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What’s the future of mobile notifications?

A short essay on the current state of smartphone notifications.

Notifications Centre on Windows Phone, iOS and Android respectively.

Notifications are great. They are one of the most valuable smartphone features because they are a huge time saver. It’s way quicker to have a quick glance at the notification panel to see if you received that email you’ve been waiting for, rather than opening the app.

They can supply you with relevant information based on your current location. They provide an instant feedback about your social media activity. Personally, 9 out of 10 times I open the Medium app, it is to read the new post that was delivered to me via push notification.

Yet, I frequently find myself setting my phone to the Do not disturb mode. Why? Surprisingly enough, notifications can be distracting (I am glad my paranoia is finally backed up with a scientific research). It’s amazing how much damage to your concentration can a single sound that lasts less than a second cause.

Another reason I turn off the notifications is the information overload. Let’s do an experiment: try not to touch your phone for 24 hours. Just keep it connected to the network. My notifications panel would be overflowing with messages. And I have no games installed on my phone.


As a lot of people, I used to have the Messenger app. But I uninstalled it.

How do I turn you off permanently :(

The reason? There is no way to turn off the notifications. You can mute them temporarily, but not permanently. (Yes, there is a ‘hack’ around it by rejecting the permissions to the app from the settings, but I feel it should be available within the app itself too.)

And if there is something that can be more distracting than a random blip, it would be 20 blips announcing that you received a message from your friend. We all have that one friend who goes on a messaging binge.

However, this post’s goal is not to bad-mouth the Messenger app. For it is the problem of the current state of notifications in general rather than one app. (While I am at it, I am sorry to say this, Medium, but you are the biggest culprit in my notification panel nowadays.)


This is really important. In times when notifications are becoming the main way of discovering and consuming content on mobile, it is crucial that we get it right.

As I mentioned above, the insufficient standards in implementing notifications can create a distracting environment not just for the owner of the phone, but they can also result in a decreased UX (fancy abbreviation for User Experience) to the level of uninstalling the app.

I see 2 main issues with notifications as we know them today and both could be solved at the OS level. That is, Google (Android), Apple (iOS) and Microsoft (Windows Phone) would have to chip in. Leaving the implementation to the individual apps would be too troublesome and wouldn’t guarantee that every app would conform to the standard. Unless…it would be required by each app store guidelines and then reviewed by the respective app store owners, thus leaving the final decision to the OS makers again. So here we go.

Note: My examples are on iOS, but the concepts apply to every platform out there.

1. Information overload

Standard quality of messages people send on chat apps.

Problem:

You go to the meeting or otherwise distance yourself from your phone for at least an hour (you’re not addicted, are you?). Then, when you come back, you see something similar to the image on the left.

Why it is a problem:

I believe that notifications should serve the same purpose as Executive Summary in reports. You should quickly get a clear overview of what has happened while you were away. This should be achieved by just checking your phone, as opposed to having to scroll and swipe through the notification jungle.

Solution:

I am aware that not everyone will share the same view and have the same needs. Therefore, instead of baking the new functionality directly into the OS itself, there could be an extra option in the notifications settings to enable this feature. Notice the new toggle for Summary mode.

I am sure a competent person could come up with a better label.

Result:

When you check on your phone, you would see a nice summary of the stuff that is relevant to you. I think it is a good direction to go, also as many companies today are trying to improve their personal assistant apps (Facebook M, Apple Siri, Google Now, Microsoft Cortana).

Imagine this dialog taking place.

You (CEO of BigCorp Inc. with 5 minutes to spare between the meetings): “So Jane (your PA), what has happened while I was away?”

Jane: “Oh, there was A LOT going on.”

You: “Well, can you summarise it for me? I have to run in a bit.”

Jane: “Unfortunately, no. But I can tell you exactly what has happened. Your mum called you and said, ‘Hi’. Then she said, ‘When are you going to be finished at work?’ Ten minutes after that, she called again to say ‘You won’t believe who I met today in town! Judy, your primary school teacher, remember?’ Then your friend Michael contacted you…”

You: “Sorry, I don’t have time for all this, just give me the important stuff.”

Jane: “Well, John moved the card ‘Fix the annoying notifications’ to the In Progress bucket on Trello, while your friend Monica was working hard on a Horse Stable in FarmVille…”

You: “…”

Is that an optimal dialog? Surely not. However, some people might prefer it this way. After all, computers can remember a lot of stuff, that’s one of the reasons why they are useful. But there are times when you would simply prefer just the key points. In that case, your notifications could look something like this.

