Notifications for Mobile Apps

Designing notifications to be useful and relevant for your users is extremely important. Good notifications give people information and functionality that’s important right now. Mobile apps can use notifications to let people know when interesting things happen, such as: a message has arrived, an event is about to occur, new data is available for download or the status of something has changed.

Also notifications can be powerful tools for businesses to communicate directly with users and deliver the right message at the right time and place in order to promote engagement.

What is Good Notification?

Good notifications are relevant, timely and contextual. The best advice for notification designers is to respect the user’s time and attention, to do more with less.

Relevant and Valuable

When users start using your app they don’t mind getting notifications as long as they carry enough “value-for-interruption,” meaning they are useful and interesting enough to them.

Meaningless notification on smart watch screen

The biggest problem with many app notifications is that the benefit doesn’t outweigh the cost — the information they offer isn’t worth pulling your attention at that moment. Like social network updates which are rarely warrant interruption, or status updates where the user doesn’t need to take an action, such as a routine action like saving a document.
Social networks and routine actions updates. Source: Material Design

Personalized content that inspires and delights is a critical component. Users appreciate content that is directly related to their personal interests. Notifications should provide a valuable service to the users, and only in that case the user will perceive them as something deserving their attention. 

Netflix does a great job of personalizing their notifications. They use push notifications to let users know when their favorite shows are available.

Netflix app for iOS

Another good example is Google Now. It tells users when to leave for an appointment based on what it knows about their location, traffic conditions, and mode of transport.
Google Now cards on Android wear

Takeaway: Always think first of the user. As long as we always think first of the user, not us, notifications should provide a valuable service to the user. Good notification prompt action while vague or irrelevant messages annoy users.

Well-Timed

We should only notify the users when we have something to say important for them at an appropriate time. The time the notification is performed is as important as the content of the notification. The timing has to be right for the user to perform the action to manage the event that caused the notification.

Notification that shows the person who triggered the message and the content they sent right now.

Each notification can be periodic (scheduled) or sporadic (appears at unpredictable times). Following rules works good for notifications:

  • Expire a notification when it is no longer relevant. For examples, a special online offer that ends at midnight shouldn’t be displayed after it has expired.
  • Don’t use periodic updates for content that user’s expect to receive immediately (such as real-time updates), or content that’s generated at unpredictable times (such as incoming emails). Use push notifications to deliver more time-sensitive updates.
  • If you’re going to keep users informed about real-time events, make it timely or else users might think that notifications aren’t quick enough.

Minimize Interruption

Notifications inform users about events in your app while the user is focused elsewhere. As they can be interruptive, use notifications judiciously. Annoying notifications is the #1 reason people uninstall mobile apps (71% of respondents).
Don’t send out notifications just because you can. Increasing the frequency of notifications doesn’t necessarily increase the value of your app.

Notification overkill: updating your user with every action that has taken place is redundant.

Notifications should not be used for:

  • Information that is currently on screen (such as an active chat conversation)
  • Technical operations that don’t require user involvement (such as data syncing)
  • Transient error states that can be resolved without user action
  • As a sales channel (ads or spam)

Also you should respect your user’s battery life. Users can receive notifications at any time, even when their device is in a low power state. The more notifications that you send, the more resources it will require and the more frequently you will wake up the device. Keep this in mind when you determine the frequency of your notifications.

Takeaway: Mobile is all about making every message count. Choose the lowest frequency of notifications that still delivers a great user experience.

Things to Remember When Designing a Notification

Follow the KISS Principle

Keep the message clear and understandable. No matter what the content of the notification is, make sure it speaks the same language as your users, literally and figuratively.

Summarize Notifications

Don’t send multiple notifications for the same type of event. If you send multiple notifications for the same event, you fill up the notification list and users are likely to turn off notifications from your app.

If multiple notifications of the same type are available, combine them into a single summary notification. A summary shows how many notifications of a particular kind are pending.

Summarize notifications. Image credits: Material Design

When the user touches a notification, enable the user to take immediate action. This may open a detail view, such as a message, or a summary view for multiple notifications

Make Notifications Optional

Users should always be in control of notifications. Allow users to disable or change notifications in your app’s settings.

Game Center app notifications in iOS

Don’t Send Confidential Information Through Notifications

Don’t send confidential or sensitive data through notifications. For example, a bank account number or password should never be sent in a notification.

Don’t send user’s credentials via notification

Be Careful With Data Privacy

Because notifications are visible on the lock screen, user privacy is an especially important consideration. Notifications often contain sensitive information, and should not be visible to anyone who sees the display. For devices that have a secure lock screen (PIN or password), better to display only safe data. The contents should be only revealed after the user unlocks the device.

Lock screen privacy. Image source: Material Design

Notify the User With a Sound

Provide a sound that users can choose to hear when a notification arrives. Sound can get people’s attention when they’re not looking at the device screen. For example, a calendar app might play a sound with an alert that reminds people about an imminent event.

Test Rigorously

How do you make a great notification even better? Test it! A/B testing can be valid for notification strategies. You should track all major metrics, and especially user engagement: “Did the notifications enhance and enrich the user’s app experience?” You should create notifications that are meaningful enough to justify the mental and digital space they take up.

Conclusion

We all experience the annoyances of poorly designed notifications. The worst offenders get their notifications turned off, their apps uninstalled, and worst of all, horrible reviews. But thoughtful, interesting, and actionable notifications that are closely coupled with users’ needs, can add real value to your application.

A great notification strategy must be backed by a great application. No notification strategy will take the user to your application if the application does not provide a valuable service to the user. So you may need to focus on many functional things before even thinking about adding notifications.

Thank you!