Notification overload and coping with dark design patterns.

Design in 2017.

Here’s how most of ours days start. We wake up swearing because we need another 2 hours sleep, turn off the alarm and check our phone.

When we swipe down the notifications drawer, we see tonnes of work emails, Instagram and Facebook notifications, Slack messages and calendar invites. Even Medium notifies me of my ‘top story’, for it to be in the daily digest email an hour later anyway.

This is a dangerous way to start the day; we’re on the back foot before we’ve even had a shower. Not only is checking our phone first thing bad for our eyes, our relationships and our work / life balance, it’s terrible for self esteem.

How can we be efficient in our jobs if we’re chasing notifications?

Not only is it a bad habit, but there’s no one at work stopping us from doing it. We feel obliged to have our work email, Slack and calendar synced to our mobiles, and (most) company policies aren’t trying to get us out of the habit with complimentary work devices.

This leaves us plugged in, and contactable, at all times — We’re never not working. With us not being able to properly dismiss and handle our notifications on just our mobiles, it’s actually counter-intuitive to be reading them.

I find myself reading emails on my mobile in the morning, to only mark them as unread with the intention of properly digesting them later on in the day, or taking the time to reply properly. The same goes for tweets, messages or invites. This is nonsense.

Even if we do handle all our Slack messages early doors, we’re still forced to re-read them all when we’re on our laptops because of how they don’t mark messages as ‘read’ when you’re switching devices. This is particularly frustrating when you’re part of multiple channels, so I reached our to them.


The deepest darkest patterns

Yes, we’re overloaded with notifications, but this isn’t necessarily a problem if it’s making us more efficient. The real issue is dark patterns, or non-notifications. As notifications become more and more of a prime real estate for bitesized marketing or sales messages — that’s all they are really — we’re going to be drowning in our notification drawers in no time. AR will only spread this further I’m sure, but that’s for another time.

Here’s a bunch of dark notifications in the wild to prove I’m not being paranoid.

LinkedIn, arguably the biggest culprit of them all

LinkedIn desktop ‘notifications’
LinkedIn mobile ‘notifications’

YouTube following not too far behind

YouTube desktop ‘notifications’

Facebook trying to merge two platforms, with pseudo notifications


Focus, or don’t

With all this anti-behaviour, it’s no wonder that Nokia relaunched their classic 3310, allowing us to, ironically, focus on not being notified at all times. My brother uses an old non-connected device for his phone and hasn’t missed the access whatsoever. Has he suffered at work? Nope. If anything, it allows you to focus even more, because you know that you really have to nail your to-do list in the 8 office hours you do have, rather than bleeding it over 12 hours before and after the office doors.


There’s nowhere to hide

Bose’s updated QC headphones release signified a strong shift in how this notification overload will overtake the one area of our working lives we use to escape — music.

At work, I use music as a way to focus and escape the chatter. I invested in the Bose QC35s because I wanted that extra bit of shut off with the noise cancelling. The new headphones have remarkably managed to include Google Assistant, which means we can listen to and respond to notifications without even having to look at our phones.

Wow wee wee wah!

Wait, no. This is a terrible idea. We use the noise cancellation as a way to not have notifications interrupting us. If I can’t escape notifications in the one place I want to be doing this:

Me at work

I’ll end up being constantly distracted, like this:

Me with audio notifications

Bearing this in mind, I make a plea for all you designers thinking that audio is a useful addition to your platform. Yes, that pretty bell sound you found would make a great addition to the hashtag user experience of your dashboard, but I want access to my notifications on my terms, not yours.

Top tips:

  • Don’t ask for desktop notifications, no one wants them
  • Don’t auto enrol me for notifications on every single part of the platform
  • Don’t tell me I have a notification if it’s just driving me to a new feature, without asking first
  • I don’t care if my friend has posted after a while, you’re not a dating site

Anyone else on board? We need to dig our heels as designers, because product owners and CEOs are only going to want more notifications and more interruptions for our users. Yes, it makes sense for our product, but in the grander scheme of things, we need to be careful. Notifications are sacred ground, and we must add real value.


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