The Psychology of Product Use: Notifications

Sort of Like a Tech Diary
7 min readMar 17


The Boy Who Cried Wolf, illustration by Frank Barlow.
The Boy Who Cried Wolf, Francis Barlow illustration. Source: Wikipedia

The following is a semi-structured brain dump of observations I’ve made as a consumer of products and services, mainly software and consumer tech.

I preface this with the following disclaimer: that I have only undergrad-level education in Human-Computer Interaction (a semester’s course that, oddly enough, I actually enjoined), an average dose of pop psychology from simply living in the 21st Century, and perhaps a mild neurotic bias.

What I do have are convictions that inform how I feel about products and product features, what I think about the companies (and people!) that provide them, and ultimately what I value. And these ideas coalesce into an overriding principle that products should have empathy for the user.

On Notifications

As a UI element that exists to be dismissed, the presence of a notification means unfinished business. Unfinished business is a stressor, demanding action or inculcating apathy in a user. Either of these can lead to not-very-good outcomes when the gravity of the indicator is frequently not aligned with its target event.

Even when they are aligned, I’m convinced the conditioning created by too frequent notifications tied to important things — messages from people we care about being a big one — is maybe not healthy. There’s certainly something to be said about the mental and physiological reaction to the ding! of your smartphone when a long expected notification finally arrives.

The Regular Sort

Facebook notifications, taken from the Internet 🤷🏾‍♂️

My first real brush with consumer tech was in 2008 when my high school mates and I, having just graduated, joined Facebook to continue the conversation. We don’t talk about Hi5. No one does.

The nature of Internet access then meant that your average resident Ghanaian teen was not online all the time. This put a handful of us in a situation where, already ahead of the pack with respect to not stepping out to actually see people, social media was practically our only window into the private lives of those with which we’d spent the last three years in boarding school.

With our new reality devoid of school schedules, voluntary isolation and infrequent updates from small online social circles came my realisation that the little notification icon lighting up with a new number was as impactful as a long-expected knock on your front door.

I confirmed this with another friend over Yahoo! Messenger. The drudgery of the first few months of life after school took a toll on both of us, and doubtless several others in the exact same situation. We were in agreement that it didn’t seem healthy to sit at home all day, idle and bored, waiting for the next ping on Messenger, or the next notification to show up on Facebook. But that was how we lived.

This may or may not have led to increased interaction with the platform in order to ensure the steady supply of attention, and waking up to a high notification count could set your morning right!

On the plus side, I knew I wasn’t alone in thinking how terrible it was to be so conditioned by a few red pixels in your browser window.

The incessant pull of notification-induced product-use eventually led to me wanting to keep these apps and services as far away from my person as would be accepted socially. Yes I have ghosted people on occasion, but it was for a higher good. I guess it’s human to want to step back from engagement after a great while, even if it is to regain temporarily some sense of self-possession.

On the darker side must be our strong instinct to want freedom from any sort of domination however inconsequential it may seem. That and our ego-centered need to exercise agency whenever that faculty has been relaxed for too long.

Either way, as my dependence on such apps for practically every social function grew, it came with tendency to not want to be notified by them. To be fair, months of conditioning meant that I already impulsively checked my social media sites too many times a day. The extra prompting just added false urgency (and stress) to an already not-very-good habit.

This mix of attraction and repulsion eventually took its toll on how I related to the product that was Facebook (and related apps). On the one hand, it was that indispensable tool I used to keep in touch with family across the world, friends across the country (and the world); on the other hand, it was like sugar: the thing you’ll be proud of if you got it out of your life.

If your flagship product is the one thing your users wished they could cut from their lives, you should be worried. Unless you own a brewery.

The “New Content” Prompt

Obnoxious notifications breaking the silence and stealing your attention are one thing; those tiny dots that say “new content” are a subtle beast that need their own section.

Previous, louder variants of this appeared on two apps I used a lot in 2013: 9Gag and the Google+ app. Both of these feature an essentially infinite feed of content you’re practically never going to exhaust in a sitting. They also loaded more content in the background; content of which there was always going to be more of.

The combination led to a rather uncomfortable scrolling experience which guaranteed that a few minutes into the feed, a largish, hard-to-ignore button will appear at the top-center of your screen, announcing that there was even more content to check out. That button disappeared whenever the scroll direction took you further down the feed, and appeared the moment it detected motion in the other direction.

This meant if you scrolled past some content and you wanted to nudge the feed up just a little to read it — BAM! — it got you.

Eventually, after several minutes of trying and failing to not let it appear while I browsed, I always ended up tapping on it, then zipping up to the top of the feed to see the new content. Just to get rid of the indicator. And, sometimes, it was just a single new post. And it wasn’t even funny.

When WhatsApp released the Status feature, it came with an insidious implementation of this visual prompt that, for the most part, ruined my experience with my most-used social media app.

No, the 6 unreads don’t count.

It comes in the form of a tiny, pale dot that hovers over the center of the Status tab on Android, and at the top-left of the related icon on iOS. The iOS experience could have been marginally better since the app by default opens on the Status tab.

You would expect that the new content indicator will disappear when you moved away from the tab since, by opening the Status first, you would have already seen the latest updates. But no, we don’t get that. A UI bug lets the indicator persist until you re-visit the tab to make it finally go away.

This often leads me to do a rapid back-and-forth movement to clear the indicator before getting to business. I employed the same pattern of movement on Android to get rid of the indicator. It turns out that that little indicator guarantees two extra gestures whenever I use the app. Gestures that are totally unnecessary.

The same is true for Twitter. Since Elon moved in, the pace of change seems to have sped up. For all the drama of his takeover, Twitter 2.0 ships. The downside of this rapid change has been that things better left undisturbed will be touched, and nudged, and tickled, and there will be collateral damage the juggernaut will pay no attention to.

Elon’s war on lurkers takes no prisoners :(

This is what happened when, in his drive to drive up engagement on the app, he forced a “For You” tab on everyone that guarantees you’ll hear from the firehose of recommendations that — surprise! — some twitter users intentionally want to avoid.

As with the case of the Google+ app, this list also updates in the background, so at some point in your Twitter use, a little blue indicator will appear on the Home tab, compelling you to repeatedly visit the tab to clear it, disrupting my preferred stealth-mode usage pattern.

In Conclusion

Notifications are an anti-pattern.

They may be a fundamental aspect of many applications, but their effects on users can be considered harmful. They can ruin the relationship users have with the product, which, ironically, can drive them away.

Thankfully, platform vendors and good app developers recognize this, and build in ways to shut off or control the flow of notifications coming from an app. When I built notifications into my first major app, the next thing I did was to add a way to shut them off. The Android team introduced more granular levels of notification control from the system. Major social media apps exhibit thoughtfulness with their detailed notification settings.

I’m not aware of any major app that lets users disable new content prompts. That’s one area of improvement social media apps (especially) need to consider.

If you enjoyed this, let me know.