Inside PJC
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Inside PJC

The PJC Notification Thesis: We Are Over-Notified And Something’s Gotta Give

Photo by Jonas Lee on Unsplash

Notifications are failing us. The last time I ordered lunch from Doordash, I was notified 3 times that my order was successful: once in the app, once in email, and once via text. Then I got another text when my order was picked up from the restaurant, and another when the delivery was approaching, and one from the driver after she left the food at the door. I think some of those were also duplicated in the app, so I got them twice. I know I can edit these somewhere in the settings, but should the default really be 8–10 notifications interrupting me to tell me the status of my lunch? It’s just lunch. If I care enough, I can open the app and check. Worst case scenario is I get busy and forget and my lunch gets cold. But I have a microwave so, it’s really not an issue.

Too Many Notifications

Now amplify this across an entire week. I had to get a shoulder MRI for a sports injury, and the orthopedist who ordered it uses a separate system than my primary care physician. Luckily they integrate with each other. Or maybe not because now I get notifications from both. Twenty four hours before my MRI I get a text notification from the orthopedist app reminding me of my appointment. That gets piped into the health record app, which also texts me that I have a new message, and emails me too. I login to check the message. It’s that I have a MRI tomorrow, which I knew anyway because it’s on my calendar.

Once the results get uploaded, we repeat the process with multiple notifications. And when the bill gets uploaded, not only do I get a notifcation from each system because I can pay in either place, but I’m reminded that it’s due in 14 days, then 7 days, then 1 day. I get regular notifications to make sure I’m not ignoring the bill that I just want to wait and pay the day it’s due.

I also bought tickets to a RedSox game on Stubhub. I was required to download the stubhub app — no paper tickets allowed. Then I got regular notifications reminded me of the game (which was already on my calendar) in both the app, and email. After the game, both Stubhub and Redsox.com emailed me to ask how it went. Someone at both places probably receives bonuses on NPS scores so, of course they have to do this.

Don’t even get me started on restaurant reservations, car rentals, political campaigns, news apps, LinkedIn updates, or the emails I get reminding me of: special offers, new products, sales, and more from the dozens of e-commerce stores I’ve purchased things from over the last 20 years buying online. Even the guitar tab app I use regularly chimes in with 10 new tabs that have been uploaded that I might like.

Why This Is Going To Get Worse

I’ve thought about this notification problem for a long long time, but what prompted me to finally write about it is that at one point this week I looked at my text messages and realized that more than half were from apps, not people. As a VC, I get pitched regularly on why SMS apps for businesses are the future. You know why they are? Because people don’t respond anymore to emails at the same rate. Texts get way better response. And that will happen until we are so bombarded with texts the way we are with email that text will be ruined too. Then we will ignore most texts with the same level we do emails.

Think about that — most businesses DON’T use SMS yet. It’s still so early that venture backed startups are the ones promoting it. This is going to get much much worse as these companies scale.

The Dilemma

I know I can go edit the settings in most of these apps to control my notifications, but, that’s work for me — and it’s work I have to do in every new app or service I use. How is that a good user experience?

The dilemma here is that sometimes, I do want these notifications. Sometimes they are helpful. Some of you reading this probably love them and appreciate that you can live a life that the apps prompt you to live. But for me, they are interruptive. In small doses that was fine. For each individual app, it might be fine. But in aggregate, it’s a massive distraction

Notifications Are Now Their Own Content Type

At this point there are so many different types of notifications: reminders, requests, updates, suggestions, and they are for so many things: e-commerce, calendar, applications you use, people you know — that the matrix of notification possibilities is massive. Notifications are their own type of content, and there should be an app specifically for this content.

The app I would like to back would somehow scrape in and manage all my notifications in one place. It would categorize them multiple ways so I could see a view such as Urgent vs Today vs This Week vs If I Have Time To Care. Or a view like Meetings & Appointments vs Updates vs Requests. Each notification, when viewed, could have a series of buttons for what to do with future notifications like this — ignore them, queue them up but delete them after 3 days, allow them to bypass my regular notification rules, etc.

Every app, service, and company I deal with could feed their notifications into this one app. And this app could decide if/when/how to notify me.

The Big Problem

The big problem though, is while I know what I’d like to see built, I have no ideas about how to successfully get early traction, or eventually monetize it. It’s one of those ideas like “people should control their own data” or “we should make micropayments to articles and writers instead of subscriptions to periodicals” that is true, but hard to make work without flipping the entire system over to the new model at once. How do you scale into something like this?

Even if you can solve that, I’m not sure you could monetize it. I would pay $10/year for this, but most people probably wouldn’t. Advertising would probably create problems and end up going against the purpose of the app by annoying users more. Selling advanced notification abilities to the app and service companies is probably a long slog with limited upside.

So, we may be at a point where this is a problem we just have to tolerate, until something changes in the ecosystem in a way that provides an advantage to shifting over to this new notifications model.

But it’s possible I’m missing something, or just lack the creativity to find the right solution. So if you have an idea around this space that could be a business, not just a product, I’d love to hear from you.

Note: This was written in May 2021, so if you are reading this more than 90 days after, this thesis has most likely already been modified a decent amount. I will try to update this in a year with whatever new things I have learned about this problem.

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Rob May

Rob May

CTO/Founder at Dianthus, Author of a Machine Intelligence newsletter at inside.com/ai, former CEO at Talla and Backupify.