Rapid Application Launching Using Spotlight

Well-designed interfaces enable users to start working on their tasks immediately. Most tasks are completed using applications so it’s particularly important that users can launch applications quickly and easily. Most users have a core set of applications they use most of the time, and the problem of finding and launching frequently-used Mac OS applications is well-catered for. For example, users can place the icon of their favorite applications in the dock. However, the dock fills quickly so there is often no room for rarely-used applications.

Two third-party solutions particularly suit launching infrequently-used applications. The first is Enso Launcher for Mac OS and Windows. With Enso, Humanized demonstrated the usability of well-designed, natural-language command-line interfaces. The second application-launching solution is QuickSilver, BlackTree‘s Mac-OS-only precursor to Enso Launcher.

Although third-party software is great for filling gaps in Mac OS, I prefer to use Mac OS software whenever possible. Luckily, Mac OS has a built-in method for launching applications quickly. It’s called Spotlight. Spotlight is the Mac OS X search tool for locating files, folders and applications. To invoke Spotlight, type the Command-Space keyboard shortcut or click the magnifying-glass icon at the top right of the screen.


Spotlight’s search is incremental: Spotlight runs a new search as you type each character of the search string and presents the results in real time. Incremental search minimizes the number of characters you need to type to uniquely identify the name of each file, folder or application. Spotlight automatically highlights the first search result—the Top Hit—and pressing Enter opens the Top Hit.


To ensure Spotlight presents a matching application name as the Top Hit, drag Applications to the top of the list in Spotlight’s preferences window.


Spotlight’s ability to be invoked with a keyboard shortcut, to find applications with incremental search, and to launch applications with one extra keystroke transforms it from a search tool into a rapid application launcher. Here’s an example. You’re browsing the web and want to make a few notes using TextEdit. Using Spotlight, you can start typing your notes after just six keystrokes:

  1. Command
  2. Space
  3. t
  4. e
  5. x
  6. Enter

The first two keystrokes—Command and Space—invoke Spotlight. The next three keystrokes—t, e and x—select the name of the TextEdit application. Spotlight requires the fifth keystroke—x—to differentiate between TextEdit and Terminal, which both begin with Te. The sixth and final keystroke—Enter—opens TextEdit because it’s listed as the Top Hit.

Of course, you can use Spotlight to launch any application on your Mac, including those already in the dock. If your hands are already on the keyboard, launching an application with Spotlight will likely be quicker than clicking on the application’s icon in the dock.

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