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As applications become similar in design, they deliver their value through other features. Users want speed and comfort from apps. Forever. And that’s a must for all apps. 21% of new apps die out because they suck. Or can’t go viral.

UX of Notifications

We’ve done apps that suck. But we’ve also built apps that make money and help people. Viral means dirty. And who wants to be that. But even the dirtiest tricks work and a lot of good stuff goes unnoticed. Because some apps are loud enough to promote the hell out of themselves, while others are too low key to even get a chance.

We’ll talk about the sweet spot – how to get users in a good loop of a good app. Not to pitch shit to them, not to sell them. Respect and help. That’s what every app should do.

Embracing the bell

Notifications provoke action. Even if they inform, they want action. Not deleting an app is an action. Checking in when you need to is action. Spending two hours a day in an app out of the fear of missing out is a heck of an action. Because every app notifies users in its own way, it’s hard to come up with patterns. And patterns reduce the pain.

There is a Japanese screen depicting the Battle of Sekigahara (関ヶ原の戦い) from the late 19th century. Looks like a complete clusterfuck. Who’s fighting who? Who’s winning? Don’t you feel the same when using some else’s phone? The apps are all in weird order, badges everywhere. Weird.

Now take a look at the banners attached to some of the samurai’s backs. Those are called sashimono and they were used to identify and control troops on the battlefield. Most of the sashimonos had clan symbols. The samurai in Feudal Japan had custom armor and sashimono also had a distinctive function. If you know your troops’ sashimonos, the picture starts making way more sense. But back to apps.

Our attention is a battlefield. Apps are troops fighting for dominance and their notifications have to be strategic.*

The bell icon

Before there was a bell icon or a tiny red circle badge, staying in the loop was an intrinsic motive. An event. Like checking your home answer machine after work. Only the important stuff like calls and text messages were worthy of being displayed by the phone as they come.

In 2003, Blackberry’s Research In Motion department introduced the technology called Push Services for email notifications. It was an attempt to add emails to the big league. That made sense. Blackberry favored businessmen as their target clients. Notifications became part of business routine and in that regard, nothing really changed much until 2009.
Apple’s vision and belief in independent app developers created what we know today as mobile UX. Apple gave notifications to the people.

Whatever you are into, if there’s an app for it, you won’t be forgotten.

The bell icon mania spread like a wildfire. It quickly reached beyond just a person-to-person interaction. All of a sudden, service messages, sale pitches, and spam started poking you with once an intriguing sounds and signs. Phones started going apeshit with alerts and most of them were not coming from your friends.

Push notifications are a classic example of good UX intentions gone bad because we know no bounds. This resulted in smartphones (still focusing on good UX) having notifications turned off by default. All these years, RIM, Steve Jobs, a designer working on better ways to keep people updated were in vain? “Don’t @ me” is what we say implying we don’t want no bullshit from people on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.*The heart icon

Why we respond to alerts

Bread and circus! Things we love either cater to our natural needs or comfort our emotional thirst. Things on our phones are no different. Apps give us a sense of inclusion. Regardless of what is happening in your life, your phone will always give you something to take care of.  

Instant love and adulation

Imagine receiving a notification everytime someone mentally compliments your hair. Ding! Or your shoes. Ding! Or your walk. Ding! Ding! Ding! How about a notification that someone loved you reaction on their reaction? A two-level notification with some sort of appreciation in its core.

Apps and social media give us an immediate response to our actions. Often, it’s a disproportionate response, provoking twisted perception.

Given enough time, this desire to get instant love from strangers becomes an essential part of our life. Without it, it doesn’t feel good. “Did the world forget about me? Where all the likes and views, and comments at?” There is also no upper threshold for love. We can take as much as it gets. This accelerates the crave and frustration in case we are not receiving enough.

