Rethinking Notifications

Here's a repost of a blogpost I wrote for Substantial on April 7th, 2015


Parisoma, San Francisco --

Do a quick mental poll. How do you start your day? Probably with a notification. Whether it’s an alarm or Katy Perry’s latest post to Instagram, the first thing people often do is take action on a notification. And they’re more than just phone alerts. Walk outside and you’ll see street signs, store fronts and billboards delivering all kinds of information. Notifications have become an essential tool for keeping us not only informed and but also entertained. So how do you take something so indispensable and make it even more useful?

The Substantial SF team took a stab at solving that problem. Led by Product Designer Arvi Raquel-Santos and General Manager Steve Salazar, the team held a workshop dedicated to rethinking notifications. Located at the Parisoma coworking space in the heart of San Francisco’s industrial SoMa neighborhood, the workshop gathered designers, developers and founders from all over the tech industry to discuss and reimagine the future of notifications.

The Notification Landscape

Today more people are receiving an increased number of notifications because of the number of devices that they are connected to. In fact, companies like Apple and Google are pouring resources into making notifications more actionable. In fact, many of the attendees were from startups that were building products around notifications. With the advent of Google Now, people are notified of real-time commute conditions and unexpected inclement weather. With Apple’s iBeacon, users can be presented with location-aware alerts like automated hotel check ins or time-sensitive store deals.  

Other companies are building platforms around notifications. Yo, an app originally intended as a simple way of sending ‘yo,’ is evolving their service into a notification platform that allows brands like BuzzFeed and MTV to send relevant updates to subscribed users. More importantly, Yo is building a platform that will allow you to easily provide push notifications about the things you care about. Another example of leveraging a notification platform is the Moment mobile app. In a partnership with Getty Images, we created a way for their photographers to send stock images directly from their phone. Photographers will get a notification when new photo requests are available, and Getty Images now has a direct line of communication with with their photographers.

Without a doubt, notifications are here to stay.

Without a doubt, notifications are here to stay.

I Got 99 Notifications

With this in mind, our workshop attendees split up into small groups, brainstormed and presented their approach to four common problems:

  • Handling too many notifications

  • Creating more engaging or contextual notifications

  • Utilizing new technologies

  • Making notifications more delightful

Signal to Noise

To help alleviate the onslaught of beeps, shakes and flashes one group proposed having a unified control-center that would manage all incoming notifications. Initially, the control-center would sort messages by device or source, but over time it would learn which notifications you find important by measuring your response rate and then assigning a value. Notifications that have a higher 'value coefficient' would pass through the filter and move along to your device(s). Other less important notifications would be consolidated into a daily digest for consumption at a later time.

Another group proposed using biometric and gyroscopic data from the Apple Watch. When someone showed a steady heart rate, applications would be allowed to deliver notifications. However, when someone had an elevated heart rate or changed location rapidly, the device would pause notifications, consolidate them into a digest and deliver them to at a more convenient time.


Another challenge was to create more engaging or contextual notification. One group proposed going "app-less" with applications working in the background. This idea revolved around giving applications real-time contextual information and the freedom to act on the users’ behalf. For example, when your device detects you're going for a jog it will automatically open Spotify to your favorite playlist. Or when it's a loved one's birthday it will purchase an item from their wish list on your behalf. No notifications needed.

Another idea was to leverage proximity information from technologies like iBeacon. In stores, your banking service can send a notification to warn you of overspending. In restaurants, your health apps could filter menu items that wouldn't exceed your caloric goals. As a parent, you could receive a notification if your child is spending too much time with a bad influence by collecting proximity information and tracking social habits.

Just Wanna Have Fun

And finally to make notifications more delightful, one group proposed using a human as a notification. In their example, an alarm app would call a loved one interested in waking up at the same time. Instead of an annoying alarm, people would be greeted with a loved one's voice and start each day with a meaningful conversation.

Only the Beginning

It’s clear that we only scratched the surface. From gamification to new sensory mediums, there's an endless number of  possible innovations. In the end, each team left our workshop inspired. Some groups even committed to continuing their work. At Substantial, we felt that notifications were often relegated to the last steps of product design and we wanted to change that. By bringing notifications to the forefront, we were able to challenge our own design process and give people a chance to rethink notifications.