The other apps would be nested underneath, as usually.

Ah, my cognitive load just decreased by 75%. Sweet! And while I do not see the actual content of the messages, I get the gist of what happened — 1 friend sent me 4 messages. It could’ve been also 10 people sending me 76 messages. Perhaps we could replace the generic text with your friend’s name and divide the notifications by names.

It is important to note that you cannot see the whole message even in the present notifications as they are, as they get shortened automatically to fit in the screen. Therefore, we are not losing any core functionality.

However, it would be still nice to actually see who sent those messages without opening the app. If only there was a way to do that, hmmm. Oh wait, there IS a way to do that! Albeit available only on the iPhone 6S for now, I am sure that 3D Touch will soon be adapted by other makers as well. In that case, we could do something like this:

I am sure a competent person could design this better.

And there it is. No functionality lost, while delivering the much needed overview. Similarly, you could have notifications such as “2 of your friends posted on Medium” or “2 of your friends posted 2 articles on Medium”. Exact wording is not important for this example, you get the point.

Note: In case other makers do not adopt the 3D Touch, or for the backward compatibility issues, the same behaviour could be triggered by simply tapping the notifications bundle.

Code:

As nice as it might look on the picture, there would be some more code needed to deliver this new functionality. The problem here is, that the OS cannot infer which notification counts as a message and which does not. Remember, you could receive friend requests, comments on your posts, missed calls, get added to group, … and that is only Facebook/Messenger. For the OS, every notification currently counts as a new object as far as I know, thus it cannot distinguish between the types.

So on the basic level, we could just replace the nice summary info with a generic notification that would say “You have 10 notifications from Messenger”. But would that be enough?

If you are anything like me, then you would shout ‘NO’ right away. So we would probably have to extend the notification object with some new properties (at least that’s how I would do it). For example we could add a property ‘type’ that accepts integer as a value.

Here I would assume that the type property would point to the relative group that would identify this notification as a message instead of request or something else (assuming that this is not already happening). So type = 0 are messages, 1 = requests, and so on.

Then, we would be able to group the notifications by their type and say yes, we had 1 friend send us 4 messages. The friend count would be obtained simply by looping through the notifications of the same type and comparing the senders name and then incrementing the count for number of senders.

2. Information urgency

Yes, I made that term up. So I will need to define what I mean.

Problem:

Imagine a scenario where you are at work and your flatmate/spouse/anyone messages you as follows.

I am sure a competent person would go and buy milk themselves.

Why it is a problem:

Even though we don’t see the entire message, it is clear that we are being asked to perform some task at a later point. Specifically, to buy a milk when we go home from work. That means, this information is not relevant right now.

In my case, I receive a lot of articles from Medium, but oftentimes I would like to read them later that day. I do not want to lose the notifications though, and as I am not aware of any other way to access the articles otherwise, I keep the notifications in the panel. This leads to the information overload too, while I am certain that I do not want to see that notification until later. See the issue here?

Solution:

There is a very simple feature you are probably already using on your email. You can even perform it on your alarm. I am talking about Snooze. I found a nice concept of this feature on YouTube.

Similarly to the video, we would assign different actions to the left and right swipe, and then one of the directions would lead to the following screen (the other one would keep the present functionality of discarding the notification). Again, this is just a concept, the design and copy itself would probably change.

Come back later!

Result:

So you just received another pesky notification. You’re about to swipe it away, when … oh wait! I actually want to respond to this, but now is not the right time. With this new feature, you would be able to send the notification back and have it reappear at the set time.

Code:

Aside from the need for the ‘Schedule’ button to open the native time picker, I do not think this would be very difficult to implement. The notifications would be stored in a separate array of scheduled notifications and then popped out upon the timer expiration.

Last fallback needed for this to work without loss of any functionality, would be to provide a way to see the delayed notifications. After all, your schedule might change and suddenly you will have 5 minutes to spare to read that article or to make that call…

Boom. Nice and clean. As it should be.

Actually, it would be probably a better idea to find some screen estate for the Snoozed button somewhere on the screen so all of the notifications would be under one button instead of having the apps listed like that even though there would be no active notifications underneath them.

Smarter solution and even matches the current feel of the iOS.

And that’s it! World is again a little bit better place. Or would be. Maybe one day.

Thanks for reading.

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