Medium introduced a revolutionary system of encouragement through claps. It doesn’t notify you about the number of claps, but uses the word “fans” instead. Realistically, you won’t count the claps

but you can tell how many people appreciate you. This shifts the focus back to people again.The claps icon

Dopamine rush             

You might never get any love and adulation for the photo you just posted. Or get not in the amount you’d like. But one we get for sure – the wait.

The anticipation of appreciation is emotionally greater than the actual response.

We are connected to hundreds of services and included in multiple loops. All voluntarily and for a cause. However, the cause might be obsolete and the reasons why we joined some website or installed some app might be lost. Human memory has a natural cleansing mechanism. Digital devices don’t.

With that, our greed often keeps us in those dopamine loops. I once made a cool picture with this vintage 90s camera app I have on my phone. One picture. The app has been sitting on my phone for eight months. All because I don’t want to miss a chance to make another cool snapshot some time. The anticipation is there. And so are the notifications from that app.*

notifications from the app

Endless distraction             

Most of our daily routine is boring. Even if it’s not in the beginning, it is with time. That’s just who we are. We let things grow on us. A phone is a portal to another dimension. Where there is no tasks to finish, no obligations, only the things you want. We want to have an option of escape attached to anything we do. And when things don’t go as fun as they could, we want those exits to trigger. We are conditioned to hear what we want to hear.

The only notifications that work are those that affect you personally.

Working in an app development company, I’ve often heard people discuss notifications for utility apps like to-do lists, productivity boosters, and fitness apps. Most of them later realize their notifications don’t work because they tell users what to do, which most of us don’t like.

At the same time, an app that says: “Hey something’s going on here, check it out” has way more chance to succeed in pulling a user in.
For this very reason, we’d ignore fifty notifications from banking apps but immediately jump in if there’s a Tinder match alert. Might not necessarily mean you’re that desperate. It’s just too personal to ignore. Over time, it becomes a habit where you just can’t help but wait to be distracted.

Same with the opposite type of notifications. If they don’t give you a personal engagement, they don’t register as important. The more you dismiss them – the more habitual it becomes and the harder it gets for apps to push through.*

apps to push through

The big waste

I’m not here to shit on notifications and label them all useless. Discipline and willpower are cool. So is the ability to jettison all your gadgets. Respect. But this is not for everyone. Instead, let’s look at what makes notifications work properly. After all, notifications are just a scapegoat for our own carelessness.
So where did this devaluation happen? I love how Adrian Zumbrunnen puts it:

“We ignore a shepherd who always sows panic just like we ignore a bell that always rings.”

Once application design shaped into a discipline, notifications lost their value. Placing a bell icon somewhere in the UI means it has to ring. Nothing to notify about? Let’s make an artificial cause. As the result, we got a beautifully designed principle of push notifications that don’t work. This is good for neither the design nor the product. And people started fighting it.
The default behavior is to turn off all the notifications and selectively turn them on manually for only a few apps with probationary period. This situation is a waste of time. Designers go balls to the wall to come up with better notification icons and animations. Writers go crazy trying to come up with better wording for the notification no one cares about. And people develop muscle memory to tune out faster which is also a waste.

If we think about how deeply rooted our relationships with digital devices are compared to ten years ago, it’s fair to ask what is going on with all the data about us? Not personal details but behavior patterns, rest and activity periods, locations, and so on.

Our digital ecosystems are the extension of ourselves. Notifications have to be smart.*

Notifications have to be smart

The untrodden path of notifications

Here’s what UX designers can apply to notification design tactics to redefine the state of alert:

  • Analyze phone usage data and application activity periods to identify the deep work and flow state phases.
  • Minimize the distractions depending on the type of activity a user is engaged in. Periods of time where a user is physically active have to be distraction-free. There should be no piles of notifications after a rest period as well.
  • Recognize patterns of behavior and create schedules of distraction-free periods. This can also help users struggling with focus to stay within the limits they historically created for themselves.  
  • Figure out where a good interruption is possible. YouTube does this when you actively spend several hours on the website. World Of Warcraft warns you that your character can’t starve to death but you certainly can. A perfect understanding of their audience allows the production teams to easily identify abuse.
  • Support healthy productivity of users by balancing out their time. Deep work phase is only effective because it’s finite. We need to reward users for the good work with some meaningful distraction. It’s better be not a “John Doe commented on his photo” type notification.
  • Active interaction and reaction. There has to be a way to tell an app that bugs you to ease up on notifications without going cold turkey on them in the device settings. A quick dismission a couple of times means such notifications are not interesting to this particular user and if you insist, the mute part is likely to come next.

