We find ourselves at a peculiar non-equilibrium in apps. Drama in the mobile space has recently been underwritten by the perennial “unbundling” debate, and giants like Facebook (Slingshot, Paper), Dropbox (Carousel), Foursquare (Swarm), and Twitter (Vine) have all faced their share of soul searching in attempts to best position themselves along this continuum. Meanwhile, these new unbundles of joy simply add to the growing stack of notifications we’re forced to either deal with or waste time disabling. Compounded with what I call general “app sprawl” as the mobile ecosystem comes into its own, this march towards “peak notifications” is putting an increasing strain on the useful attention of the consumer. Strangely enough, these shifts may only give push notifications a more important role in making sense of the chaos.
Where should you chat with Facebook friends on mobile, and where should you share your pictures? How many apps can we really keep track of and be engaged with, and what happens as apps get replaced by other apps? These kinds of questions are fundamental, and we can only speculate as to where the chips will ultimately fall. But in addition to determining the winner(s) of the platform wars, this quagmire is also about what the atomic unit of the smartphone interface should be. When your phone is constantly buzzing with notifications – from iMessage to Twitter, to Lyft and Wunderlist – the only real method to the madness is the order in which those notifications appeared on your lockscreen. I have too many apps on my phone to count, and there are a decent number of ones that I check fairly regularly but which are scattered in the corners of my homescreen/folders. Notifications allow me to engage with my apps as relevant stuff happens to me — no hunting around for an icon (especially if I’m sneaking a peek at work). Apps without any notifications may simply waste away in a folder if pings continue to dominate the experience, but there could also be more purging of poorly behaved push notifiers as their intrusions become more and more unwelcome. We can debate all day as to whether Twitter’s or Facebook’s “app constellation” will shine brightest, but what good will the answer be in a mobile world where notifications shuffle deck once more?
One very real possibility is that the continued ascendancy of push notifications portends the future of smartphone UI. The initial logic of push notifications on mobile was to provide a little context along with the alert and allow the user to consume the tidbit of value without having to open the app. Things have certainly evolved. We see that actionable pings have become a powerful way to draw users into the apps themselves rather than taking the long route through the homescreen/general OS layer. Android has robust interactive notifications already, and iOS 8 is about to introduce them. This is why the WSJ called push notifications “ the most valuable property in the entire media universe,” in its write up on Yo. They appear to be the holy grail of user engagement and stickiness, with one recent study finding that adding push notifications increased user response rates by 300% across 6 verticals. A fascinating qualitative study on mobile user interactions found broad user support for a model of mobile interaction that is modular, notification-centric and ambient or MNA. This kind of “system initiated communication” as it is referred to demands less mental effort of the user while still allowing them to exercise control over the context that underpins the notification regime. People are tinkering furiously in this space for good reason. Personally, I would like to see some more experimentation in terms of what is actually in your notifications. I could imagine something cool like a “notification of notifications” summary notification strategy, or perhaps a one-bit mode where all pings from an app trigger a Yo instead of a distracting, readable message on your lock screen.
I don’t think compulsive refreshing of our favorite apps is going anywhere fast, but I think this kind of “push” oriented world as opposed to constantly having to “pull” when we want things is a running theme in mobile tech today (especially as the wearables revolution allegedly approaches). Apps with the strongest and most user-friendly notification strategy will certainly have the upper hand. Stanislas Cavalie pretty much nails it in his blog when he says, “Using push notifications is like knocking on people’s door. It’s better to have something valuable and personalized to say, and it’s even better if you have been invited to enter!”
Notifications are, of course, the bread and butter of messaging, so I don’t think it is purely coincidence that the two have taken center stage around the same time 😉