Notifications in Android O: what to expect

Notifications are tricky but are essential when building a mobile app. Nir Eyal, who wrote the book on building habit-forming products says “[notifications] are the Pavlovian bell of the 21st century and they get us to check our tech incessantly.” They are the triggers to bring a user back into an app, and they do the job. That said, adds Mr Eyal, “as powerful as these psychological cues are, people are not drooling dogs. Your product’s users can easily uninstall or turn off notifications that annoy them.” That’s been the tradeoff up until now: app developers had to decide on the right balance between enough notifications to keep users engaged but not enough to either turn off notifications completely or, even worse, uninstall the app.

At one of the more interesting sessions at Google I/O last week, UX designers on the Android team presented their findings from research they conducted into what users currently think about notification. Unsurprisingly, they found that the general gist was that “phone notifications were a major source of stress” where users were “hyper vigilant” to receiving notifications because they were afraid to miss something important but that most notifications were unnecessary. It’s easy to see why that combination causes stress.

Another interesting insight from their research said that users are interested in receiving some notifications from an app, but not all. That kind of granularity doesn’t exist in notification settings and even if it does, users don’t want the hassle of customizing it. It’s an all or nothing approach. Notifications they’d like to receive depend on the person behind the notification, especially their VIPs, and reminders to get stuff done, with the caveat: when it’s relevant.

Different notification Channels defined for a fictional airline app. Users can decide on importance level whether to receive them by Channel, or turn them all off.

The study’s results led the UX team to define a new framework notifications in the yet unnamed Android O called Channels. Channels allow developers to create groupings of notifications by their own criteria but should include a similar subject matter, importance to users, and urgency. It then allows users to select how they want to receive notifications from that channel. So for a fictional airline in their example, channels could include notifications loyalty program, deals, and specific flight updates.

From the user’s perspective, Android O wanted to meet the most common use case, which is “I don’t want this type of notification from this app.” To make that kind of control accessible, users get notification control directly from the notification itself via a long hold and hold on the notification itself. Users can also access notifications in the app settings, where they can control all the app’s notification Channels in one place, and change the behavior model if they want.

Notification settings per channel per app.

Android O also adds more user control by allowing one of four importance levels per Channel, (min, low, default, high) where the importance level determines what set of behaviors the notification will have. The behaviors are set per importance level and including appearances on the lockscreen and status bar, making a sound, peeking on screen when on and waking the screen if off. The only customizable aspect will be vibration. The designer said that they “intentionally trading flexibility for simplicity. “ This means that users will need to understand what each level means, but on the other hand can rely on the fact that all notifications at the same level behave the same. Every channel from every app will have their own setting page and this will be consistent across apps and users will be able to block a channel, change its importance and customize some characteristics such as sound and whether to vibrate (which, to  me, again introduces complexity but I understand the need to allow that flexibility.)

Clearer hierarchy in the notification shade.

This consistency will allow users to understand the importance of a notification before digging deeper to try and understand it. Another change in Android O tries to make the hierarchy of notifications in the shade clearer with four distinct buckets. They will be ordered by importance and distinguished by color and height, and grouped by app within the buckets. The top bucket is “major ongoing” such as music and directions. Below that is “people to people” which research deemed was the most important kind of notification to users, and below that “general” and “by the way.”

This new organization of notifications with Channels and the shade hierarchy aims to reduce user stress by focusing on what’s important to users but its success will depend on two things. The first is whether users will understand the ease of the new Channel settings and set the importance according to their needs or will they revert back to the “all or nothing” approach, deleting the app? One of the findings was that many people don’t adjust their settings even if they know they can. Will the simplicity of a long press on a notification be a discoverable way for users to figure out how easy it is to change notification settings, or will the full page of options deter them?

The second part stems from how app developers utilize the new notifications and if they try to set them at an importance level that doesn’t match user expectation. If this “bad” behaviour is adopted, users just might end up going back to deleting the apps that irritate them without taking the time to adjust notification settings. I’m hoping that developers strive to get this right to avoid deletion, if nothing else, and I’ll on the lookout to see who gets this right once Android O officially launches.

Update 5/30/17: As I was catching up with my post-weekend reading, I came across this plea from Nir Eyal, quoted at the beginning of this post, the guy who literally wrote the book on creating addictive products. He is speaking out against hooking users (now that really does sound like something from the drug world) and saying that, unsurprisingly, “making things more engaging also makes them more potentially addictive.” He’d like tech companies and app creators to take a stand, for the health of their users and “identify, message, and assist people who want to moderate use.”

Back to the topic of this post, Mr Eyal talks about notifications, and tacitly recognizes the role they play in addicting and irritating users: “rather than making it so fiendishly difficult to figure out how to turn off notifications from particularly addictive apps, Apple and Android could proactively ask certain users if they’d like to turn off or limit these triggers.” I’d like to think that with the changes in O, Android has taken a big step in helping users manage and control notifications. Perhaps, as Mr Eyal suggests, the next step should be proactive assistance. But then, wouldn’t proactive assistance be just another push notification and we’d be right back where we started?



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