In an otherwise elegant and well-integrated operating system, the notifications user interface in iOS 4.x feels like a wart — a tacked-on afterthought that offers a bare minimum of usefulness.
Competitors have jumped all over this weakness. An early Microsoft Windows Phone ad implies a strategic notifications deficiency by showing users glued to their iPhones… because of the platform’s alleged inability to give users aggregate, at-a-glance updates. The ads’ strange reasoning ignores the idea that iPhone users might be glued to their phones not due to the fact that they didn’t know something occurred, but because the phone is so damned useful.
The Microsoft ad while entertaining is ultimately confusing and contradictory. It implies that you’re going to miss something important while you stare at your iPhone, i.e. the entire point of an elegant notification system is that you miss nothing.
An elegant notification system and application will come to iOS — likely this week. Apple hired the designer of WebOS’s notification system a year ago in May, and that’s good news because there’s a ever-growing mountain of evidence that notifications are a big deal.
The Evolution of Notifications
At the tail end of Web 1.0, Google busily indexed the entire web for us and gave us a reliable, useful, and easy way to find content. In a world previously governed by the Dewey Decimal System, Google was a goddamned miracle. In 7th grade I was asked to write a report on clepsydras. I had to wait a week until my Mom drove me to the library just to figure out that a clepsydra was a water clock. A week. Can you imagine a world where you couldn’t curl up on your couch eating Doritos and cottage cheese and simply click a link on your iPad to learn everything about David Hasselhoff?
The Pandora’s Box opened by the arrival of the Internet is that we are now aware that all the information is out there, and it’s readily available, but we lack the time to surf its infinite enormity. You don’t have time for everything. In fact, you don’t have much time for most of the what’s on the Internet because you’re just one person with strange eating habits. You pick and choose. Yes, I will read Suck. Yes, Kottke appears capable of finding content I care about. You delegate the filtering of the Internet to trusted others and you were grateful when RSS and RSS readers showed up because the technology gave you one-stop shopping for your then inefficient content consumption.
RSS represented a leap forward. You now had a means of aggregating and reading the content of your trusted others at your convenience. And more importantly, when that content was updated, you received a handy notification that something had changed. Oh look, 23 new articles. We were content with this standard, but then something happened. RSS was killed.
It wasn’t a deliberate hit. There was an information explosion and RSS was collateral damage. The content you cared about grew exponentially. It wasn’t just blog articles, it was tweets, likes, status updates, new followers — an endless list of micro-information and RSS hasn’t evolved. The likes of Twitter and Facebook tried to keep RSS around, but in a world where advertising is king, a standard that provides a facility for consuming content and skirting ads doesn’t make business sense. RSS is still sprinkled around these services, but it’s hard to find and when it breaks no one seems to care to fix it.
In a daily information consumption routine, RSS has effectively been replaced by different systems of notifications. While notifications are neither a functional replacement nor a standard, they’re a timely and important idea. If RSS is a standard for structured document-based pulls, notifications thrive as standards-free, chaotic, atomic pushes… and we need to wrangle them.
The Anatomy of a Notification
Before I explain how notifications are slowly taking over your life, let’s agree to a definition. To me a notification is a small piece of information that is:
- Human Consumable: built for a human to assess, not for a machine.
- Brief & Relevant: the content inside of a notification takes only a smidge of your attention in order to assess a next step.
- Portable: a notification stands on its own; you need no additional external application to assess it. They stand outside of the data or application they might represent.
- Disposable: if for some reason the notification doesn’t get to you, you have an obvious means of recourse to find the data.
- Timely: the usefulness of a notification decays as a function of time. Late notification arrival incites nerd rage.
Try the definition on:
- Is a tweet a notification? Yes, unless it’s a tweet that’s part of a continuing conversation chain.
- Is your phone ringing a notification? Yes, as long as you have an answering system for when you’re not there, thus making the notification disposable.
- Is an email a notification? No, an email usually fails to meet all the criteria in that it usually isn’t brief, it often heavily depends on the context of other emails, isn’t always disposable, and, well, sometimes an email isn’t coherent even to humans. However, a Growl notification containing the subject line of an email is totally a notification.
- Is an SMS a notification? How about an instant message? Like a tweet, only the first message in a chain is a notification. The first message is your alert: “Should I converse with this person right now on this particular topic? Yes or no.”
Make sense? Think I’ve gone around the bend over-thinking notifications? Keep reading.
An Economy of Notifications
The Internet is a flurry of notifications. Likes, updates, points, favorites, and retweet buttons beg everyone to click them to capture the micro-opinion of the moment. It’s no longer a badge of honor to have a blog; the question is: how much karma have you amassed on Hacker News?
