The attributes of a great notification

By Andrew on 8th May 2016 — 2 mins read

About a year ago, I turned off all the notifications on my phone. I’m still happy for it to ring when I have a call or chirp to indicate a text. Though this is restricted to specific hours.

A colleague had referred to ‘notifications as the new spam’, over lunch one day. This really resonated with me. I began to more jealously guard my time. Attention is a scarce resource and UX Design has a role to play in making sure we do everything we can to respect it.

I’ve discovered some great thinking on this topic. In particular, check out this, this and this. But sometimes it’s easier just to have a really good example. One great notification that perfectly embodies all the attributes that we have a right to hope for in technology that doesn’t pester us too much.

A truly smart umbrella

So this is the one I keep thinking about. It’s a concept for a smart umbrella by a company called Materious – the handle of which will glow if it is due to rain that day. That’s it. That’s all it does.

It sits (charging) in your hallway, and let’s you know in a calm way if you should pick it up on your way out the door.

The interface is

  • Minimal: only tells you if it’s going to rain today
  • Glancable: glowing to suggest you should take it with you (a little brighter if it is really going to pour down)
  • Just in time: designed to be on your path out of the house
  • Actionable: the handle is at the perfect grabbing height = zero slowing as you leave the house
  • Low cost, high reward: the value of not getting wet for a minimal cost to your attention

Notifications are often given minor consideration within projects. But I wonder if by giving them little design attention, they end up consuming unnecessary amounts of user attention. My washing machine, for example, beeps loudly and endlessly once it has finished its cycle. The dryer does the same. Seriously annoying. How many of our websites and apps send out an endless stream of noise via email, text or push notification? We all know the drivers for this, but it’s shameful. Ultimately there’s a smarter way into user’s hearts, and yes their wallets too.

I want to build things with notifications like this smart umbrella – and I want to harbour a hope that we might inch towards a world where our technologies become less of a bothersome interruption.

Posted in: Design thinking

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