Designing meaningful notifications

The mobile home-screen is fast becoming a platform in itself; and notifications are becoming the primary vehicle in how content is pushed to users. And increasingly, notifications are not just the 70 plain text characters most of us are familiar with. They contain rich media and functionality, allowing users to achieve their tasks, bypassing the app or browser completely.

As we consume and interact with content more and more at the notification level, there’s never been a better time for business’ to keep users informed with timely, relevant content.

But notifications often resemble email marketing in the mid-90s. Impersonal, irrelevant and poorly timed, they’re treated as a badly executed marketing strategy, and not as a publishing channel in and of itself. So if content is now being abstracted from traditional containers such as the application wrapper and pushed into the notification, how do we best design smart interruptions that engage rather than annoy customers?

There are a number of different types of notifications, from user-generated (such as text messages) to system generated (such as low battery). These messages are largely utilitarian and have an obvious job to do — to inform you that a meeting starts in ten minutes, or that your taxi is outside. I’d like to focus on a third type of notification; smart, context-driven notifications pushed to users based on a number of different contexts, such as time, location or activity.

The right notification at the right time

In order to deliver a successful notification strategy, it’s necessary to provide customers with the right message at the right time. But timing means much more than simply segmenting your users by time zones, or customizing messages according to the seasonal calendar. It means delivering information at the precise moment a customer is likely to take action.

Timing should incorporate both the type of customer (which I’ll touch on shortly) and the urgency of the message. In order to gauge the urgency of each message, a notification map can help match each type of notification with the right priority.

Mapping notifications ensures you can publish notifications whilst minimising interruption.

The difficulty with context-driven messages is that as they’re not time sensitive and don’t involve direct interactions, they’re usually afforded a lower priority, both in the notifications drawer and in terms of mental value to the user.

However, they can pull from aggregated data in order to trigger tailored, timely messages to customers. Or at least they should.

Image credit: Andrew Chen

Here, Netflix shows how powerful a well timed message can be. It’s extremely simple, but Netflix has personalized the message based on user activity (user has watched season 1 of House of Cards) and a timely event (season 2 is now available). The end result is an engaged user, receiving content of genuine interest to him.

Compare this to the scattershot approach Shazam has used with their push notification campaign. The message is unspecific and untargeted, and the timing associated with it is of little importance to the user. While Netflix has pushed timely content from within the app, Shazam has attempted to entice and lure the user into the application, resulting in frustration.

There’s a classic push and pull dynamic at play in these messages. But in Shazam’s case, the posture does not match the medium. In order to compete with time critical messages, pushing timely content to users when they want it, rather than enticing customers within an application when you want, is the strategy that will bring the most success.

Notifications based on user needs

Push notifications usually follow traditional market segmentation, categorising customers according to existing industry verticals such as age, gender and demographics. These categories neatly fit how a business categorises it’s customers, but wilfully ignores what a customers has been doing (or not doing) within an app. For successful push notifications, customers should be categorised as different groups of customers that have unmet needs.

These unmet needs can be gauged from the behaviours users have exhibited in the past 30 days. At the very least there should be two categories: active and inactive users. These can then be broken down into further subcategories.

Take active users. For new sign ups, a welcome message, along with a link to valuable tutorials or a discount on future purchases, can make push notifications a part of your onboarding process. Or for users with a high session count or who’ve spent money in-app, a notification should recognise this activity and offer further incentives.

For inactive customers, push notifications should be used more judiciously, with particular focus being paid to the length of time a customer last opened the application. For customers active in less than 7 days, notifications can be framed around a key feature of the product that they have not yet engaged with. For customers inactive more than 30 days, ask yourself whether push notification is the right medium at all. Perhaps email would be better suited. You’ll need to reintroduce yourself entirely. Just because you have had a previous relationship with someone doesn’t mean you have permission to interrupt them.

There are potentially limitless ways to segment your customers based on in-app activity, and your notifications don’t have to cater to every single user segment. But neither is it enough to treat your users as one homogenous segment. A user’s attention is something that must be respected. Regardless of the information being transmitted, notifications interrupt a user’s task flow.

It’s essential then that notifications are tailored to what users actually want, whether that’s support, motivation or recognition. If we don’t have the time or effort to segment your users properly, then we can’t realistically expect customers to take the time to read our messages.

Structuring interactive notifications

With the launch of Android Lollipop and iOS 8, notifications are starting to include a number of different objects; a combination of text, images and buttons. Designers need to make intentional and deliberate decisions when it comes to structuring content within notifications. Where should the user’s eye be drawn first? What is the button that you need to draw attention to? Establishing a sound content hierarchy ensures that each content element is married with the next, rather than in competition with one another.

Field Trip uses notifications as entry point to more detailed content

Take Field Trip. Users are presented with a short, succinct description of an activity in their area. Once the notification is interacted with, a card appears detailing further details about the activities nearby. The notification card contains multiple content types. But in all cases extraneous information is avoided; the notification is seen merely as an entry point for more detailed information.

Buzzfeed’s interactive notifications, a full blown publishing platform in their own right, follow a similar hierarchy. Size and position are used to give user’s a sense of visual importance. In this case, the image takes priority, followed by the call to actions and then the content itself. These decisions are not accidental. The desired outcome is for you to tap on the image and consume more of Buzzfeed’s content.

As notifications grow as an interaction paradigm, so too will the form of content within them. Its more important than ever that diverse forms of content within notifications can communicate the desired messages and actions to users.


As we enter the age of apps as service layers, and notifications as a distribution platform, it’s becoming less and less about users opening apps to discover content, and more about them pushing content out when they have something to say. The contextual signals I’ve mentioned that inform notifications, such as past usage and location, are increasingly being joined by hardware sensors and predictive algorithims. And as the homescreen becomes the primary UI on mobile, with content coming to users instead of them having to go look for it, expect well designed notifications to become a central part of your publishing strategy.