Notifications require some much-needed attention

Illustration of a woman receiving notifications
Source: Tubik on Dribbble

In the mid-2000s every “who’s who” in town was rocking a blackberry with its tactile qwerty keypad and a membership to the exclusive blackberry messenger club. Blackberry was the bridge between the pager and palmtop devices of yesterday and the smartphones of today. One of the most interesting and often overlooked features of a Blackberry was its LED notification light (anyone remembers those?). It was borrowed from legacy handheld devices and was a way to alert users when they got a mail, text, or missed a call in a non-obtrusive manner.

Image of a Blackberry phone showing the tactile keyboard and LED notification light
Blackberry built in a lot of analogue hardware like the tactile keyboard and LED notification light

Today things look a bit different for phone notifications. Not only is the tech more deeply integrated, but the amount of information a user interacts with has also increased significantly. This means more apps, more things to keep track of, and therefore more notifications. It is when you shift through the 78 notifications you got today, that you realize most of them are not needed.

Notifications are inherently designed to grab attention. That’s just their purpose. The problem arises in how businesses use notifications. It’s important to know the difference in priority between a promotional message and a transaction request. Some apps pollute your notification with what could only be called spam messages (looking at you Google Pay). Notifications have slowly transformed from a utility to a marketing tool. Notifications open a channel of communication that is built directly into a smartphone’s operating system. The closer a channel is to the user, the higher attention it gets, and therefore, businesses almost inevitably exploit this opportunity.

Notifications are begging for attention from product designers. It has become a crucial part of products. Modern design systems even include the overall tones for messages. Notifications have slowly transformed from an afterthought to a carefully thought-out utility.

The anatomy of a notification

On paper, a notification seems simple. It’s a message that demands attention from users by catching their attention through design elements like colours often accompanied by a sound. The notification can also have an action associated with it (like a reply to messages). However, there are more variables one can control in order to customize a notification.

Slack is a prime example of an app that allows tinkering with different aspects of a notification. The first thing that slack does right off the bat is to provide settings based on contextual variables like device type, time, and online status. These variables provide a way to control notifications for users.

Screenshot of Slack Notifications pane in Settings
Slacks prioritise notifications over everything else in settings!

Apart from these contextual data points, slack also provides extensive customization of the table-stakes notification elements like sound, banner, and badges. These customizations are more prevalent in niche products but are making their way to everyday apps. Controlling different aspects of notification, therefore, is not only good for customization but also for utility as different notifications can mean different things.

Integrate notifications into a product

Just like cookies, notifications also fall into different buckets depending on their intent, like utility, security, informative, time-sensitive, and promotional to name a few. Since every notification has a different priority level, it is important to provide users easy control over the type of notifications they want to receive and more importantly what they don’t.

The New York Times app illustrates how multiple notifications can be managed easily while increasing the chances of people opting-in for them. The first thing this app does is rather than providing a singular on/off for the notifications, it provides multiple notification groups each with its own toggle. Breaking them up like this makes each notification cognitively lighter and also provides users with options. People are much more likely to experiment when options are provided to them.

Screenshot of Notifications pane showing notification groups
The notification groups provide options that users otherwise won’t get.

The second paradigm the app explores is providing notification options contextually. The product team integrated the exact same notification toggle in all the relevant articles. Giving an option to get notified when you are reading the article feels more natural because it rationalizes the reason for getting notified. The other interesting thing is the choice of the toggle button. Contrary to the traditional pop-up for notification, the toggle button is more non-descript and calmer. This simplicity also reduces the decision load for the user, making it easier for them to press the toggle.

Image showing NYT app with notification for live update settings
NYTimes app promptly gives inline settings to get notified both for push notifications and newsletters

These principles not only are better for the user, but it is also better for business. Linked used these same principles to increase their notification opt-in rate by 500%!

Try what works for you

As with everything in life (probably), these are not rules but mere guiding principles. It’s always good to experiment with different patterns, and settings, and even add functionality to notifications. Paytm considers notifications as chat messages and also adds relevant actions when you open these “messages”. This paradigm works well for Paytm’s larger target audience as the concept of messages is not novel and therefore easy to understand, even for someone not well accustomed to modern apps.

Image of PayTM app showing each notification as a message and additional controls inside the “chat”
PayTM considers each notification as a message and provides additional controls inside the “chat”

In the last decade, mobile operating systems have matured quite a bit. Over the past few years, Google and Apple have focused more and more on integrating technologies into people’s lives. The latest flavours of Android started shipping with improvements in notification management. Android 11 brought some huge changes like notification grouping and even providing a notification history!

These “quality of life” features have also made their way into the fruit ecosystem. Apple went big on focus mode in iOS 15. Apart from having the ability to completely customize your screens in different profiles, users can also control notifications for each. The next big thing that is coming to notifications is automation. Apart from having profiles, iOS also integrates these settings with Siri Suggestions. Since Siri has access to your calendar events, it can automatically switch modes for you so you no longer need to remember to put your phone to airplane mode the next time you are catching a flight.

Apple’s focus mode enables you to create multiple profiles with different notification settings.

Considering that these feature sets are in their infancy, the future looks promising for systems that are designed to demolish the small everyday frustrations. That is more valuable to individuals than a new big feature.

Notifications have had a turbulent journey in the last couple of decades. From starting as a vital utility to being misused by marketing teams, things have finally turned for the better. It is no doubt that notifications are still important from a business perspective, but as more and more businesses start fighting for that space in the notification centre the value of that space reduces. Product makers, therefore, have to be strategic about their notification game.

Design is oftentimes showing businesses that people are more than eyeballs and clicks. It is difficult to manage the business expectation along with delivering the best possible experience to the users. In the case of notifications, product makers are finally finding the right trade-offs in order to serve both masters.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.