Notes on Notifications

One of the reasons why using an iPhone has been so nice, for a decade now, is because of how little the user must manage it. The App Store gave even novice users the confidence to download new software, implicitly trusting that it would not cause problems on their phone or carry malware. You shouldn’t close open apps, either, and you don’t have to toggle Bluetooth or LTE to get great battery life. The system just sorts it out.

I want that same level of confidence with push notifications.

Apple has apparently intended for the notification system to be seen as less of a todo list of items of interest, and more of an advisory area — something that you look at occasionally, and never really worry about clearing fully. I think that it feels too heavy-handed to be something so passive. Either Apple ought to be more prescriptive about how push notifications are to be used, or the design of the system needs to be pragmatic and take into account the notifications that people actually get. The latter is more challenging because it would need to compensate for all kinds of edge cases, but I think that would ultimately result in a better product.

An easy benchmark is that users should not have to worry that allowing notifications from an app will subject them to spam and advertising. Apple already prohibits this, but some apps still abuse push notifications.

More difficult questions concern the scalability of the notification system. Even though most users probably don’t receive many hundreds of notifications a day, the system should still be able to scale to a point where notifications do not become egregiously overwhelming.

Finally, there’s the design of notifications themselves. Right now, a notification that arrives when using the phone will cover part of the top of the display and any UI elements underneath. And, right now, that means covering the app’s navigation bar — that is, if you tap a primary navigation button in an app at the same time a notification comes in, you’ll suddenly be taken out of that app and into another, with very little context.

This should not require a bunch of new settings and options for notifications. I don’t think apps should require users to figure out a granular array of notification types; apps should set appropriate priorities for different kinds of alerts they may push, and the system ought to have a way to enforce that. The same goes for prioritizing notifications across multiple apps — no matter how much I miss grouping notifications by app instead of sorting chronologically, I don’t think that’s something users should be required to manage. As with multitasking and Bluetooth connectivity, above, an iPhone should be able to figure this stuff out.

It is a hard problem: phones have a fixed display space, and notifications have to be somehow informative yet unobtrusive. And, yes, an Apple Watch helps bear the burden of rapidly-accumulating notifications. But I think iOS should to do better on its own. I don’t know for certain what radically-improved notifications look like, and I don’t think that it’s any sort of AI-backed magic algorithm sorting your notifications for you. Maybe it is, in part, taking a cue from the Apple Watch: a very small initial notification and expanding the notification only if you linger on it, something which can be accomplished on the iPhone by tracking eye movement with the TrueDepth camera.

Perhaps that is needlessly high-tech. Perhaps it’s as simple as queueing notifications for a few seconds, so your phone isn’t rattled off a table by repeated alerts. This sometimes exists within single apps — Mail, for instance, might post a notification that I have five new emails — but it’s something that I think should be applied to notifications from multiple apps.

Even grouping notifications from the same app would reduce the visual noise created by several individual bubbles.

I suspect that, whatever the solution is, it will require an ingenious combination of visual design and revised functionality — it isn’t simply one or the other. And I don’t know that my spitballed ideas would have a positive effect — I don’t think they’re particular original thoughts, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple had already tried similar options and rejected them for reasons I haven’t considered. What I do know is that the present implementation of notifications does not feel scalable and requires too much management. Whenever an app asks whether it can send me push notifications, I assume it’s going to overload me with nagging alerts, so I keep them turned off for a lot of apps. I don’t think I should have to worry about or disable a core feature of iOS for half the apps I use to make it bearable; the system should be designed with scalability in mind.