A better Notifications experience

Over the last few years, Notifications have pretty much taken over our mobile device interactions. Users we’ve spoken with have told us about the constant barrage they deal with, simply so that they don’t miss the few that really matter. Here are a few thoughts around the landscape Notifications operate in and how their experience can be improved, both at OS and app levels.

State of the union re Notifications

  • Too many (with the growing number of apps/services that we use via phones)
  • Untimely. They are ‘app centric’ vs being ‘user centric’, and usually appear without knowing your context — do you really need that update from Clash of Clans when you are in a meeting?
  • Repeated across devices & channels. Not only is that buzz and push repeated across devices, but also often across channels such as email. The growing number of devices we own (laptop, tablet, mobile, watch, home entertainment — Xbox, Apple TV, Chromecast, Echo-like speakers) with their own notification system makes more painful, but possibly, an opportunity.
  • Notifications act as Triggers for subsequent interactions. Receive a message saying “Can you meet me at Piccino in 10 ?” and your likely next step is to open up Maps, Search for Piccino and find your ETA. Making such logical next actions easier for users can reduce the amount of time we spend app-switching.

Opportunities for experiences centered around notification stream

Better organization and consumption

Notifications should strive for an almost attention-less consumption. As a user, I ought to be able to digest whatever you are trying to tell me and get back to doing what I’m doing. Very few notifications require my immediate attention, so the key should be to highlight what does matter and save the rest for later.

Of course, what matters and what can be deferred is a function of what I’m doing right now and the nature of the notification. For instance, holding off a Clash of Clans alert till I finish driving or a meeting will not only reduce my distraction, but also increase the likelihood that it doesn’t get lost in the sea of notifications that have accumulated since.

A delightful experience is one that works across devices, using the most appropriate mode of consumption at this moment — with or without a screen. For instance, when I’m at home (read out aloud from Echo or Xbox), when I’m in a meeting (watch), and when I’m driving (read it out).

This translates to UI and UX design implications around what to present and how to do so.

Better Management

Thinking of notifications as a parallel to Email would be the next step to building an effective solution. This includes being able to act on (remind me when I’m free/get home, mute for X time), prioritize, filter, share them, etc.

Android and iOS already have support for ‘actions’ tied to notifications — extending that would be a natural way to inject additional actions.

Bonus points for going a step further and customizing ‘actions’ to be relevant to whatever device is being used to present the notification — quick ‘yes/no’ style options on a Watch, opening a related app on the phone, or allowing for free-form speech-to-text responses via a home media device such as the Amazon Echo.

Build a content driven experience

With notifications acting as triggers for follow on actions, making it easy to use the content of the notification to provide additional information or actions (ala Google’s Now on Tap) can help reduce app switching times and make it easier for users to act on them.

Understanding when notifications contain date, times, locations, people, etc. can help present options that pertain to them (add to calendar, remind me when I get to X, navigate to Y, etc.).

The ‘OS approach’

What Google & Apple should end up doing. They are the gatekeepers, and at the system level, best positioned to look across the board and help users solve the problem.

Organization

  • Build a better UI for notifications that highlights relevant ones, and give me control over what and how I consume them. Relevance is more than just time of arrival. It’s about what I pay attention to at this time, this place, etc.
  • Filter notifications that I care about — People and services that matter, coupled with ‘recipes’ that let me tailor ‘what I care about’ to my needs. For instance, more permanent things such as when my significant other, or the kids’ school tries to reach me, or transient scenarios such as when the client I’m meeting with today reaches out.

Management

  • That UI we just talked about ? Well, give it the ability to store old notifications and give the user the ability to ‘snooze/mute/remind’ specific notifications.
  • By the way, configuring those filters is a pain. Learn my usage patterns to suggest settings that work for me (people, places) → make the setup easy and create a personalized experience.

The ‘app developer approach’

What devs, or rather, intermediate notification middleware should be doing. Since they know most about the intent behind notifications, I feel they can take more meaningful actions.

Understand user context to time notifications

  • Know whether to interrupt me Now or later. Get a handle on what I’m doing — if I’m in a meeting or driving, at home or work, and when I typically use your app to increase the likelihood of me welcoming your alerts.
  • Bonus points if you know which device I’m using / around and direct the notifications accordingly.

Manage the notification actions

  • Add relevant ‘actions’ to notifications to help me control how I interact with your notification. ex. mute for now/remind when I’m free. Not only would I welcome this, but it’ll also bring me back to your app at a time I am prepared to engage with more deeply.
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