Don’t Be a Notification Bully

In the darkness I set down my iPhone when something catches my eye, a notification. “Oh, what’s that?” And there it is again, that goddamn notification (which is really a disguised iCloud advertisement). I see it every day and cannot get it to stop.

“How do we get users to notice this thing?”

Attracting the user's attention is a common challenge for digital products. In the features arms race our screens get overloaded with visual elements making it difficult to define a visual hierarchy. Sometimes company politics amplify the problem in a battle for priority.

The first question I have in this scenario is “does the user care?” If they don’t you are going to have a tough time. User attention is finite. Drawing their attention to a new visual element will result in decreased attention on the current visual elements.

“Let’s put it in a notification so they definitely see it!”

Users are drowning in notifications. On the iPhone there are the following methods and locations.

  • Banner style
  • Alert style
  • Badge icons
  • Sounds
  • Vibrations
  • On the lock screen
  • Over all the screens
  • In the notification center

There are even more notifications within apps and websites: more screen overlays, banners, lit up icons, etc. Then there are notifications routed to text, email, instant messenger and direct messages.

Notifications have quickly become the “boy who cried wolf.” With so many screaming for attention users start to ignore them all. Even the important ones.

“What if we keep showing them the notification until they… ?”

This is what I call a notification bully. Notifications which repeatedly appear until you obey. They are the digital equivalent of a telemarketer that calls you every night at dinner time. Sometimes this pestering is deliberate and sometimes it’s poor design. The reaction from the user is the same: frustration and anger.

Here are some notifications bullies who are coming for your lunch money.

The Ruse

The iCloud notification I mentioned earlier is our first villain. It tells you that it can’t perform a backup because there isn’t enough iCloud storage. This directs you to settings where it shows you how to buy more iCloud space. Like millions of iOS users I ignore this message daily and wish I could check “do not show again.”

The Gang

Facebook messenger has a gang of notification bullies. When it was initially released the only way to see your Messages on mobile was to install the separate Messenger app. Bully #1 would hold the messages hostage and “remind you” to install.

Facebook Bully #1

I resisted installing Messenger for a few months (out of spite) but ultimately relented because I needed access to them. I was then confronted by Bully #2: a message to turn on notifications. I rarely used Messenger so I didn’t want more notifications (to ignore). But this message appeared every time I opened the app.

Facebook Bully #2

Bully #3 is also about notifications and it is nefarious. There is a red circle on the “me” icon in the tab bar. When you go to “me” there is an red circle on “notifications”. In “notifications” where there is an red circle on “turn on notifications.” This is not a toggle, its a button. And once it is on, it’s tricky to turn off. This is compounded with the absurdity that the only way to turn off the notification on “me”, the notification on “notifications” and the notification on “turn on notifications” is to turn notifications on. What the actual fuck?

Facebook Bully #3

The Passive Aggressive

The final notification bully I have seen on several apps. This notification tries to guilt you into leaving a positive review on the App Store. It asks if you like an app: yes or no. A “yes” urges you to leave a positive review. A “no” doesn’t but it leaves you unsettled if you really like the app. And if you are using the app, you probably like it.

If you are involved in product design I urge you to not employ notification bullies. These notifications are like the kid in the back seat asking “are we there yet?” every 90 seconds. They are design for negative emotion. Angry and irritated users are not going to convert or promote your brand.

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