The Very Difficult Problem of Notifications

There has been a lot of talk lately about mobile notification systems and specifically what Apple might/should bring to iOS — I think that everyone can agree though that all notifications systems fall short of being great (even WebOS). Every single mock-up of a different notification system that I have seen solves only a subset of the problems — they certainly are better than what we currently have on iOS, but these “solutions” are in no way a real solution.

They are neat studies in graphic design and user experience, but for me they only ever solve one of the two main notification problems.

The Two Problems

  1. The notification system must actually alert you to important things (that meeting you are about to be late for) and the system needs to be in your face about it, else you won’t truly be notified of a damned thing. That is a subtle color change here, and a small icon there, is simply not good enough. If every icon has a badge that reads 1 in a little red dot, or everything is glowing your favorite shade of color, then nothing is really being conveyed — instead everything is being ignored.
  2. The notification system must get out of your way when you need it to. Anybody who has woken up their iPad to find 7-8 notifications on the screen knows what I am talking about — it takes a long time to get rid of these irrelevant notifications. Most often everything that it was notifying me about is no longer relevant, or has already been done. However a blanket dismissal creates other problems (more on this in a bit).


The problem that most people have when they attempt to fix notification systems is that they solve one of the two above problems, but rarely both. 1 To solve both is difficult at best and, impossible to most (including me).

How do you design a notification to simultaneously be annoying and alerting, while at the same time getting of the way when it needs to get out the way. That is, to say it better: how do you design a notification that notifies you and reminds you of things, all the while it doesn’t annoy you and notify you about erroneous stuff?

Is it even possible?

In the past this was solved by hiring a real, live, human being to sit at a desk outside of your office — this was a stellar system. This person (let’s call them an “assistant”) knew when you were in a rush and cranky, they knew exactly what you needed to know as you ran out the door to the next meeting that started 15 minutes ago. The assistant knew and they knew not because they were good at notifying you, but because they were intelligent. They could read so many non-verbal cues that allowed them to know exactly what was going on from just a glance of you.

That was (and for some is) a great solution — then HP and Palm and others decided it was best to replace them with digital calendars and even more people decided it would be great to take phones and email with you everywhere you go. Which compounded the problems that we currently have.

If you leave all the default notifications on my iPhone, iPad and MacBook Air then you will have a rather obnoxious symphony of beeps, boops, bops, pops, and windows showing up. It ain’t pretty.


When I click on my iPad and I see a notification that I dismiss, only to get another, then another, another, and another — I always stop and think: “where is the clear all button?”

A dismiss all button would have been a colossal mistake for Apple to have included, because just maybe the third notification is one that I REALLY need to see. Right there is the problem with adding a “dismiss all” button — the point of a notification is that it is something that needs to be seen before you casually dismiss it.

Again this is why people are so good at notifications, we inherently know when something is and is not relevant based on who we are notifying and simultaneously know when something that was important is no longer important.

A Modest Proposal

I don’t have a solution the the hardcore UI, UX, and technical design problems that exist above, but I do have a practical way to help.

Stop the notifications.

The simple problem is that most people are getting too many notifications about things that just don’t matter. Or, as Art Webb said, “If you make everything bold, nothing is bold.”


Do you really need to know when the Mighty Eagle is ready again in Angry Birds? Do you really need to know every time your favorite team scores? Do you need a reminder on every calendar appointment? Do you?

What do you need?

Start there.

  1. I am being generous here because I actually don’t think any one has solved both of these problems.
Originally posted for members on: March 8, 2011
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