Designing notifications, or how we could learn to love our phones again

Another day, another article providing a soul-searching insight into why quitting smartphones is the new quitting smoking. These articles seem to occur regularly in the media these days, with accounts of people who feel trapped by their overuse of their phones, how they feel that their digital life is impinging on their real life, with their phones turning into monsters that continually buzz at them with notifications. These articles end up preaching solutions such as digital detoxes, phone stacking in restaurants, and have quotes from people saying how much better they feel when they don’t have their phones switched on, or even with them.

For me, the problem doesn’t lie with the way we interact with our phones, it’s about how our phones interact with us. When the web giants such as a Facebook, Google and Amazon began to realise just how much money could be made by advertising, they not only cashed in, but began to manipulate their properties so that they could multiply their efforts. The way that this was achieved was by factoring in design and functionality that encouraged compulsive behaviour. You may have heard of the “slot machine” effect of the Facebook newsfeed, encouraging you to pull down and refresh to refresh your newsfeed and get that dopamine hit of new content, or feedback on your contributions (in the interests of fairness, this isn’t actually exclusive to Facebook, many other apps have the same action, with similar effects). Many sites and apps use patterns to encourage further participation, and to keep the user on their product, and, whether intentionally malicious or not, some of these can evolve into dark patterns.

One such dark pattern that’s prevalent on almost every mobile device I know of are notifications. Even if, like me, you’re very stringent on keeping notifications on your phone to a minimum, whenever you download a new app the assumption is that the app can, unless you tell it otherwise, make noises, put messages on your lock screen and show banners whenever it wants to. In order to curtail this, you have to go into your settings and specify what notifications you receive. Apple and Google have made this easier to access in recent years, but it’s still an opt-out process, rather than an opt-in one, and for good reason – app makers want your attention on their products, and so want this way of bombarding you with information regularly, in the hope that you will give in, click on the link, and buy the product. Chances are, you’re probably not quite as hardcore with your notifications, so just imagine how fewer ones you would receive if you could choose to opt-in, rather than have to make the effort to opt-out?

Chances are, companies such as Facebook and Google aren’t going to go away, and they will certainly be around longer than the time you decide to go on your digital detox and later decide to rejoin the connected world, and, what’s more, you can be pretty sure that a lot of your friends are still going to be using them. However, there is a rising tide of interest in how these companies conduct themselves; we’ve seen questions into fake news, how they structure content on your timeline, and whether they should be responsible for the media that appears on their platforms. In my view, we should be asking these companies to not only look at the content they provide, but also the way they provide it. They should work out what their relationship with their users are, and how that they can provide advertising and updates in a more conscientious way. These companies aren’t the only problem, but if we could get them to change and show the benefits of doing so, others may follow suit. Through better notification design, we could learn to love our phones once again.

Designing for stressful situations

On Saturday 13th January 2018, residents of the US State of Hawaii received an alert on their phones. Instead of a text from their relatives, or the latest football scores, the alert gave the ominous message of “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL”. In an environment of the realistic threat of nuclear war indicated by the US President’s tweets, alongside the continual goading and threats put out by North Korea on their state television networks, the announcement was met with derision, confusion, and overall, undue widespread panic. It turned out later, following a second message indicating that the first one was a “false alarm”, caused by an employee during a shift change at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, who intended to send out a “test” message, instead of a “live” one. This resulted in a public apology from the Governor of the state, and much embarrassment amongst those responsible.

Much has been said in the days that followed the incident about the way in which such a mistake could have been made. Aside from the general panic, it has the extra element of “cry wolf”, where, if the alert is sent out again, those receiving it will now view it with a level of skepticism, instead of immediately acting upon the advice – something which is crucial in the estimated 20 minutes that it would take for a nuclear missile to reach Hawaii from North Korea.

Aside from the social or political elements of this situation, it also raises some questions around the design of the system built to send out these alerts, and how to ensure that users can ensure that the intended drill of “test” or “live” messages are being run. Two luminaries of the design world, Don Norman, author of Design of Everyday Things, and Jared Spool, founder of UIE and the Center Centre¬†have both written insightful pieces on their views of what went wrong, and how it can be prevented in future by the use of better design principles. Writing on Co.Design, Norman’s piece focusses on the fact that we like to blame people, rather than poor design and that the system should have been thoroughly tested before it went live. Spool’s piece on Medium focusses on the fact that the system incorporated poorly chosen file names, as well as poorly designed software.

Both pieces come to a similar, and vital conclusion. When we design and build a system, we should always consider the possibility of what it will be like for someone to use it under stressful conditions. We may not ever come to the point of designing alert mechanisms for incoming nuclear missiles, but we should still consider how easy our webpage, app or system might be to use if the user is pushed by a tight deadline, for example, or is being distracted in some way. Interestingly, my workplace at this very moment, is incurring stress upon my colleagues and I, as work is being done on the roof, and we are frequently subjected to loud bangs, or the sound of hammering and drilling. These interruptions frequently distract us from what we’re doing, causing us to lose focus on where we were with our work, and having to spend time reacquainting ourselves with the task at hand. In this situation, it is common for us to make mistakes as our brains make incorrect assumptions, and we then have to realise those mistakes, and correct them.

So, how do we design for these stressful situations? Thankfully, much of this is already incorporated into the skills we learn in User Experience Design. Giving structure to pages and forms, giving visual dominance to important elements, and clearly labelling and colouring key features can help the brain realise what needs to be done more quickly. We also need to consider what the implications would be if a user made a mistake. How easy would it be to choose the wrong thing? Can an error be easily rectified? Does the system indicate clearly the user’s selections, so that they can go back and fix it later? We can even test these things ourselves – take a prototype or a test version of the system, and go and sit in a busy or noisy environment and ask people to try it. Compare this with people in a quiet, calm place, and see if there is a difference in successful outcomes. The more we trial the system or software, the more sure we can be of its success. We can say that good design and testing can improve revenue or experience, but some day, in the case of the Hawaii Missile Alert, it might just save our lives.

 

A new design for The Guardian

This morning, The Guardian, the UK based newspaper, revealed a new design for their website and mobile apps, in conjunction with their release of their newspaper in a tabloid format, instead of the original broadsheet. Naturally, the design decisions of the team at the Guardian have been analysed, over and over, throughout the day by designers and readers alike, giving their opinions about whether they think the new look is good or bad.

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