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Writing Notifications

Notifications are one of my least favorite things to write. And read. They're not too difficult, once you learn how to write succinctly enough to meet a character limit. You even have the option to throw in an emoji or two.

What I dislike about them is that they often shouldn't exist at all.

All the apps on my phone except for a few (messaging and banking apps) have notifications turned off because they were abusing the channel of communication. We live in a world where everyone is supposed be available one hundred percent of the time; attention is a commodity, and if you're not answering a text right away, the connotations are that you're either upset or dead. But it's not just friends and family fighting for your attention: companies know you're looking at your phone, and want to do everything within their power to get you back on their platform.

When UX writers and designers talk about notifications, they usually mean pings, those little boxes that drop from the top of your phone (and soon will emerge from an island). Other notifications are in-platform; think about the little red icon on a bell or, in more disruptive patterns, a popover that blocks the screen. Notifications can also take the form of email reminders and, well, spam.

Though a lot of applications allow you to customize what you're notified about, it's easier to turn off all communication rather than sludge through a list of a hundred triggers. (Seriously: I recently went through my LinkedIn settings and it took me ten minutes to click through all the options.)

Someone viewed your profile. Emily liked your status. Have you checked out this new feature? Have you opened our app today? Have you given me enough attention?

I wish everyone would ask themselves a few questions before implementing a new notification: Is this information...

  1. that the user wants or needs?

  2. time-sensitive?

If the answer isn't yes to question one, don't even think about creating a notification. The second question is designed to get you thinking about the type of notification: is it important enough that the user will need or want to know it now, or can it wait until next time they log in?

Of course engagement is important. Apps are all about getting users to, well, use the product in the way it was designed to be used. But there has to be a level of respect involved: for the user's time, attention, and desires.

If you come to the conclusion that a notification is justified, write it well. This means making sure it's:

  • personalized

  • actionable, &

  • concise

I'd challenge you to go through your phone and see how many apps you've already silenced; for the ones you haven't, make a note of the notifications they send you throughout the day. Which ones made you pick up your phone or check your email for nothing? And which helped you get back to someone quicker, or gave you data you've been waiting for? Take notes on what works, what annoys and what frustrates, and take those lessons into your own writing.


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