Email is a terrible notification vector

Apps are sending too many email notifications about trivial events. It’s time to stop abusing our users’ Inboxes and design more meaningful notifications.

This summer I spent three and a half days in the hospital giving birth to a tiny human. It was the first time in years that I’d ignored my Inbox for more than 48 hours, and when I finally dove back into Gmail after getting home from the hospital, I suddenly realized how much garbage I’ve been sifting through day after day — and almost all of it is generated by apps.

We Receive Too Many Emails from the Apps We Use

Someone tagged you on Facebook.
Someone mentioned you on Slack.
Someone sent you a message on Twitter.

Too many of the social apps we use as alternatives to email also send an email to notify us about the messages we’re getting that aren’t emails.

Collaborating online? Github, Basecamp, Trello, and the like generate a steady stream of email notifications, plopping another message into your Inbox each time someone on your team posts, tags, updates or mentions you or a project you belong to.

The struggle is real

Viewed individually, these might seem like meaningful updates worthy of time and attention, but taken together, the ecosystem of apps and tools that we use every day is generating more and more email noise. A handful of useful notifications are getting lost while important emails get buried under a pile of app spam — and it shows no sign of letting up.

Stop making me the janitor of my Inbox

I use Gmail’s Priority Inbox, which does a pretty good job of sifting out marketing emails and surfacing the important stuff. Nevertheless, I have to teach it what I want to see and what I don’t, and my return to an Inbox full of app notifications helped me realize that I’d been thoughtlessly deleting these notifications for months instead of teaching Gmail to ignore them. Without constant care and attention, app notifications quickly dominate my email stream and make it more difficult for me to process and complete important tasks.

Sounds about right

“Hey, why don’t you just set up some filters?”

Because I resent the time it requires; I have better things to do than build filters to clean up the notifications for every app that I use. That’s not my job.

“Hey, why don’t you manage your app settings better so that you stop getting so many emails?”

Again, that’s not my job — offloading notification management on to users is a dark pattern that allows apps to send tons of thoughtless transactional emails.

Notification emails are a lazy way for apps to try to boost their engagement metrics. They’re the junkfood of the app ecosystem: cheap, easy, and lacking any nutritional value.

Fix your app; don’t make me fix it for you.

UX teams — this is a design problem that needs a better solution

When I scan the stream of app notification emails that clamor for my attention, I’m struck by the apparent lack of design intention. Not a lack of visual design (I’m sure each and every email has been designed and coded to exacting standards so that it renders beautifully on any viewport size) but a lack of communication design. It appears as though each one of these emails was created in a silo, without belonging to any overall design strategy for how the app should be communicating with its users.

I understand how this happens; too often, overtaxed design teams treat notifications as an afterthought, rushing yet another email message into a product release at the last minute. But notifications are a UX problem that deserves attention, if only because clear, delightful communication is a competitive differentiator — and the field is wide open for innovation.

Blame the revenue strategy?

To be fair, some apps are beginning to support alternative notification vectors, such as pushing notifications into Slack channels. A growing number of web apps are also taking advantage of the ability to push notifications into the native OS, allowing users to get a small (but distracting) pop-up in the corner of their desktop. Nevertheless, these alternatives are usually treated as secondary notifications, and an email still goes out as the default or fallback.

Clogging up Inboxes with app notifications is lazy and low-value for everyone involved. Too many apps abuse their access to someone’s Inbox and offer little reward for the precious time & attention our technology demands. It’s time for UX designers to end the firehose of email noise; instead, we should create new solutions that give our users a smaller number of high-quality notifications.

Take an inventory of all your notifications

In many cases, no single person or team “owns” notifications; instead, they proliferate on a feature by feature basis that inevitably leads to notification creep. Taming the beast begins with an inventory of every action that triggers a notification email. Once you have a complete list, consult your metrics and talk to users about which notifications they actually find valuable.

Design for the experience, not individual actions

In many apps, notifications and actions have a 1:1 ratio. Take the same action 5 times, receive 5 identical emails in a row. This is a missed opportunity to communicate with your users like humans instead of firing off emails like a robot. User interviews and journey maps can help identify opportunities to combine or eliminate notification emails and communicate in a more friendly way.

Stop using email as the default vector for communicating with users

Just say no to adding more notifications. Make in-app notifications and messaging more meaningful and robust, and treat email as a last resort for only the most serious cases. (Are you worried that your users will forget about you and never open your app again if you stop emailing them every 4 hours? If that’s really the case, then you have more fundamental problems and no amount of email will save you. Sorry.)

Learn and embrace the principles of calm technology

Amber Case has outlined a brilliant set of principles for designing better, more human communication in technology products. Read through the list and try to imagine how much more time and focus you’d have each day if every product you use adhered to these precepts. My favorite: “Technology can communicate, but doesn’t need to speak.”

If only we could make it so.


Thanks to Pam Drouin, Jenn Downs, and Sara Wachter-Boettcher for helping make this better.

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