The incessant ding, ding, ding, and tap, tap tap of Notifications on my iPhone and Apple Watch often pushes me to the brink. What can be so important that I need to know now?
Oh, Chelsea and Arsenal are caught in a tight match and I should tune in? Brilliant, let me drop everything and do that. Someone just tweeted a wicked burn on Twitter about the latest Batman movie? I should stop working on this story to weigh in. There's a new YouTube trailer for After Ever Happy? I must drop everything to watch it now.
I get all these notifications and more on my iPhone (and all connected iCloud devices) and this is despite the fact that I usually say "no" when a new app asks me to allow notifications.
Over the last few years, Google, Apple, and Microsoft have sought to manage this tidal wave of attention-seeking through grouping notifications into stacks and, especially, Focus features. We tailor our current focus on iOS, Android, and Windows, and the system will block and tackle these notifications for us.
Sadly, this usually only results in me missing text messages (opens in new tab) from my wife, so I consider Focus a bit of a fail.
Now, however, at least Twitter and, possibly, Apple, have gotten the message and are taking steps to address the notification problem.
Apple is reportedly working on an update of indeterminate size for Notifications in iOS 16. Twitter just purchased (opens in new tab) the Mobile Marketing company OpenBackHQ, which focuses on helping companies create relevant, personalized, and real-time notifications.
If nothing else, Twitter's Head of Consumer products Jay Sullivan seems to get the overriding issue with current Notifications. In announcing the OpenBackHQ acquisition in a series of tweets, Sullivan called "irrelevant notifications" "a distraction."
2/ The best push notifications bring people to the conversations they care about on Twitter. But irrelevant notifications are a distraction. With millions of people visiting Twitter via notifications every day, we want them to be timely, relevant and engaging.April 12, 2022
No one, however, is talking about killing Notifications, a nuclear option that even I'm not sure we need.
The problem is, even with companies like OpenBackHQ helping Twitter tailor these notifications back into usefulness, we're not addressing just how far the abuse has gone.
Apple might be, as we reported, working on a Notifications overhaul in iOS 16, but as a company that's both managing platform and a wide variety of services that feed into the Notifications pipeline, it's unlikely to do anything that truly curtails the flow of all these pings, dings, and taps.
When there's a new Apple Arcade game, Apple lets me know.
A new episode of Severance arrives on Apple TV+, Apple lets me know.
I have another few pennies added to my Apple Cash via a purchase made with the Apple Card, Apple lets me know.
Apple is not the only abuser here. Every single app and service wants the right to send you notifications. Even news services, which should know better than to ping you with anything less than breaking news, frequently stretch the definition of importance and share middling updates on news that probably won't ever affect your life. (Apple News does this every day).
Turning down the volume
There is, however, some hypocrisy in my argument. As an ardent Twitter user, I sometimes use these news alerts to drive a tweet. Granted, I filter and only share what I consider important and broadly applicable news. But the occasional "just interesting" slip in there, too.
We need more than Notification redesigns and systems that tailor those updates to our interests. What's needed is true discipline. There should only be certain apps that can notify you of anything and even then, there should be a better (and more obvious) threshold lever.
When my children were small, they used to inform me of every bit of concern and minutiae in their lives. I listened attentively but then started to help them stop alerting me to tiny concerns that they could either handle themselves or could wait for later. I'd ask, "Is this really important right now?" usually they'd think for a moment, shake their head and maybe save all the updates for a dinner table download.
I want a way to set broad Notification controls that ask, "Is this really important right now?" If not, there is no notification. By that benchmark, I bet we cut out 90% of all pings, dings, and taps. It's not the end of Notifications, but it might be close enough for me.