The reign of notifications

Nicolas El Azzi
Apr 8, 2015 · 5 min read

Messages, emails, social networks, news, entertainment, sports… We are surrounded by notifications… How can we get the most out of them?

If you think about it, our everyday tasks are distracted by notifications most of the time. They allow us to know everything we’d like to know with a single glance. With the rise of smartwatches : it will be even worse. How can we get the most out of our notifications?

First: what is a notification?

A notification is a message pushed on our device and displayed outside of the application’s user interface. It is basically a message displaying a text message, an email or content from social networks, e-commerce, news, entertainment or sports websites. Notifications became part of our lives since the introduction of iOS3 in 2009. Now, iOS and Android allow some actions like the ability to reply to an email, text back, comment something on Facebook or even respond to a tweet without opening the app. But this is still basic and restrictive.

Notifications and wearables

“Apple Watch Is Our Most Personal Device” Tim Cook

With such statement, it makes perfect sense to push notifications on smartwatches. In fact, I believe it will be the primary type of user interaction. But as the screen is getting smaller, companies have to find the right way to push notifications to users and keep their attention. Imagine you are in a meeting and you are also receiving all your phone’s notifications on your smartwatch: it can become really annoying as your wrist will often vibrate as well as your pocket…

“I don’t have to use my phone in a meeting, or pull out my phone and be rude — I’ll just check my watch. What I learned vey quickly is I was being more rude, because it looked like I was constantly checking the time” Joey Marburger

As Apple is emphasizing the “personal” aspect of the Apple Watch it may be a good time to think about the notification personalization.

How can notifications be improved?

I’ve often read articles about people deleting all their notifications. This can be an option but I find it a bit extreme, I bet we all have some people and things we care about so how can we keep being informed without being overloaded?

Notification aggregators

Some apps like IF from IFTTT or Yo thanks to the Yo Store allow publishers to reach users by notifying them with predefined events. For example, users can set up notifications every time a specified Instagram’s friend post a picture or choose to receive a notification with the best of Mashable.

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IF from IFTTT— Instagram notification
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Yo Store from Yo app — Mashable notifications

Those type of aggregators are a good way for reducing distraction and allow users to get notify for things that matter to them.

What if we improve notification’s settings?

Today, the only thing a user can do is turn notifications on or off per app in his device’s settings.

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iOS 8 notifications settings

If we look more closer at some app like Messages or Mail, we can notice that users can already personalize a bit more those notifications. For example, they can choose to set up a notification every time a VIP sends them an email or every time they received a message from one of their contacts.

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Left: Messages settings Right: VIP settings

From there, why can’t users set a notification for a Facebook’s group or a google+ circle? Why can’t users only receive notifications from their favorites skype contacts? In fact, our apps should be smart enough to do that on their own…

If we go a step further, users don’t need their phone or watch to tell them they received an email when their inbox are in front of their face on the computer screen. The same thing can be tell about calendar’s alerts: why do I find my meeting’s notifications on my tablet when I get back at home? Skype has made some improvements by reducing this noise: if you are logged in on multiple devices but using only the tablet for example, notifications will only be sent to the tablet. Moreover, user don’t want any private notifications to land on their screen at work. What if they can set on which device they’d like to receive notifications? It can be as simple as having a list of devices per app and choose where notifications will be pushed to.

Contextual relevancy

Few years ago, Gmail introduced tabs in their product so emails can be split into those categories: primary, social, promotion, updates or Forums. By default, notifications were set for primary emails which allow users to separate their private mails from commercial ones. This is a good way to reduce notifications overload.

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Left: Gmail’s mail category Right: Gmail’s settings

Wouldn’t it be good to go further and be able to set notifications for other app? For example, when a user comments on a Facebook’s post, he doesn’t need to receive all the following comments. Why not alert him only when one of his friends adds a comment? Why is Instagram notifying users when one of their acquaintances has just join? Being notified when close friends join should be enough.

Notifications can be pushed from our device data as well. In fact, our devices are packed with data carrying several details of our lives. Google now is doing a pretty good job at using them. If a user have an air plane ticket stored in his mail, google now will alert him when it’s time to go to the airport taking the traffic into consideration. With all the fitness trend, imagine if our device could send the user the perfect meal after a workout or the perfect playlist to achieve his training goal. Possibilities are countless!


Being bombarded with notifications is a fact. With the rise of smartwatches, notifications have to be less boring: personalization and contextual relevancy are a given. Not only notifications need to be relevant, personal and glanceable but they need to deliver what users need when and where they need it in order to create an appropriate and successful experience. Maybe it’s time notification’s strategy is being reviewed.

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