The Problem With Notifications, Part 1

01 notifications-1

Last year I had a few discussions with my friend Zhe Lu of IFTTT about the potential of a notification management app. We never built more than a quick HTML prototype, but our conversations sparked some thought into how smartphone notifications are implemented and how we interact with them. I’ve since become concerned that the way notifications work doesn’t match up with the way people work.

I’m not alone in the observation that notifications are lacking. In fact, there’s something of an ongoing designer ragefest over notifications, not to mention the mainstream zeitgeist about smartphone addiction. It seems to me that a lot of people know there’s a problem, but are talking about it as a cultural, personal, or technology problem, rather than a design problem. In this and the next few entries, I’ll try to identify the key problem areas, take a look at how today’s smartphone platforms handle notifications, and maybe propose some solutions.

Moving forward, when I say “notifications” I’m only referring to smartphone notifications. Special shoutout to desktop notifications, which are even more ill-conceived and which I hope to tear down in some future post.

A Couple Characteristics of Notifications

If you’re a heavy smartphone user like me, you probably get a lot of notifications throughout the day: a mix of messages, tweets, flash sales, reminders, and email from various accounts. Some apps also contain multiple types of notifications, ranging from useful to annoying. iOS and Android don’t differentiate between this wide variety. Whether I’m getting a direct message in Slack or a notification about new tracks on Soundcloud, my phone buzzes all the same. I’ll call this “dumb notification management” to reference the lack of a governing system to decide which notifications should or should not be displayed. Logic to deal with different types of notifications is at the user level.

As a user, the complexity of managing notifications is further increased due to their ephemerality. When you dismiss a notification, it disappears forever. Unfortunately, for many apps, information that is presented as a notification is not duplicated when opening the app. Apps like Facebook and Twitter have their own in-app notification sections, but in may other cases, information that was once presented as a notification is no longer accessible. Take Foursquare for instance. Say I’m walking around and get a notification about a suggested restaurant; if I dismiss that notification, I’ll never be able to retrieve the suggestion from inside the app.

Perhaps an appropriate nickname for this system would be “heavy-handed notification management” – notifications that are either present or not at all. There’s no way to retrieve or see information about dismissed notifications.

Problems and People

So what’s the effect of dumb and heavy-handed notification management on user behavior? Despite growing anti-notification sentiment, I suspect that most people don’t realize exactly how the modern implementation of notifications is inconveniencing us on a daily basis. However, evidence of inconvenience can be observed.

One pattern I’ve noticed is that people will often dismiss unneeded notifications, but leave others around without acting on them. They are essentially curating a list of things they want to remember later. This sounds obvious because nearly everyone performs this act of curation. But reflecting on the problems identified above, it becomes clear that it’s the only thing we can do. This behavior is necessitated by both the lack of smart, automated notification management, and the inability to access previous notifications. Of course, this curation behavior causes the rapid cluttering of notification centers, but when the alternative is dismissing a notification and being forced to rely on our laughably short-term human memory, what else is there to do?

As [Thomas Wendt] (http://surroundingsignifiers.com/) points out in his [book] (http://www.designfordasein.com/) on design and phenomenology, lists — whether in the form of to-do apps, sticky notes, or a spreadsheet — are memory management tools we use to temporarily offload pieces of information and free up our brains for other tasks. But the advantage of these tools is that information doesn’t disappear from them. You can always go back and see old tasks and notes, but notifications are simply gone when dismissed.

Compare to the way email clients work. Traditionally, even emails that have been deleted can be accessed in a “Trash” folder. Today it’s even more common to “archive” emails instead, a UX pattern that better accommodates the need to easily search through old information. Why don’t notifications have this same level of accessibility?

My guess is that the answer has to do with how notifications evolved. Today’s notification systems work in an eerily similar way to missed call and unread message alerts on dumbphones. Compared to today’s applications, the communication features of dumbphones were and are quite simple, so it makes sense that the “notifications” basically serve as reminders, disappearing when you perform the associated task. After you’ve checked your missed calls or listened to your voicemail, the little badge or icon on the top of the screen simply goes away.

Although the information that can be delivered on smartphones today has become far richer and more interactive, it shares the DNA of those proto-notifications; though we can now dismiss them at will, notifications are still binary - either there or not there.

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I’ve only focused on the technical deficiencies of today’s notification systems, but it’s easy to see that the problems framed above are deeply related to other negativity surrounding the space. For instance, most other critics of notifications focus on how powerfully distracting they are. While I’ve touched only on the behavioral effect of requiring heavy curation by the user, a successful notification management system would also be optimized to minimize distractions. Another related issue: businesses making money from your deliciously impressionable eyebals benefit from the filter-less notification system and are heavily incentivized to spam your phone with messages in order to bring you to their apps (Twitter is a major cuprit).

So far, this discussion of notifications is platform-agnostic. In the next section, I want to dig into how the problems I’ve framed in this entry are being handled, mostly inadequatly, by today’s smartphone operating systems. In addition, I’ll give some examples of tools and apps with unique approaches to the problem and evaluate their success or lack thereof.