Web Notifications, Part 2: Auto-updating
Delivering feeds of live results in one notification.
We are also experimenting with an efficient, automatically updating notification that delivers a feed of information to a user’s lockscreen screen in one alert. These work well to convey data over time, like vote results and sports scores. If a user leaves the notification on their lockscreen it will update without any further alert tones, replacing the previous information with more current data. Note: this type of alert is currently only available on Chrome.
This approach eliminates the number of alerts that appear on a user’s screen, and lessens annoyance or burnout from being pinged multiple times by the same organization.
By sending auto-updating alerts straight to the lockscreen, we are trying to give control over the flow of information back to the user, so they can see the latest updates at a glance.
June 7 US presidential primaries
We first tested this notification type on June 7, when we ran auto-updating results for all of the states holding Democratic primaries that day. As the states began reporting, beginning with New Jersey at 8pm, we first sent out a notification like the one below to each subscriber asking them if they would like to receive results notifications for that state.
A tap on either the alert or the “Yes, Add Results” action button added the notification to the lockscreen. As the results came in, users received live results of the vote percentages, precincts reporting, and the raw vote count, all auto-updating off a feed of AP data. At the end of the night, as the Guardian called each state on its interactive results tracker on the website (original home of the beloved 8-bit candidates) we manually sent a final alert declaring a winner.
Above is a lockscreen showing all of the night’s contests updating in real time as well as another type of notification we ran.
When a winner was declared we sent a separate notification with a new icon, as seen below.
Based on feedback from users who received our June 7 primary alerts, we then tested two tweaks in a similar experiment for the DC primary the following week. The first tweak changed the way the vote was displayed; and the second changed the user flow to dismiss an auto-updating alert.
While in the first test we gave greater prominence to the raw number of votes, user feedback suggested it was the percentage that mattered more to them. We created a new line in the DC notification (seen in Version B) and asked users if they felt the presentation was more clear. 57% of our 42 survey respondents said that the new version was more clear, while 31% said the original was more clear and 11% said they were the same.
Additionally, during the June 7 primary, a user who dismissed the alert by swiping it away was sent another notification that asked “Are you sure?” We were not sure if users swiping right to dismiss the alerts — the usual way to get rid of alerts on an Android lockscreen — would realize they would reappear when new results came in, so we wanted to offer a clear opt-out.
Following the June 7 experiment we received feedback that this second alert was not intuitive and was in fact more annoying — exactly what we were trying to avoid. For the DC primary we changed the flow to allow users to dismiss the alert with no follow-up message, but included a way to stop updates in the action buttons (also seen above in Version B).
June 23 EU Referendum
On June 23, for the EU referendum, we again ran an auto-updating notification that self-updated when each of the 382 local authorities reported their results. The notification ran from 9 pm to just after 2 am EST, or 1 am to just after 7 am BST. We maintained the same opt-out format that we used in the US presidential primary experiments.
By the late evening in the US, a Leave victory was certain and news organizations were beginning to announce the result. Following the Guardian app alert, we notified our users of that result in a separate notification. However, we opted to let our live results notification continue to update until all 382 local authorities reported.
We maintained the opt-out format as a way to further test our premise that this was a more intuitive method. That premise was challenged by the results of our follow-up survey, in which we asked “If you had wanted to stop the live results notifications, did you know how to do it?” Of our 2697 survey respondents, 54% said yes, and 46% said no they did not know how, suggesting we may need to further tweak how we make this option clearer.
The auto-updating alert could be used in many different news instances: to follow a sports game, for elections results, even as a mini live blog (?!).
What we’ve learned so far about auto-updating alerts:
- Defer to the established Android pattern for dismissing notifications. In our first run at auto-updating notifications we were worried that users would not know how to stop the notifications, or wouldn’t know to expect it to auto-update, so we over-corrected by asking them as they dismissed it “Are you sure?”. This was not the expected behavior after dismissing a notification on Android, and in trying to anticipate user need, we ended up annoying them. For our more recent experiments, we have included a Stop Updates button. Our data suggests that users are still learning how to use it. Newsrooms looking to experiment with auto-updating notifications need to figure out how best to show users how to stop them — we’re still working on this.
- Not every alert can be automated. You can run an automated alert but if you think that your audience wants the additional editorial context outside of the pure data (for example, declaring a winner to an election) then that is a separate alert that needs to be sent outside of the auto-updating notification sequence. This has meant some late nights for our developers: In the case of an election, deciding when to end the notification relies on the editorial call from the newsroom that the result is in. It’s a factor for newsrooms to consider as they plan their experiments.
More in this series about web notifications: