Tech Life standards-free, chaotic, atomic pushes

The Anatomy of a Notification

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?

I can’t.

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.

RSS lost.

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.

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18 Responses

  1. It’ll be interesting to see how tomorrow’s Stevenote plays into this. (I can’t wait!)

  2. Great breakdown of the notification systems. I wonder how tomorrow’s WWDC will overhaul notifications.

    I never really thought about my motivations of switching from Google Reader to Twitter for my blog reading/news, but this makes perfect sense. 140 character notifications, rather than a long chain of daunting articles.

  3. Sivan 3 years ago

    If you care this much about notifications, you’d be happier with a BlackBerry.

  4. What you describe is something we’ve been working on at hint: a prioritized feed of things that are important to you based on your current context. A preview can be seen here: http://shh.hint.io/

    Would love to know what you think!

  5. Overall, I like that you are trying to find an improvement. keep it up.

    however, your reference to Kottke however speaks volumes. He was one of the first to state that the Web is an OS or operating system. This kind of broken analogy is more for being hand wavy than accurate.

    I feel the same about this post about notifications. I urge you to look at more than this ‘addiction to the now’ and dig deeper. Human communication is richer than this.

  6. I agree with much of what you say.

    But I don’t necessarily agree that the logical place (for notifications) is a screen on your phone.

    A ‘connected watch’ may be a better location for this screen. As you outlined, notifications are short by definition, so the form factor isn’t an issue. And, because you wear a watch, a glance is both fast & effortless.

  7. As a GReader addict, I want to say that RSS was not killed, but then again, I found your post though your Twitter feed. But! I found it 13 hours after you posted it. Most people just do NOT look at tweets that aren’t on the first page. For a while there, I would catch up with _all tweets_ thanks to expanding Twitterrific’s cache to a larger number (I forget what it is).

    I don’t upgrade to Twitterrific 4 because CHOCK just completely forgot what he made and just decided to remake Tweetie For Mac, which was an awful idea. Twitterrific’s old style that allowed you to collapse tweets and manage read tweets was great, and so I still use it. Blogged about that 2 years ago: http://mbilf.com/2009/04/tweeteriffic/

    Not sure when it became uncool for mac apps to behave like mac apps. I’m not using an iOS device here, so why must it act like one?

  8. I wonder if you could borrow the idea of bug density for something like notification density for a day or specific source. It might help show how far you are behind, or be useful in understanding the flow and scope of your notifications.

  9. I think your analysis of notifications is good, but I’m not sure I agree with your conclusion about a centralized system. I go to Facebook when I want a break from thinking; I go to Twitter when I want some quick inspiration and maybe a link to a thought provoking article; I go to GReader when I want to wade through several articles (or to see if Rands has posted again). HTC has a unified Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr. I haven’t turned it on because I have no desire to see these things together.

    Perhaps my use case is unique. Maybe Steve or someone at Google or someone at a startup can show me why I need notifications for these services combined, but for now, I have no problem having my notifications separate.

  10. Dear Rands,

    I’ve subscribed to your site via RSS for what seems to be 5 years. I get my WSJ (paid) via RSS. I like Android’s notification system, but iOS makes sure you miss nothing, whereas I notice a few minutes of lag to when android. Notifies me, if it notifies me.

    Just my two cents.

    Keep up the good writing, loved the nerd handbook

  11. I like that you “curl up with RSS” at night; great personal end to the article. What I like about RSS is that you aren’t notified anytime you have, say, a new item in your feed. I like to read my feed items on my own terms (usually during lunch at work).

    As for notifications, I have a love/hate relationship. I love knowing when I have replies from friends on twitter, but when I was a sysadmin and received email alerts that meant horrible things were happening at early hours in the morning and my blackberry light would flash until I looked at it. I hated those, and giving that blackberry back was by far the best part of the job. I think you were missing a bit about how when you’re notified about things you need to know but don’t want to know, notifications are the worst thing in the world.

  12. vlion 3 years ago

    What I want is a working notification system for my personal use:

    did I get a reply on HN?

    did I get an email?

    did that script finish running on that sever?

    did I get a IM?

    did rands update his blog?

    did yegge update his blog?

    The above needs to be aggregatable into a straightforward thingie that is sortable into various lists based on my criteria.

  13. Kurt Vonnegut predicted this back in 1965: “And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear — he was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter, and every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.”

    http://www.nationalreview.com/nroriginals/?q=MDllNmVmNGU1NDVjY2IzODBlMjYzNDljZTMzNzFlZjc=

  14. I think you may have missed the point of the Microsoft ad (could be there fault), I don’t think there intention was to show that you always need to be staring at your phone in case you miss something but the fact is you do.

    Everywhere you look people walk around glued to their phones. I believe the point MS is trying to make is that they have, as they like to say, the “glance and go” platform which has all your interests on the home screen (something you mention you want). So, you can look at your phone address anything you feel like and get on with things, like life.

  15. Always interesting to see “RSS is dead” in my RSS reader, even if it doesn’t sound like you actually hold with that idea. And while Twitter and Facebook may have more traction (more interesting/memorable names, for a start), I find RSS to be more dense, more nutritious, if you like. I advocate for it where I can, as it’s ubiquitous in ways the others aren’t (Mail.app and Safari both support RSS, and Google Reader for the teeming millions of Gmai users as well).

    I made the very first (free) RSS feed at CNN.com, back in 1999 (I think I saw something in a Mozilla article). At the time, I was managing the hosted search engines (we used Infoseek which I’m sure no one remembers) and one of it’s more useful features was the notion of adding files to be indexed, through a formatted sitelist file. It wasn’t difficult to repurpose that list into a feed and while very people used it (I left CNN in early 2000), it was well-received in some of the overseas operations, as it gave them a quick review of the top stories without pulling a lot of extranea over a slow link (remember, this was 1999, when a T-1 was fat pipe and people still used dialup modems). It went off the air on 9/11/2001, as a result of a machine move (there was a big news event that day and lots of stuff got moved around in the data center, from what I understand). I would have liked to see how many people were reading it up til then.

    So I’m still a fan of RSS. In fact, I discovered this feed through my re-immersion in NetNewsWire last night: it came as one of the installed feeds.

  16. Greg Dorrell 3 years ago

    “Give me the content I want” is very much an open problem. We rely on curators. What you’re talking about is “the news”. The BBC tells me when a disaster happens, I’d like to know. Facebook tells me my best friend is pregnant, or that it’s someone’s birthday tomorrow. Hacker news tells me about a cool new programming language. My blackberry tells me our servers have gone down.

    But all of these systems also tell me about a load of random crap. The curators (BBC, HackerNews, any algorithms Facebook use for feeds, the logging level of you app) are bad, change over time, or you do. How on Earth can it be dealt with.

    And people are different, if you go on holiday you don’t need to know about the servers crashing. If you’re dealing with the server’s, your friend’s birthday can wait. But user’s don’t input their status/mood.

    It’s an open problem. It’s unsolvable really. But I sure hope we can make some leaps forward.

    Relying on what the masses think isn’t good enough for me. The community of Reddit, the writers for the BBC, etc. all change over time – as do I.

    I’d pay a lot of money for the solution. It’s a shame it won’t ever come along.

    How can you identify what information people want to see? Do I want to read this tweet?

    If you like programming, you’ll subscribe to some programmer’s twitter. They will have different types of tweets.

    They will post interesting relevant links. Do want.

    However, there will be tweets about their personal life too. Do not want. We could analyse the tweet’s vocabulary/style to identify non-programming tweets and filter them out.

    But maybe that non-programming tweet is funny – do want, often. Funny should overrule. Could do some textual analyse again, but it’s more difficult – much much more difficult. You may identify a joke, but is it funny to the person being notified. Also – often – sometimes you’re not in the mood, how on Earth can that be dealt with. How can you identify the mood of the user.

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