Engagement without nagging : a sideways look at “notifications”

By Martin Dower.

On User Experience.

Notifications, primarily from email messages, and their actions is widely thought to be consuming 25% of our work time.

It’s not just “new mail” that is dehumanising us – it extends to any platform based on notifications including Facebook, Periscope, Worflow Management and most items connected to the “Internet of Annoying Things”.

Undeniably, we love the kind of immediacy and engagement that comes from these interactions. But I suggest it needs to be less invasive, and that means in a more human and empathic manner.

A case in point. I have a number of Apple devices and they’re all “in-sync” with each other and that’s fantastically useful. I can start, for example, this post as a few scratched ideas on my iPhone whilst waiting for a taxi on Thursday evening, a bit more added on the MacBook on Friday and the final work done on my iPad.

Unified work flow is so seamless as to be a dream. Except the same applies with these damned notifications: someone @martin on Slack and the house/car dings in (not quite) unison as my phone, iPad, computer and car all chime out the urgent stab of “hey, something has happened in the outside world”.

Not all notifications are created equal, some are useful reminders that Company X is overdue a day on their invoice. Others are more important, such as my flight being delayed, or my wife needs a carton of milk bringing in.

Yet you only really have 3 settings for all notifications. Noisy On, Silently On, or Off. Most mine are set to silent as I think there are very few things in life as important as what I am doing now – so 99% of other stuff can wait.

But we’re moving into a notification-driven world, and everytime we hear the ding we check our phones in a strange modern-day mash-up of Pavlovian dogs and The Walking Dead.

I’ve spent last 10 years of my life obliterating email from my life with some degree of success, only to have the warm smothering pillow of notifications replace it.

I really can’t be expected to respond instantly everytime I get tagged in a work-thread chat, or when a new support ticket appears. That can’t be good for productivity, even if it is good for my responsiveness.

Dealing with Notifications.

I do think Apple have done a pretty good with it’s notification centre. You can silence the alerts and dump them into a single hopper that you choose when and to deal with. And you can DND the alerts pretty easily.

What’s not so good is how the default settings are set. It seems every app requires to be in the notification centre and bonging away. In not sure the value of the Yahoo Weather App pushing notifications to me actually is.

2 years ago I thought I had found an answer when my spangly new SmartWatch from Pebble arrived. It was a bit of a revelation on the notification front and certainly stopped that relentless dig-the-phone-out-of-the-pocket experience everytime a faint bong was heard.

But it didn’t last. Notifications were a little unreliable, the link got lost sometimes and often what was displayed on my wrist was insufficient to make a call on stopping my current task and check out what was so urgent. 8 out 10 for the idea, 5 out 10 for execution.

I’ve got a new and sexy Pebble Watch v2 coming in a few weeks and that hopefully will do a better job, and for longer in between charges. And I might be persuaded to splash out on an Apple Watch. I remain hopeful.

In the meantime, I’d like to officially register my interest in making technology more human. We are ever increasingly working in contemporary environments that eschews office desks, normal working hours or heirarchical structures. Technology has to fit to this evolving approach.

With work and play so intertwined, context-based notifications could set us free, without them we could be enslaved, and tracked-down like helpless saps.