Quora designer Henry Modisett shares perspectives on the unique challenges of designing effective, respectful notifications:

A notification is the product communicating with you while you are not using it. It is a naturally interruptive and invasive experience to various degrees. Because of that it is a very consequential system, meaning that every thing you send through it will have material impact on the user’s experience with your product.

I especially liked his caution about being responsible with notifications that are solely intended to goose engagement:

These are essentially advertisements. For example, any digest email. One common property of a notification that has an explicit engagement goal is that they don’t need to be sent, meaning that the user doesn’t necessarily have any expectation that they will come. This is what makes them powerful and dangerous. Most people have experienced some abuse of this by some app who has wielded this for some sort of short term gain. “Happy Valentine’s day, we love you, come check out our app today!”

It’s difficult to summarize this broad and thoughtful overview of the UX and psychology of notifications—read the whole thing—but I’ll call out a few nuggets:

  • When the value of notifications are high enough, users will welcome incredibly high volume (e.g., text messages).
  • Offering user preferences for notifications is hard: “When you have to design the settings for these things it all get exposed to the user how hedgy these decisions often are. You either end up with a small set of extremely vague settings, or you end up with a overwhelming display of different toggles in an attempt to give the user some sense of control.”
  • Short-term engagement is misleading. More notifications always delivers more engagement, and so too many companies simplistically dial the notification machine way too high. It works until it doesn’t, users burn out.
  • Notifications for today’s popular voice interfaces don’t really exist; all interactions are initiated by the user. This is both an opportunity and an unsolved problem.

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