Notification Overload: Best Practices for Designing Notifications with Respect for Users

Much has been said about the notification overloaded environment we find ourselves in, and the addictive properties of digital notifications. Notifications can be destructive for our ability to focus and can and trap us in dopamine loops. In the comedy video Digitals, multiple notification sounds convene to make rhythmic music, a charming but frustratingly distracting tune which leads to our protagonist missing his guest at the door.

Chris Crutchfield’s comical digital musical on the challenge of keeping up with all of our digital notifications.

We have ended up in strange place in UX where notifications are almost an anti-pattern, due to their potential to interrupt and distract, as well as their habit forming dopamine reward loops which keep us tethered to our digital devices. Notifications are in part the reason that our use of technology has shifted from proactive to reactive, and for the common productivity advice to have designated time for checking email and devices rather than getting distracted every time a notification comes in.

The absurdity of the notification landscape we find ourselves in is highlighted by Stephen Conn in a great analogy:

“Imagine describing the analogous interaction design pattern for old-school snail mail to a version of yourself from thirty years ago, before the widespread emergence of email and the web: ‘Well, instead of having your mail delivered once per day, it will be delivered constantly, at all times, with each new piece of mail. And each time a new piece is received, the postman will call you, and tell you who the mail is from, what it looks like it’s about, and so on. If you want, you can have the postman open the mail, and you can hear its contents.”’

3 Key Best Practices for Notification Design

The good news is that it is possible to design more respectful notifications. The role of a notification is to inform the user of something, however this needs to be balanced with the cost of the interruption. Notifications come in many forms, from the visual, like the app badge, to the aural like a ringtone, to the tactile like a vibration or buzz. Many of these will be controlled centrally in the devices OS, but there are still lots of ways to design notifications respectfully.

1. Give the user control

Agreeing to notifications, most especially push notifications, is an act of trust from your user. They are agreeing to hand over the potential to infiltrate their most precious resources of time and attention in the hopes that the notifications provided will be useful and of value. The best way to be respectful in this relationship is to give the user control over what types of notification they want to receive and with what frequency. Users are more likely to agree to receive notifications if there is clarity on what this function will be used for.

A further opportunity to give the user control in notification design is to provide options at various levels of interaction. Since Slack is a communication app, it needs to very carefully manage the risk of the notifications becoming excessive or annoying. One way in which it does this is by providing not only settings for the app itself, across desktop and mobile, but also providing even more granular notification control at the channel level.

2. Actionable notifications/Knowing when to stop

A notification is usually about getting a user to take some action – check Twitter, turn off the alarm, answer a text or phone call. Notifications should be actionable as they should alert a user to something they need to do or pay attention to. Google’s material design guidelines highlight the importance of making sure that notifications are transactional:

“Transactional notifications provide content that a user must receive at a specific time in order to do one of the following:

One way to make notifications useful is to allow direct action within the notification itself. This allows users to directly respond and take action. A June 2015 NYC Media Lab event on the state of the art for notifications noted that as device capabilities evolve, consumers are starting to learn how to take actions within the notification layer.

A further way to be really respectful with notification design is to stop sending the notifications if users are not taking action on them. Duolingo automatically stops sending practice reminders after a certain amount of days pass with users ignoring the notification and not using the app. Alerting the user that ‘These reminders don’t seem to be working. We’ll stop sending them for now’, is a beautiful example of respecting usefulness for the user above all else. This creates and strengthens the trust and goodwill users have with your brand or app.

Duolingo recognizes when practice reminders are not having the intended effect and does the work of turning them off, anticipating a user’s’ needs and preventing a frustrating situation.

3. Customize the content

Notifications are an example of microcopy at play – short snippets of text or content that really need to do their job well. This text needs to convey the most important information really well, so that the user can make a decision on what needs to be done. There is an opportunity to be creative and vary this micro-copy in interesting ways.

There are opportunities to use data to make notifications even more relevant to users. Kaytee Nesmith of NPR talks about:

“Notifications that are contextually aware and are respectful of your time, that contain something that’s really important to you or really interesting to you. These will be based off of data.”

This data could be connected to time of use or preferences – when are your users more likely to want to engage with your service and what are their preferences? Netflix does a good job of personalizing notifications based on users’ watching habits, and alerts them of relevant content or updates on the shows they are engaged with.

It is also crucial to consider the context of the notification and what level of information to reveal. Notifications that show on a lock screen need to be customizable to hide sensitive or personal information. In contrast, notifications in the notifications drawer can contain more private content.

Interrupt me once, shame on you

Notifications and alerts are a fundamental part of user experience design, as there is a balance to strike between being useful and irritating. The future of devices with innovations such as wearables and smartwatches mean that notification design becomes ever more sensitive as we have more proximity to our users. Bad notification UX runs the risk of turning off notifications or completely uninstalling services, which is bad news for business. Treat notifications with the respect they deserve! As Douglas Adams put it in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

“The only thing nicer than a phone that didn’t ring all the time (or indeed at all) was six phones that didn’t ring all the time (or indeed at all).”