In a lot of ways, these are the principles that could be forced on the third-party apps by an operating system, but it’s not a genuine experience coming from within.

Oppression won’t create delight, so it’s only deep UX studies, and partial machine learning that could help reestablish the culture of mobile notifications.

There is no opening for another notification control app either (sorry, startuppers). We don’t need more apps, we need them to respect us better. A good app can stay with their owners across decades and multiple devices.

A good app is like a friend. A friend knows you and does what’s best for you even though you might not really like it. That is enforcing deep work periods, letting them soar during flow states, securing their privacy and presence during family time, addressing their lack of physical activity, and rewarding them for being productive with selected content.

Something as insignificant as a notification sent in the wrong time or manner can turn people away from the app.

Again, it doesn’t matter what the actual app does. If a user let you into their phone, it’s your job to do everything right. Your app tells people when it’s the best time to wash their car? Don’t send your notifications in the morning. Let them start their day with what is important. See how often they check the weather during the day. Are there events planned in the calendar? All these are just variables for the app but these are what real lives consist of.*

actual app

The wording of notifications

There is a scarcity of real estate on most of the mobile devices. But even if there’s space, we are not allowed to abuse it by oversized notifications. The same applies to the text of it. If takes too much effort to figure out why you are being bothered, chances are the information will be perceived negatively. Notification text is a subject of scrutiny for UX writers.  

The notification has to be simple. And simple is not primitive.

A matter of the message can be complicated but it can also be conveyed through simple words. I strongly believe the entire notification has to be visible on the lock screen. The idea of the message has to be clear. Big text in a notification is intimidating and goes back to the early days of computers where every service message you get was an error report. Make it simple and comprehensive from the first glance. An actionable button would give the notification an additional kick.*

There is only one state of mind notifications should represent. Regardless of your app’s industry and credibility, the message has to be positive. Whether it’s a post-action notification, a warning, a prompt, or an upsell, care and respect have to shine through.

Sometimes there’s nothing bad about sounding like a person. These are the notifications we want.*

the notifications we want
It can be challenging for designers and developers to simulate an unbiased approach to their product. The more freedom you have to influence it, the more you merge yourself with it. Writers have no say in UI design except for the text boxes left here and there. Not to mention the architecture of the app or its navigation. That in a way helps put ourselves in users’ shoes and express confusion from their part.*

text boxes
Except for now, we have the power to ease that confusion by arranging better descriptions and titles. Notifications, in that regard, reflect the behavior of the app and the souls of people who built it. Most of us provide a service and we want our service to be desired. That means a cocktail of things: we have to be clear, neat, fun, and most importantly, helpful.

We can’t predict the contexts in which our notifications will find people but we have to assume the worst.

Hence, our main task with the notification copy has to be as helpful as possible and causing no trouble. This is a hell of a challenge but it has to be taken in order to get the notification culture of the anathema we neglected it into. Hopefully, the rise of UX writing and overall design thinking will help us do better in 2019.

* Awesome graphics via Dribbble:
Love Loader by Chris Gannon
Notification by Andrea Puccini | Epoch476
Like Notifications Animation by Shakuro
On/Off Switch by Johanna Lundgren
Notification by Samuel Osh
Redesigned Notification Cards by Joshua Söhn
Notification by Brett Marshall
Notification Group by Daniel M.
Hero image courtesy of Wfmt

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Written by Moses Kim

October 10, 2018

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