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We all use notifications in some form to keep us informed of what is happening around us. If we got a new e-mail, a new text message, a missed phone call, a mention in a tweet, a Facebook like or comment, Instagram happening... The list is almost without end, especially when it comes to Social Media applications.

Some users may be happy about notifications. I know I am when I get a like, a comment or a text message. It means that other people care what I do and if I return the favor that he/she means something for me. Especially now when I'm yet again an uncle for my kid brother. We use Facebook group messages and I like to communicate with my three younger brothers and Mom (Dad don't do Facebook).

But from the other perspective, there are some who feel that they want to "get rid of notifications" which get more than 16'000 hits on a Google search with quotation marks. Searching for "push notifications" renders well over a million hits. There is also a Mashable article HOW TO: Get Rid of Annoying Facebook Notifications which is shared 2'000 times. It's fair to assume that notifications affect some users in a negative way. But how?

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I know I and my friends sometimes hits an app on the phone, just to get rid of the notification - not read what is notified on. Is there more, and possibly other unwanted behavior surronding users and their notification behavior?

How does Notifications affect User Behavior?

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This is not a subject I've paid much attention to before, but I would like to share some personal experience for it might give some insight. Notifications seem to be the only thing that triggers some kind of compulsive disorder in me. I like that number to be zero. I itches when I see my girlfriends mail app with her 4000+ unread emails. But these are a good kind of notifications. You also have the bad kind of notifications that say "it's been a while since you used the app". I hate these, but still I want the notification count to zero. –  Paul Jan 9 at 7:36

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The simple answer to your question is that first and foremost, they are distractions. This isn't about their utility or importance, but just how they affect the user, which is that by definition, notifications - whether pushed to your phone or flashing on your toolbar - are intended to interrupt them.

The goal of these interruptions be their nature is to inform you about something of perceived importance, at the very least, and/or get you to take action on something that needs it. Without this criteria a notification is just a nuisance. But if we think through that, what happens?

  • If the notification is purely informative, you still are reminded of it, and it ever so slightly takes up your cognitive load as your mind registers the notification, processes it and dismisses it. This mental load adds up with each new ding or flash and detracts from your productivity and your thinking, which is why any guru or blogger discussing the subject of productivity at work, or meditation, or just getting in "the zone", will tell you to remove all distractions. Even leaving the notification alone, i.e. watching that number pile up with unread emails, is a constant source of agitation because users are so used to getting rid of that, and it literally becomes an addiction.

  • Needing to take action on a notification is even more of a cognitive load, even in its most basic form of confirming an alert, say. More involved alerts that require you to switch between tasks or apps force you to spend time multitasking, which has been thoroughly proven to waste more time than it saves. Read "The Myth of Multitasking"(.pdf) as an example.

That is the drawback of notifications, and why turning them off has become so common. Of course, what is very important to note here is context. Since you mentioned the iPhone a few times I'll use their push notifications as examples but the principles can be applied anywhere:

  • Importance: a lot of apps use notifications as nothing more than marketing vehicles to remind users to use those apps. Trivial in their own right but a constant distraction if not turned off.

  • Frequency: I would surmise Facebook gets a lot of loathing because that is a type of app that has the potential to send you a flood of alerts, by the minute: for chats, for new posts and tagged photos, etc etc. It doesn't matter how important the content is - you wouldn't want to be reminded of it every two minutes.

  • Priority: If you have one app on your phone that sends you an important notification, you might decide to keep it because it is indeed important enough to you that it outweighs the distraction. If you end up getting 5 more apps, each with their own alerts, you start reevaluating that mindset, and start prioritizing what is the most important among all apps. That original app's alerts in this new context, might not be as relevant as it was.

So in essence, every user will react to the same notification differently, and to reiterate, I don't want to imply that all notifications are trivial or unnecessary, but the takeaway is that they are intended distractions. Whether that interruption is worth the value of whatever info/task that alert is providing, is up to the user to first realize then decide.

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Notification icons are good practice especially on mobile devices as a more efficient way of staying up to date with email & social media. It tells us that someone cared about our post, or we have a new message from a real person. Because of this, popular apps such as FaceBook and Gmail are acceptable use for alert icons.

However, this is not to say some users will find it disturbing. It becomes annoying when apps give notifications on things that don't involve human interaction. We find it a prompt, other than a message worth attending to.

Even if it does involve human interaction, an alert that involves a favor from others with no clear indication of rewards is annoying. Consider experiencing these sample alerts hundreds of times a day:

  1. "Andy, Brian would like to ask your permission for your house keys. Tap here to go there now!"

or, receiving a notification only when you expect it:

  1. "Andy, you asked for Brian to have access to your house keys. Please confirm this action."

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In a world of mobile, too many apps are implementing notifications to users in wrong ways. When you have a consistency of worthy notifications, that's when users will learn to pay attention to your app. I would not hesitate to make good use of mobile notification icons, as long as it is deserving of the user's attention.

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