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Look at me! More thoughts on notifications

36458Hunter Walk shared some thoughts on notifications and the challenges he and (certainly through twitter) many people see. Many of the companies I’ve met with see design challenges in how much and when to offer up notifications. There’s a long history of trying different approaches and modalities to notifications and so it seems worth some additional perspective for those familiar with what we see today on modern mobile platforms.

Notifications are one of those features where everyone has an opinion, and rightfully so. The feature is so visible and for just about everyone seems so close to being helpful but yet always off by just a little. There’s a general UX principle that is worth considering, which is anytime you push some feature on your customer you really want it to be right (correct, useful, helpful) for him/her 100% of the time. If not, chances are your customer will recall the negatives of the feature far more than the positives. This applies to notifications, autocorrect, form completion, and more. If you find yourself putting a lot of design energy into how your customer can undo or dismiss your best guess at what was intended, then you’re probably being too aggressive.

Anytime you push some feature on your customer you really want it to be right for him/her 100% of the time.

In some ways, today’s Notification Centers are the extreme case of “we’re collectively going to be wrong so often that we’re just going to put stuff in one place” or “there’s just so much we app developers have to tell you that the platforms are squeezing it all into one place to avoid cluttering up the platform itself”.

It is as if it isn’t enough we have to manage all of our apps, bookmarks, and preferences, we now have to manage all the ways apps tell us stuff we might want to know. Hunter’s raised the complaint (to a chorus of agreement) that after a two weeks, you have to go in and turn off notifications on a new app. Of course this improves battery life, reduces chatter, and then as some noted causes you to start to ignore the app.

What’s an app developer to do?

What to do?

In the PC era a lot of effort went into honing the design of verbs and interaction. It took a decade to develop the right approaches to menus, toolbars, status bars, panes, and more. That’s because many apps were essentially a large set of verbs this was the big design challenge. The rough equivalent to this design challenge is the role of notifications in mobile. That’s because in a mobile world many apps exist to be essentially a stream of information.

Notifications suffer a clear tension between platform pm and the app pm.

Platform pm wants to contain apps to the app experience, extending the walled-garden such that apps don’t interfere with other apps. By definition a notification is a way for one app to interfere with other apps. Platform pm sees notifications as necessary far less frequently than app pm might. This leads to a set of APIs that offer a clear, albeit limited, view of what a notification is and what it can do. This seems reasonable and we all want the platform folks maintaining a global view of consistency in approach and control.

App pm sees the world through the lens of their app. The assumption is that someone downloading and using an app has made a choice to count on that app for the purpose it was designed, and so whether it is an airline app alerting you to a flight (or a potential discount on a future flight), a bank with a balance alert (or advertising a new bank feature), or a communication tool letting you know of some inbound message (or alerting you that a friend is now on line) the app pm sees any of these as worthwhile reasons to interfere with your flow or context. On all platforms, apps often design their own type of notifications that get used while you are using the app (for in app purchase or feature advertising) because the platform is not rich enough. All this seems legitimate, and certainly at the time of initial designs.

Over time the initial designs from both parties tend to lead to an expansion in the ability to interrupt you. Each subsequent release of a platform almost always adds more capabilities to enhance and customize notifications in an effort to offer more while also trying to keep the noise in the system manageable. Each app adds more and more notifications in an effort to more deeply engage with customers and likely to encourage customers to use more surface area of the app.

Many who use iOS 7 have spent quite a bit of time mired notification customization. Here is an overview of the iOS 7 features, both the notifications and notification center, worth a look if you’re on Android or not sure of the impressive depth that Apple designed for notification. Android is probably not quite at the same level of consistency and control, though as you might expect there are several apps that can help you customize notifications of other apps.

Design Challenge

At the extreme we end up with two core design challenges.