It’s a goddamned sea of notifications. I know this because of the amount of time I’ve spent hacking together a notification strategy. I’m regularly updating mail rules to account for the various notifications emitted from Twitter, Quora, Facebook, and the like. It’s a growing pile of work and therein lies both a problem and an opportunity.
The problem with notifications is that the cost to create them is close to zero — just hit that Like button or go ahead and click that retweet button. As their creation cost approaches zero, notifications rapidly become spam-like as the noise of their quantity masks the quality of their signal. But we learned our lesson with spam. We knew what happened when we lost control of our inboxes and spent our time sorting through the useless noise searching for the signal. We learned how to curate. Curation is social-media-douche-speak for “deliberately choosing and pruning the content you care about” and I think part of the next Internet is curation at scale thanks to notifications.
I Want To Know What I Want to Know When I Want To Know It
With social media companies having little incentive to open up their notification streams, we need new leverage. We need a platform to insist on the collection, organization, and management of notifications, and that’s the platform sitting in your back pocket. Open or closed, iOS and Android are in a unique position to standardize notifications in order to keep them useful.
As Microsoft clumsily demonstrated in their ad, a mobile interface is an interface for a moment. The goal isn’t deep consideration of a thing. The goal is instant assessment of, well, everything. When I pull my phone out of my pocket, I want to answer a fairly impossible question: “How has everything I care about in the online universe changed since I last checked?”
Tall order. And one that can partly be conquered by notifications with a feature set that is defined by the definition of notifications:
- Human Consumable: We need a centralized, highly visible and beautiful place that contains all notifications for the apps and services we care about. The logical place is the first screen you see when you launch your phone.
- Brief & Relevant: The use case for this screen is: “How quickly can I pull the phone out of my pocket and assess what the hell is going on?” The faster, the better. Preferably before I crash the car.
- Portable: The interface must be the interface for all notifications. The triage experience is exactly the same whether I’m scrubbing Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. It’s cool if drilling down into a notification requires automatically jumping to a different app, but enough information must be presented to allow me to make the decision of “Should I proceed?”
- Disposable: If a long period of time passes between when I check in, the triage experience is the same — tell me what is changing right now. I don’t care what happened yesterday. Old notifications are meaningless to me. I have other elegant means of assessing the changes of the week or month.
- Timely: While notifications are disposable, their timely arrival is essential. The real-time push aspects are fully aligned with my attention deficiency disorders.
Lastly, this entire system needs governance by a well-designed notification application. iOS 4 already has a system-level notification system, but the presence and success of applications like Boxcar are a clear sign of the functional deficiencies of the system. We need a notification system that accounts for the fact we’re constantly signing up for new information, but don’t have the time or the tools to pay attention to it. We need a tool that allows us to adjust the level of detail of the data we receive to align with the level of attention we have to give it.
RSS Didn’t Lose
I realize a comparison between RSS and notifications is not a fair one. I’m effectively comparing a family of web feed formats designed around slowly changing content with an application and a system service. But where the standards and the application intersect is the use case: tell me what has changed.
Notifications are the smallest bit of disposable, human-readable information that conveys something you care about. Their real-time nature gives notifications an immediate sense of importance. Well, my ass is vibrating, so it must be important.
If you want to rip on notifications, you can angrily wave your finger at the folks who believe discovering a thing has anything to do with understanding it. Notifications reinforce our addiction to the now. That vibrating ass of yours gives you the false impression that you know something, but all you really know is that something is different. The value of information does not decay as fast as the immediacy of the notification would have you believe.
Anyone who’s ever lost three hours to “choose your own adventure” on Wikipeda knows that infovores want to know what they want to know when they want to know it, but that “it” is never fully covered by notifications. My nighttime routine always involves RSS. I curl up around my iPad, fire up Reeder, and see where the Internet takes me because sometimes we need to go deep.
[Post-WWDC Update] Just about everything I wanted fixed in notifications was addressed with iOS 5. While I had limited hands-on time with the feature set, notifications are now a first class information citizen throughout the OS. Notifications are easily consumable regardless of where you are in the OS and equally easy to act upon. You’re able to set the visual intrusiveness of a notification (say, if you love the old modal dialog for important notifications) on an app-by-app basis – I’ll use that.
Is Boxcar dead? I don’t think so. Notification Center replaces Boxcar’s aggregation functionally, but I never used that feature. What’s useful to me in Boxcar is the ability to build customized notifications on top of other services. My gut says that is Boxcar’s sweet spot and notifications in iOS 5 will give those Boxcar notifications a place to shine.
Is this notifications UI way similar to Android? Yup. Here’s the rule: you copy great ideas — that’s how we know they’re great.