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The abuse of Notifications

I don’t know what it is about the tiny red dot on the icons on my phone and computer but I really dislike them. Whenever I see one pop up I feel the urge to drop what I’m doing and respond to them so there is no more red dot hanging on one corner of these apps. The instinct is so strong I don’t know if I learned it with technology or it’s as natural as wanting to flick away the crumbles on the magazine I am reading.

These red dots are most often notifications, telling you that something has happened. As humans we thrive on the “something has happened”. We can’t get enough of it. In fact our very survival might be dependent on us finding out just what happened.

Notifications are useful and good as a general practice. Very often we do want to know that something happened. Is our server down? Did we finally get the response email from the recruiter? Is there a new deal on the UHD tv that we have been pining over for some time?

Notifications are good because we don’t want to be sitting in front of a browser and hitting refresh all the time. It’s the useful equivalent of call centers calling us back when it’s our turn. Notifications allow us the to feel better with the knowledge that we can go about our life without worrying about missing something.

And so to this end the app designers have given us mechanisms to check our notifications and be alerted when something happens. They have almost uniformly applied the icons on the top right corner of apps and the ever-present red dot that unnerves us as much as the laser pointer dot does our cat. But it’s all well and good as long as we can reach news that we wanted.

And here is where everything goes really really, horribly wrong. Designers and managers have figured out our thing with the dot and they are looking at their engagement charts and seeing our reaction to it is as sure as rain. We are happy when they use this to solve our problems but they are in the business of making money so they are wondering if they could use this to solve their own problems as well. We have problems like finding out about job application status or not missing out a good deal on a tv. They have problems like how to get more users and page visits or how to promote a new feature, increase partnership deals, or generally get us to buy something we may not need at prices we don’t really consider a bargain.

So this is how a lot of products decide that the notification section is theirs and they can send you notifications. You check them and are disappointed to see that this bit of information doesn’t interest you at all or add anything to your life and feel a little icky that you were tricked into seeing something. Because notifications are sometimes full of promise you maybe change your plans so you can see what is there. I have once or twice got up from the couch and grabbed my laptop to login to websites just to be able to read the notifications and found that they are in fact advertising.

LinkedIn is famously one of the companies that will tell you very useless things like how many searches you appeared in or that a person you know on LinkedIn has a new post that is gaining attention (you don’t know what their definition of attention is and “a person you know” on LinkedIn is also not as meaningful). They also sell your attention to recruiters and others to post items to your notification inbox that are their problems, to find candidates, or get you to solve a problem for them.

Other apps do this too. When you open an account on Facebook and don’t bother with it anymore it will send you emails every single day telling you that you have unopened messages. That message is from Facebook by the way since you didn’t add anyone and it's telling you that facebook is better if you add people.

As designers and product professionals we need to be respectful about that red dot. We need to make sure we build trust with users that we will do our best to not abuse this system. Giving users option to change notifications is good as well but in most cases we know what they want. Users want to know about things that are worthwhile to them, about relationships, opportunities, potential hazards that may impact them, potential ways they can save money on things they care about; but most likely and most predictably they want to have updates on things they have started or are have actively chosen to follow or shown interest in.

Please ignore what engagement statistics are telling you about whether your users like notifications or not. Every time you waste their time they will lose trust and respect for you. And the fact that you got 70% of the users to open a message does not mean they left with the emotional commitment that you intended. Sometimes what you do is confirm again their dissatisfaction with how you are using their time until it builds up enough that they no longer want to hear any of it.

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