The new Google Maps traffic notifications: are beautifully implemented but practically useless

Some time last week Google asked me for permission to send me traffic notifications. Magnanimously, I agreed, and now, from what I can tell, Google sends me alerts about traffic where I am a few times in the morning and a few times in the afternoon. I get notifications when traffic is bad for the first time, when it continues to be bad, and when it starts becoming better. The area includes the expressways and highways around my current location.


From notification…

The feature is well designed: the notification tells me everything I need to know. This one, from yesterday afternoon, says that traffic is slower than usual with delays of up to 8 minutes. The notification takes me to a maps page where the currently delays are marked with heavy red highlighting, with the extra minutes added for emphasis.

...yes, it's bad.

…to traffic mess.

Yet, though in some ways I feel we need all the traffic help we can get here in the Bay Area during rush hour, these new notifications don’t seem helpful. Let’s start with this definition of a quality notification:

  • What is the purpose of the notification?  Its purpose seems clear: to let users know about traffic congestion that might impact them. It does that.
  • How is the notification going to be useful to users? Here’s where I’m not sure. A notification of congestion can only be useful if the user was planning to go somewhere and might delay because of unexpected congestion. But A, from what I’ve seen, the congestion behaves in a similar manner around every rush hour, and after a week of notifying me about traffic in the same spots every day, it is no longer useful. B, users check traffic anyway when heading out and Maps already considers traffic when suggesting routes. So why the notification? 
  • Will the notification be relevant to all users or just a certain user segment? The traffic notifications are highly personalized and focused on a time and location, yet aren’t tied to a scheduled meeting or a planned event so they’re irrelevant.
  • Do you really need notifications in your app at all? Does Maps need notifications at all is an excellent question. Do users even need to be reminded to check traffic before setting out to their destination or is that an ingrained habit already? Notifications should be (as they are) part of a calendar notification, telling users when they need to start driving based on their current location to reach their appointment on time, not just a report on local traffic conditions.
  • What action(s) is the user expected to take after receiving the notification? The flow works well from notification to viewing current local traffic problems. There’s also a button to quickly calculate a route, so if a user found the notification helpful, the next steps they can take are clear.   

Here’s the thing: notifications are supposed to provide value and increase users engagement with an app. I’m not sure that the traffic notifications does that. Even after only a week of them turned on, I find myself close to declaring them useless as there are simply too many of them. If I need to go somewhere, I check traffic and plan accordingly. If I don’t, why do I need to know what traffic is like?

There are two situations where I would find a notification like this useful: if there were a special and unique reason traffic was worse than usual. For example, a game at the 50,424 seat Stanford Football stadium creates unusual traffic in my area or traffic when I wasn’t expecting it, such as a Black Friday rush at the mall. Another beneficial use case is to find situations where users don’t usually plan a route because it’s a local drive, one that they make a few times a week, say to the gym (based in calendar entries.) Those are cases when knowing where traffic is congested en route is useful.

It’s not helpful to get an identical notification every workday at about the same time. Yes, traffic sucks at 5pm on a weekday on the 101. Tell me something I don’t know.

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