NYC Media Lab Notes

The Future of Notifications

June 17th, 2015


Last week, NYC Media Lab convened a workshop on notifications, drawing insights from experts in user experience and product design for two panel discussions. The first focused on the future of notifications and tried to put them in context of changes in digital media such as the introduction of wearables and the Internet of Things. The second panel looked at the state of the art and considered best practices for designing notifications from practitioners. Here are notes from the first of the two sessions.

The future of notifications

This panel considered how and why notifications have become such an important part of our media experience, and what the future holds as more and more services come online- from wearables such as the Apple watch through to more contextually driven mobile applications- that seek to send us useful blips, beeps and other forms of updates on new information that is available to us.

First up on the panel was Steven Levy, Editor in Chief of Backchannel, a publication at Medium. Steven recently penned a piece on the Apple Watch and the age of notifications. Levy thinks about notifications in the context of how the internet has changed the way we consume information since the advent of the web. In the 1990s there were the portals, where web users went to find information. In the aughts, we moved into the age of feeds: Facebook and Twitter were the pillars of this age. Many of the new mobile-only services, such as Snapchat, were feed first.

“The problem is,” Levy noted, “as we indulge in these feeds, companies like Facebook try to get everything through those feeds.” The result is a crowded experience, and the result is the attempt- through notifications- to extract and deliver the most important information. But the basic question for Levy becomes, “What needs to be known?”

Matt Boggie, Executive Director, R&D at The New York Times picked up Levy’s thread. “If you follow that progression from portals, to feeds, to notifications, in addition to a further refinement and a shrinking of the amount of information that goes into each of those different components,” said Boggie, “it also gets closer, and closer, and closer to the physical body, to my own presence and my own being. We are much more likely to forgive some of the curatorial mistakes that someone might make on a portal or in a feed than we are something that is attached to our skin.”

For Boggie, it comes down to questions of what information we are going to share. “I don’t think we can talk about notifications getting better until we start talking about personal data, about algorithms, about privacy, and about trying to figure out the right way to message someone based on the information that they have. I think we’re going to be getting into a lot of those discussions about what is the right moment to say the right thing to the right person.” Boggie told an anecdote about being ill with a cold- he spent the day recuperating on the couch. A fitness app notified him that “You just used the fewest steps you have on a Saturday. Maybe next time, try for more.” “No, I have 102 fever,” he thought, “Shut up. It’s okay for me to lie here.” The point is, it’s impossible for these apps to have all of the context they need to make clear decisions- there needs to be more collaboration both in the technology and with the user.

Next up was Otto Toth, Chief Technology Officer at The Huffington Post, who believes the impact of notifications on the news business is dramatic. Beyond just indicating to a user there is new news, Toth said, “now the notification is the news, and there is nothing attached to the notification. You can share the notification itself. There is a generation who is not reading anything longer than a notification.”

As a result, Toth argued, “news creators have to change their habit. They can write long form articles, but sadly, it’s about 9% of the articles that are read through. We don’t even know whether it’s read through, or scrolled through to the bottom. That means that people are not interested in long form anything. The notification is replacing, practically, the whole market. Now we have journalists who are writing just notifications. The headline writers are the next generation of the successful news creators.”

Dana Karwas, a professor in Integrated Digital Media at NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, thinks those designing applications should look at notifications as a “finite resource of our time and our space. One of the things that we’re thinking about is the idea that maybe there should be a charge.” Karwas proposed that there should be a kind of economy to notifications, such that apps have to, in a way, debit an account that the user would set aside for notifications in order to deliver the message. Perhaps that might save us from a nightmare scenario of too many notifications, if “it cost the content providers just a little bit to take our time, because our time is really valuable.”

Here are some other key points from the session:

On privacy

The artificial intelligence layer that will sort out notifications will ultimately come from Apple or Google, Steven Levy noted. But handing over control over notifications comes with tradeoffs. “We’re going to have to turn it over to these big artificial intelligence powers, one of those, which means giving up some privacy on that.”

For that to work, we will need strong privacy protections, said Matt Boggie. “We have a history of hundreds of years of trusted advisors in our lives. Everything from doctors, to the therapists, to you name it, of people who listen to your deepest, darkest secrets, and help you with that, and then shut up. Why can’t we just do that digitally? It’s not that hard to store that data in such a way that it can only be unencrypted by its end-user, that it can be aggregated in such a way that it can’t be drawn back to the single person, yet it can still provide that same level of interaction. I think those are the kinds of solutions that we need to be moving towards.”

Part of handling privacy is designing an experience that makes people comfortable and is transparent. Karwas says app developers need to focus on “the full experience, from signing up, to tagging the location, all the way to the end result. It’s like more of an experiential focus on signing up for something, such as The New York Times. I think The New York Times does a really elegant job from the login to downloading the app. For instance, my mom downloaded it, and it was just super simple. I don’t think she felt like it was taking anything from her. It was a really good experience.”

Nightmare, or Nirvana?

I asked each of the panelists whether we can anticipate, in the near future, a ‘nightmare’ or a ‘nirvana’ scenario for notifications. The panel was split:

For Steven Levy, it’s both. In the near term we will see quite a lot of utility from new forms of contextually aware notifications, even as we grapple with their proliferation and the privacy issues that will come along in tandem.

Otto Toth suggests its both, but that we have to get the personalization right. Referring to the experience of the Apple Watch, he noted that at first it felt as if he was receiving too many notifications. But once he turned them all off, it felt odd. “If I take it off and I don’t get the notification, I fear that, ‘Am I still alive? Am I fired? What happened? There is no notification.’ It’s part of our life and even if we are complaining about it, it’s a nightmare we cannot live without.”

For Boggie, it’s more likely the nightmare scenario. “I’m much more leaning toward nightmare, unfortunately, and that’s because it is significantly easier to get it wrong in this case than it is to get it right. The amount of work it would take to understand the nuance of a person’s situation and what mode they’re in, and what information they would appreciate right now, as a publisher, a nearly insurmountable task. On top of which, at the moment, the process by which we notify someone is very linear and very very granular,” he said.

For Dana Karwas, it’s definitely nirvana. The good outweighs the bad, particularly when you think of some of the more extreme examples of notifications intervening in our lives. Karwas says that, for instance, she gets notifications when there are tornado warnings near where her parents live in Missourri. She can call her parents immediately and ask, “Mom, there’s a big storm coming through. Where are you?” Similarly, city or even countrywide notifications for events like earthquakes, such as a system in Japan, give her hope. “I think in the future,” she said, “we’re going to see some really brilliant applications of the language of notifications and how they’re relating to our physical space, our group space, even our big social spaces.”

You can listen to a series of highlights from this panel on an episode of the NYC Media Lab podcast:

Next, check out a summary of the second panel of the day, which featured BuzzFeed’s Noah Chestnut, NPR’s Kaytee Nesmith, Pearson’s Denis Hurley and betaworks’ Matt Hartman.


Justin Hendrix is Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. Reach him at justin [dot] hendrix [at] nycmedialab [dot] org or follow him on Twitter @justinhendrix.