Notifications suck - here's why

24.02.2022

Breakdown
UX
iOS & Android

I don't own a smartwatch. I used to - as a tech nerd and software developer it's practically a rite of passage to own an Apple Watch, Fitbit or some other equivalent. I started with a Pebble smartwatch that I bought back in 2016, and remember saying at the time "I'll never purchase a regular watch again". I then upgraded to an Apple Watch S4 in 2019, which served me well until I sold it last December, and I haven't worn another smartwatch since.

So how did I go from a die-hard believer in smartwatches to selling mine and never looking back? A collection of reasons come to mind, including discomfort and my evolving sense of style, but the foremost is notification stress.
Many-a-time have I received a relatively minor notification to my wrist and dropped everything to address it, and I found that I would become too distracted from what I should be focusing on, too easily, even without a smartwatch strapped to me.
My phone and I have an unhealthy relationship - even as someone who works with computers often, I often find myself distracted by my phone in situations where I should be focusing wholly on something else. The ease of access to entertainment and social media means that I will take a break from doing something important with the intention of browsing for a few minutes, only to spend fifteen minutes browsing memes on Instagram.

Of course, one could argue this could be helped by developing stronger self-control habits, or removing the phone entirely from my workspace - and I would agree, however I still have practical uses for my phone. I want to know if and when I receive a phone call or direct message so that I can respond in a timely matter, so I leave my phone on my desk. In this case, receiving notifications become an invaluable communication mechanism that most applications make use of.
The trouble arises, however, when apps begin to send notifications that are unrelated to what I consider important, and thus begins my complaint on the current state of notifications. I've found that the biggest offender of irrelevent applications are social media apps. Both Facebook and Instagram are hell-bent on sending me 'suggestion' notifications:

Here are some new accounts you should follow on Instagram, or Your friend's mother's step-cousin's dog made a post on Facebook, what's your thoughts?

Why would I ever want to receive these? I don't know. Are they possible to turn off using the app's notification settings? With great difficulty, if at all. Do they bring me back to the app, if only to dismiss them before getting distracted? Unfortunately, yes. These kind of notifications are specifically designed to increase engagement in an application, which makes sense based on the metrics by which these apps operate: they want your time and attention, so will abuse almost any system they're given access to in order to do that.
For Facebook, I have disabled its access to notifications at the system level, however I still receive direct messages through Instagram that I'd like to receive to my phone. I have spent a great deal of time trying to turn off all of Instagram's additionally BS-ery notifications, but the daily 'suggestion' ones cannot be turned off without disabling notifications at a system level.

This practice is scummy, if I were to be generously nice to Meta (Facebook and Instagram's developers). It promotes using notifications not as a useful and meaningful addition to their users' lives, but as a technique to pull users back into their application, if only for a little longer.
And practices like these are no longer limited to social media applications, fast food apps will now send promotions, Pinterest will send me daily updates on things 'I might like to see' (I will find what I want to see when I damn well please, thank you), and even Apple's own Music apps will send me random updates about Ed Sheeran or Kanye West (albeit extremely rarely).

These apps do not have a proper notification manager, and have no incentive to develop one as there is no reprimand for sending spammy notifications (if Apple's in-house developers are doing it, it sets a serious precedent). It is now getting to the point where counteractive features like spam filters are becoming a likely future update for operating systems, and judging by how poorly email spam filters function, I'm not looking forward to this feature.

Notifications are now a smaller form of marketing email that software developers now have access to. They're both used for different things, but everybody and their dog wants you to download their mobile app so they can send you marketing promotions for that burger joint you ate at once (I'm looking at you, Grill'd).
I can see OS developers beginning to implement anti-spam filters, but how long until they begin to block actually useful applications and we miss a work meeting or friend get-together because iOS decided that Snapchat was sending too many notifications (and didn't bother to tell us), and the term "make sure to check your spam notification inbox as well" becomes commonplace? I'd wager that it won't be very long, given the trajectory of abuse for these apps.

At the end of the day, app developers cannot be trusted to make ethical decisions about what system information and functions they have access to: Instagram will ask for your location information to tag your Instagram post, then constantly record it whenever you open the application, even if it doesn't need to.
In a perfect world, the solution would be to force developers to categorise their notifications (and somehow ensure they're properly categorised), then ask users on a per-category basis whether they'd like to receive that notification. For example, Instagram DMs, post alerts, and 'suggestions', would all be categorised differently and could be toggled at a system level. The reality is, however, that nobody has a strong motivation to implement and stick to something like that (as I said, Apple's own developers have been caught abusing their notification engine), but I suppose we can hope.

Some further reading