Notifications – I Think You Told Me Already

December 21st, 2011

Didn't you just tell me that?

People use an ever increasing number of applications, services and platforms to communicate or collaborate with each other. Each of these services needs to send out notifications to their users to inform them that certain events have occurred.

An event can be absolutely anything:

  • Comment
  • Status update
  • Task completion
  • Blog post
  • Uploaded picture
  • etc

We have an enormous amount of ways through which we can inform users that one of these actions has occurred i.e Email, Instant Message, Text message, On screen notification, Phone call (automated), RSS, Push notifications etc.

The internet, its users, creators and facilitators should all have enough experience at this stage to understand how to effectively handle notifications. Yet here I am writing a blog post about how much notifications annoy me because they are not done right.

So what is the notification problem?

Companies have a mindset that says “Oh oh oh quick! Something happened. Tell the user every which way you can so that they know!”.

I am going to single out Yammer here as my example – but many big internet companies are guilty of notification overload.

We use Yammer in the office. It is a decent tool for intra-company communication that is more flexible that email while also being quick and easy to use. It is basically Twitter for companies.

You can add messages in Yammer via their website or through their desktop client. If you are running the desktop client when someone posts a message then you’ll see a flash up notification on your desktop outside of the client – completely in your face – cannot miss it. If you then bring the client into focus on the desktop – it’ll have a red box with a number in it (indicating how many posts you’ve missed). Below that will be a big box that you have to click to load the new messages. On top of this you’ll also get a link to click “load new messages” within each thread that has new messages.

If someone has directly replied to a comment of yours – then you’ll also get ANOTHER red box at the top with a number in it (this one representing the replies you’ve missed).

How many notifications or prompts, within the desktop client alone, was that?

Outside of the desktop app – you’ll also receive an email for all comments/messages that are relevant to you. I’m glad they don’t have my mobile phone number.

If you are anything like me, you cant have all of these red boxes and emails screaming at you to be read and cleared so you feel force to give them your attention.

How about some context?

Informing users through every communication mechanism available is clearly not the answer and essentially leads to tired, irked users.

Notifications can be clever. They can ask questions about the users they need to contact and make a decision about the best way to get in touch.

Is the user logged in on the website or the desktop client? Yes – then trust that your notification mechanism will get the message through. If the user is not logged in – then send an email.

Any tricks for the website notifications being noticed?

How about checking if the window has focus? If you are using jQuery you could do this:

$(window).blur(function() {
    // Inform my app that the user
    // is not going to see my notifications

$(window).focus(function() {
    // Inform my app that the user will
    // be able to see notifications

Don’t blast me with updates. Make me like your service without having to consciously think why.

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Categories: General, Programming

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