’t spend a lot on clothes. The need for new clothes disappears when you stay at home all day.

Were you still able to order online in the early days of lockdown?

It was very difficult to buy masks and disinfectants then, but someone in the neighborhood mutual-help WeChat group had resources. Of course, it was very expensive, but you couldn’t do much other than trust one another. I just paid the money up-front, and they delivered the order. No one was trying to scam me. We did everything we could to survive. In the two decades I’ve lived here, I’ve never attended any neighborhood social gatherings. But at the time, because of the neighborhood chats, I would use it to talk to people living near me. 

How do you organize your homescreen?

This phone broke down not long after I bought it, probably from the amount of alcohol I sprayed on it during the pandemic. Because it was within one year of its purchase, the company replaced the motherboard for me in July. I haven’t changed the settings or organized the apps since. I used to organize them, but I haven’t done it yet. 

The medical intern with a passion for truck driving:

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a dream of driving trucks and buses. I used to sit in the cabins of the buses and look at the drivers using rigs. Back then, there was no power steering, so you’d see truck drivers turning the steering so hard. They were doing laborious work, and I was fascinated.  

Even nowadays, although I don’t get a lot of time off, I play a heavy truck simulator on my phone. It has everything: you have your dippers, traffic, damaged roads, and speed breakers. The graphics are really good, and it really feels like you’re driving the truck. I haven’t actually tried driving a truck, but I’m getting my license; I’m preparing with my RTO (Indian driver’s license) app. Once I get it, I’ll try to drive a truck in real life. 

— 24, Dibrugarh, INDIA

Monthly phone bill: 600 INR ($8.16). 

It has a 1.5 GB per day​ data limit. ​I generally use up to 1 GB on music, videos, and WhatsApp.

Phone: Xiaomi Redmi Note 4 

Favorite app: JioSaavn, a music app. It has more Indian and Hindi music. ​​I listen to Assamese language songs and a few Hindi ones. I rarely listen to English songs. My favorite Assamese artists are Papon and Zubeen Garg.  ​ 

When do you use music apps the most? I have a Xiaomi bluetooth speaker, so I just connect it, put the speaker in my pocket, and roam around my hostel. I’ve been on coronavirus duty. We work 24/7, but we have two doctors a day, so we divide the shifts into 12 hours each. I spend most of my time off in my room. Most of the days are lonely. I stay in your room, I rest. I watch movies or you look at your phone. The room is empty. I’m lonely, so I play music. When it’s time for bed, I put it on a timer so it switches off after five minutes.

The doctor trying to keep her phone from distracting her at work:

My phone background is a picture of my dad when he was much younger. When we were cleaning out his room after he died, I found this picture and it kind of stuck with me. My dad was a quiet person. He never really talked about his past. His personality is hard to pin down. And it’s a picture I wish we had discussed a little bit more while he was alive. It means a lot to me because it reminds me of him constantly. It’s cool seeing him while he was young. — 31, Lagos, NIGERIA 

Monthly phone bill: 7,000 NGN ($19).

Luckily, I have access to great WiFi in Lagos so that significantly cut the amount of data I had to buy. If I didn’t have access to good WiFi, I would definitely spend more.

Phone: iPhone X

Favorite app: WhatsApp. It’s just the convenience of being able to communicate with many people whom I would have lost touch with if not for the app.

How do you use your phone at work? A patient shouldn’t see you on your phone when you’re working. Outside office hours, when you’re just doing paperwork, it can be distracting. I’m sure I would be significantly faster if I didn’t have this obsessive need to check stuff while I’m typing up my notes. In other ways, my phone has actually been helpful. There are very important apps on my phone for work. Apps that I use to make sure I’m giving the right medication, alternative medication when one is not available — you know, apps that help diagnose skin conditions.

When did you download the Bible app? I moved to my mom’s house in July, the last month of lockdown in Lagos. We did our daily devotion every morning at 7:30, but I didn’t have a Bible, so I downloaded the app. I deleted it after I left — I have a lot of qualms about the Bible.

The pharmacist who doesn’t feel the need for social media: 

Maybe because in health care we’re all very busy, or maybe it’s just a personal thing, but I don’t rely on my phone that much, especially during working hours. I get quite a lot of social interaction during my work day. So I don’t feel a need to be on social media all the time outside of work as well. I imagine it’s a bit different if I had a desk job. I might want to be on social media more to connect with people. — 27, SINGAPORE

Monthly phone bill: S$ 25 ($18).

I was paying about $40 or more, but recently there has been a move toward plans with more cellular data and fewer of the other services. The previous plan was more expensive because it meant we got a phone at a cheaper price. The cost of the phone was added to the plan.

Phone: iPhone XS Max 

Favorite App: Spotify is my favorite app. I also have Xiami. It’s a Chinese music streaming app. Some of the songs on there are not on Spotify. Often, you don’t find Chinese music on Spotify or Apple Music. I also have another Chinese music streaming app, QQMusic. It has a paid service, a bit more like Spotify and Apple Music, where you can listen to copyrighted music that the other app doesn’t have.

