News at its most direct: What’s missing from the notifications experience?

News organizations know two things: that they can’t annoy you too much, but that they want your traffic. How do we make notifications into a more fulfilling experience?

Photograph by Maksim Kostenko / Alamy Stock Photo

Mobile push notifications have become the main way news organizations are able to let you know, at any time, in any place, that something has happened in the world.

It’s easy to see the appeal. Publishers want to get the news out fast, and they want you to know that they have the story.

The permission users grant to news organizations to fill their phones’ home screens with notifications is a privilege, one that can be revoked quickly by dismantling notifications, or by just uninstalling the app. This leads to a catch 22, where news organizations want to be the first to get you the news, but can still be quite timid about when, why, and how they send notifications.

The thing about notifications is, publishers can’t really predict the pacing of when you’ll need them and users never really know what’s coming. On days when there is breaking news, the trickle of notifications becomes a downpour, and once you receive the first notification, the value of later notifications to the same event is largely lost. On days without breaking news, notifications can just feel like a blatant plea for attention by news organizations.

Is there a way we — news editors, product people and technologists — can think about making notifications a more fulfilling experience for the user? How do we add value to each and every notification, so those receiving them don’t just feel like they’re getting a news deluge without much added benefit?

As part of the Guardian US Mobile Innovation Lab’s research into notifications, one of our main areas of focus, I sampled all the notifications that came in over the course of a three day period, between April 12 and 14, from seven news apps. (I know. So much buzzing. I did it to myself.) It’s a sampling that is not meant to be comprehensive. Clearly there are other news organizations that could fit in this group, but it’s a mix of large-scale general news providers and those who have used apps to stand out. So with the Guardian, New York Times, BBC News, Washington Post, Quartz, USA Today and Buzzfeed News’s apps downloaded to my iPhone, I turned on the standard permissions for each and settled in for whatever the week would bring.

The goal of this was to get a baseline sample of the types, tone, and frequency of notifications that news organizations send. Over the course of the three days, I received 49 notifications from these apps, and came away with some observations about the way news organizations are using notifications, and ideas for questions they could be asking themselves in the quest to make notifications better.

Let’s start with the parameters: I couldn’t have predicted what the news cycle would look like during those three days, save for knowing what events would not happen. There was no primary election, for example, and no major American sports or cultural event.

So what did happen? During those three days, a report found that endemic racism had contributed to failings by the Chicago Police Department, Zika virus was confirmed to cause microcephaly, there was a democratic debate, and Kobe Bryant played his last game. While these were all notable news events individually, the three days ended up being fairly ordinary in the life cycle of the news.

All this to say: If this sampling had occurred on different days, particularly those on which there was a breaking news event, it is likely that the overall number of notifications received would have increased, and possible that some of the other observations about tone, utility, whether a notification was time-sensitive or not, might have seemed more or less significant. (I actually repeated this experiment on a primary day and got 51 notifications in a single day.)

From the information we collected, some patterns emerged:

News organizations use notifications in two main ways: to tell you what the news is, as fast as possible, or to let you know about stories they think you should see. In the case of some organizations, like Quartz, the emphasis is squarely on the latter. A few of the more traditional news organizations, like the Guardian or The New York Times, send a mix of notifications that lead to features, as well as to breaking news. Some, like the BBC, which didn’t send a single notification during our sampling period, seem more conservative, and reserve notifications solely as a means of getting urgent information out.

If you’re sending fewer than six notifications a day, don’t worry, that’s normal. Six notifications in a day seems to be the limit (if one does exist) to the number of notifications a news organization will send in one day to users who have not customized the app to receive more specific notifications. Quartz sends that many routinely, while most other organizations sent out one or two per day on days without breaking news.

Notifications aren’t visual. News organizations looking to add informality and mirth are moving to emoji, which we saw from certain Buzzfeed News notifications, and, in the case of Quartz, also haiku. None of organizations of those sampled are experimenting with visuals beyond emoji which, admittedly is down to technical and bandwith limitations more than newsroom choice. Still though, as notifications editorially and technically progress, newsrooms should not dismiss thinking beyond the text alone.

Buzzfeed uses emoji in some notifications, often cultural news, but stays away from them in breaking news

Tone-wise, some are trying to spark conversation. During our three-day sample, only one news organization, The New York Times, experimented with asking a question of readers, and did so only once as a way of highlighting a live blog. (Can Sanders fight outside his comfort zone? Can Clinton excite the base? Here’s our live analysis of tonight’s debate.) Other newsrooms have tried this as well (though not during our sampling). It brings up an interesting question: What room is there for conversation, or even user replies in notifications?

Here’s a different example of the New York Times asking a question via notification.
An example from the Guardian on the night of the New York primary

Descriptive notifications are in … Beyond directly asking questions, some organizations are experimenting with a more descriptive headline a, “Here’s what happened, and here’s why you should care,” format, in contrast to the one-sentence “this happened” headline which gives the facts but lacks any context. The contextualized notifications are generally limited in length to two sentences, or three lines of text. For example, USA Today offered this sparse headline style notification: “CDC: Evidence definitively shows Zika causes birth defects” while Buzzfeed News offered more explanation with “Scientists say Zika causes microcephaly officially confirming the link between the virus and severe birth defects.”