Notification spam. This one is easy. Too many apps just think too much of what is going on is important to you. Like too much of any design the burden falls to app product managers to just be more thoughtful. Like so many elements of any platform, when there is a view that making money depends on getting folks to use more of a product or spend more time in a product, the platform starts to look a bit like “surface area to be exploited”. Like the old Start Menu and desktop in Windows, the more places an app can “infuse” itself and invade your space the better. On Android we see this in the share item menu as another bit of surface area to be gamed or exploited.

Notification action. The most common issue with notification is that your flow is interrupted and then you seem to be pulled into a state of distraction until you deal with the inbound notice. We each have our own human based algorithms for how to cope. We always jump on SMS. We (almost) always ignore a ringing phone. We wish we could find a way for some app or another to stop bugging us so we uninstall it.

On iOS there is very little you can do to a notification other than dismiss it or just jump directly to the app or place in the app that generated the notification. Modal or must-act notifications are generally discouraged. The resulting notification center then turns into a list to read that spans a bunch of apps and for some ends up to be a list of stuff you’ve already seen popup or in context or just a reminder to get to the app.

On Android, the design takes a different approach which is to enable notifications that can take actions. This is where the elegance of notifications is really stretched, but in a way that many find appealing. For example, when you receive a new mail message the gmail notification lets you archive it based on reading the initial content or various SMS clients offer you the ability to reply.

On Windows Phone, one has the additional option of pivoting notifications by person on your home screen so you can glance and see that there is activity by person. This has a natural appeal when there are a small set of folks you care deeply about but as a general purpose mechanism it might not scale particularly well.

The core challenge with offering verbs with notifications is almost “classic” in that one can never off the right set of verbs because eventually the design turns into attempting to implement the a substantial number of features of the app in the notification. Mail is a great challenge: delete, file, reply, flag, etc. all become possible verbs. Each usage pattern in aggregate leads to the whole mail experience. The more users you have the larger the group of customers that don’t like the subset of verbs you picked.

Ultimately taking action based on a notification turns into a bit of a frustration in that the notification centers essentially offer a new way to launch all your apps. What was a nice feature turns into a level of indirection almost all the time.

Opportunity

Therein is the opportunity. In a world where many people are almost constantly glancing at their phones and wanting to know more about what is going on in their digital lives and a world where almost every app represents an endless stream of information along with in-app notifications, it seems that notifications need a different level of semantics.

For example, with just a few friends Facebook always has something new to see so why notify you of the obvious. For many, Twitter is essentially a notification engine. Mail certainly is a constant stream, arguably of decreasing importance. In other words, it isn’t even clear what makes sense to notify you about when the natural behavior is to periodically launch apps to see what’s new within the app context and apps are generating new information all the time.

Similarly, if most everyone knows that when you are talking to another human you both have to turn your phones upside down to avoid being distracted (or sharing private information), then there’s a good chance we’ve collectively missed the mark notifications. The iOS “do not disturb” is an awesome feature but yet it seems to undo all the work in both the notification center and in the apps.

My view is that a feature that requires us to customize it before it becomes useful or less annoying is defaulted the wrong way. Of course this is literally impossible with a product used by more than a few people, since any design at all will have both critics and shortcomings. However, it is possible to default to “out of the way” and then provide a mechanism for people to decide what they might want to be notified about once a usage pattern is established.

For example, I might assert that for an app like mail, sms, Facebook, or Twitter the simple iOS badge is enough. We are all in and out of these apps enough during the day that a specific notification is redundant with the in-app notifications already there.

Each app can almost certainly step back and either know a priori or offer a mechanism that puts people in control of their experience with notifications. It is almost certainly the case that if we’re bouncing in and out of apps all the time but really do want to know if SMS comes from a loved one amongst the 100′s of SMS many get each day, that is likely the way to design a feature.

It is easy to imagine using more context (loved the twitter suggestion to not notify while driving/moving fast). It is easy to imagine more machine learning applied to notifications. But I think we can start from a fresh perspective that the mechanisms provided are just being over-used to begin with when we look at modern usage patterns.

–Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)

Written by Steven Sinofsky

February 15, 2014 at 12:00 pm

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