Are you a Harry Potter fan?

I found the Harry Potter wallpaper online. I’m a big Harry Potter fan, but not as big of one as I used to be.

What is Tiger Connect? 

It’s a specially encrypted app that’s used for messaging at work because of patient-confidentiality issues. It is like a secure WhatsApp for communicating with different health-care professionals. I hardly touch any other app at work unless I was researching information.

The ER nurse who ignores her inbox: 

Earlier this year, there was a 70-day period when I didn’t see my family much. After having contact with a Covid patient, I would have to wait a few days. Back then, I made video calls with my family, but my daughter didn’t want to see me on camera because she’d end up missing me more. She felt touch deprived. Now that I’m home, she holds my finger until she falls asleep at night. She missed that touch. — 38, Aracaju, BRAZIL

Monthly phone bill: 65 BRL ($12)

Phone: iPhone 7

Favorite app: Criancerias. It features videos with songs inspired by the Brazilian poet Manoel de Barros. The app is interactive with videos and activities. At home, I always keep it on hand for my daughter. 

What’s Whereby? It’s a video-calling app that I use for therapy. I’ve been seeing my therapist for years, but during the coronavirus lockdown, we communicate through this app she asked me to download. The only difficult thing about it is that I need private space, and in my house, that’s far away from the router. I use my mobile data when we chat. 

You have more than 1,000 unopened emails. Do you try to read them all?  

I don’t even try to go through all the notifications. Unless it’s my day off, I don’t have much time to go through emails. Even though I know how to use technology, I don’t really enjoy using it. 

So taking a sabbatical from your emails makes sense. 

Yes! A sabbatical. That’s the word. 

The ICU doctor always on call:

My biggest fear is that my phone’s battery will die. If there’s an urgent patient and I can’t take the call, that would be really dangerous. 

My phone is a work phone. My number is in the official registry and probably being monitored. Whenever I leave Shanghai or take a vacation, I tell my hospital’s electronic system, and someone else fills in for me. Someone has to be on call in case a typhoon comes or accidents happen. — 52, Shanghai, CHINA

Monthly phone bill: 60 CNY ($9)

Phone: Huawei Nova 2S

Favorite app: Xuexi Qiangguo. It’s mandatory for every party member to study on the app every day. It has video, audio, and quizzes. The content is diverse: military knowledge, lifestyle and travel tips. Because my eyes aren’t so good now, I just listen to the important stuff and do the quizzes.

You have 60 unread WeChat messages. What are they?

I have more than a dozen work-related group chats. We have three group chats just within the ICU that I’m in charge of. When we need to discuss, communicate, or transfer images, we mostly do it there. 

Is there a problem with that?

I have too many group chats. There’s a separate group for every academic conference, every teaching activity. I have to scroll several pages to find a specific one. And it becomes pretty annoying when you receive so many notifications every day. I’m busy with my work and don’t have time to figure out which chats to delete. 

Why do you have a woman doing yoga as your background?

With a Huawei phone, there’s an app that regularly updates with their photos. I’ve deleted them a few times, but it keeps sending them. 

I have a membership at a gym which has yoga classes, but I only go there to swim. One day after swimming, I was chatting with the young folks there. I received this photo on my phone, and I told them, “If you can do yoga like this, then you are good.” And the young folks said, “Let’s make this your phone background,” and they did it. I don’t know how to change it back, so I just let it stay. I don’t hate this picture. I think if you can work on your body hard enough to achieve this, it’s a sign of health. I don’t do yoga, but when I’m tired I sit down and meditate to take some rest.

The infectious-disease specialist prescribing for her patients on WhatsApp

I used my phone for telemedicine. We can talk with all the people who were scared by Covid and share advice. In Romania, some hospitals became Covid-focused, and people stopped going to them — the people who are suffering from other diseases. They started to call doctors. I got these WhatsApp messages: “What can I do?” So I would write a prescription, take a picture, and send it to the patient with my signature. — 56, Bucharest, ROMANIA

Monthly phone bill: 4 EUR ($4.73).

Phone: iPhone 5 SE

Is it common for a phone plan to be this cheap in Romania?

Yes, all plans are very nice and cheap, not like in the U.S. I know because I pay my daughter’s phone bills!

How long has your daughter been living in the U.S.?

Too long. This is the start of her seventh year. She finished high school and went to the US right after. 

Favorite app: I use WhatsApp to send and receive photos of medical documents, test results, and pulmonary-assessment images. It’s very useful. 

It seems you are still using a relatively old phone?

It’s an old one, but it’s very good. I bought a new one in April or May because I used a lot of disinfectants to clean this phone and was sure it would break. But it didn’t break! I can’t change to the new phone because it’s still working.

Is there a reason you chose this wallpaper for your homescreen?

I like this picture. Sometimes I feel that I belong to something bigger than all the things that you see day by day. When I look at the sky and the stars, I feel that I belong to something other than what I see day to day.