There’s also been a shift towards notifications that tease rather than tell you the main idea in the notification itself. Quartz does this with many of its notification which entice the user to open the app by giving a hint of what they might see without the full news. For example:

Quartz’s notifications tell you what is in the app, but don’t give away the whole story

… But sequential notifications are not. No news organizations offered more than one update on the same story. This is good from a “don’t annoy the user” standpoint, but could also be a missed opportunity. For example: What would a story told through just notifications look like? Would a certain group of users like that if given the option?

The frequency of notifications has a lot to do with the basic notifications settings, which vary widely between apps. In order to best compare the number of notifications received as well as the standard tone, we tried to leave in place the basic settings that the user, upon first opening each app, is prompted by the iOS system dialogue box to accept or reject. (On Android, the user is automatically opted in, with the assumption that they will opt out if they desire.) In all of the apps there was an opportunity to opt out of notifications entirely, or instead, to further opt in to more alerts.

The difference boils down to apps that offer some level of customization, and those that basically ask “notifications: yes or no?”

  • BBC News and the Washington Post’s apps offer only this one tier of alerts, which the user can opt into of the first time they open the app. In each of these apps, users can customize their in-app viewing experience down to what stories they see and in what order, but this does not extend to customizing or increasing what notifications they receive.
  • The Guardian also only offers Breaking News alerts without other pre-set categories. Users can also opt to follow stories or authors. The app then sends automated messages when the latest by a selection is published.
  • USA Today automatically opts the user into Breaking News alerts, but upon opening the app the second time, asks if the user would like to subscribe to more alerts (News, Sports, Life, Money, or Tech).
  • Buzzfeed News too, offers opportunities to subscribe to more alerts from a preset list including LGBT news, UK News, and other topics.
  • At The New York Times, the NYTNow app opts the user into Breaking News alerts while the main New York Times app automatically opts the user into “Top Stories” alerts, and gives Business & Tech, New York, Politics, and Sports as additional options.
  • Quartz automatically opts the user into all of their four varieties of notifications: “really really big news, important and interesting, the daily haiku, and news updates.”

News organizations offer a variety of other ways to interact with notifications. Did you know there are more things you can do with a notification beyond just swipe to dismiss or swipe to view? News organizations have a variety of ways they offer users to interact with the notifications they receive. The Guardian prompts the user to share or save (by opening to the article in app and then also opening the native sharing screen from the bottom of the mobile screen); Buzzfeed News lets you tweet or text (the latter by bringing up the headline and URL in the message bubble — leaving you, the user, only the question of to whom to send it); USA Today gives the option to view article or save article within the app; Quartz seemingly offers a choice: press X, or press a thematically relevant emoji. Disappointingly (maybe just to me though?) pressing the emoji also just dismisses the story.

Across the board, news organizations seem to be looking to experiment with notifications: their tone, timing, and content. Anecdotally, we’ve noticed notifications have gotten longer, and the inclusion of emojis on notifications where it doesn’t feel offensive is also new. Last year, The New York Times started sending out notifications to their features stories at mid-afternoon on weekends, and the Quartz haiku comes out every afternoon at 4 pm. The BBC, when they do send alerts, has its own alarm sound. These mini experiments tell us that while what works for one audience may not work the same way for another, news organizations on the whole are still testing ideas and have a lot to learn about what their audiences might want in a notification. There are also many other questions that have yet to be asked.

Despite the dynamic quality of having the news appear on your home screen, there is actually very little choice for the user in notifications. News app users can opt-in to notifications (and then if they want, opt in to even more notifications) but from there, the options are fairly limited. They can open the article, peruse the app, tweet it, text it, share it with their friends, save it in app.

There are apps outside of our set, like Breaking News and Notify, that are betting on the idea of better curated notifications from a list of topics you’ve selected yourself. Breaking News, which is also known for its Slack integration, will let you pick from upwards of 90,000 topics, while Notify, the Facebook notifications app lets you sign up for what you want to read about, and what news organization (selected from a set list of partners) sends it to you.

But news organizations could also be giving us different options, aside from choice of topic. What about asking the tone you like to receive notifications in (i.e. “just the bare minimum please!” or “all emojis!” or “I mean, basically just send me the whole article as a notification would be great”). For the spoiler-averse, how about offering an ability to mute notifications about a certain event, rather than just block out a certain period of time, or to customize the sound a certain type of notification makes?

It’s good that news organizations are being methodical with their experimentation on notifications and it’s good that that they seem to understand over-notifications’ potential to alienate users. But the question with notifications isn’t just: how many can we send before someone deletes our apps? It’s actually: how can we customize this experience beyond just asking what they want to read about? With the advent of web notifications on the horizon, the format is only going to become more central to how we use our phones, so news organizations down to experiment may find themselves rewarded.

The lab is going to be playing with some of these ideas in the coming months. If you have ideas of things you’d like to see in notifications, we’d love to hear from you.

As one of its five areas of focus the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab will be experimenting with notifications. This is a selective list of observations we’ve made, and will continue to develop as our work progresses.

Let us know if you have additional ideas and observations in the comments or email us: We look forward to hearing your thoughts.

The Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab operates with the generous support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.