(This may be a pure opinion question, in which case feel free to close...)

I'm trying to come up with the list of pros/cons of two forms of user notifications around messaging. Think of email, or text messages, or alerts, or what have you.

I've seen two typical models:

  1. Count of unread messages. To reduce the count, a user must visit the individual message and 'view' it.

  2. Count of new messages. 'New' being defined as number of new items since you last viewed the list of items.

Option 1 seems more prevalent...especially in the context of email. Is there some strong arguments for using #2 instead?

The one argument I have is simple personal annoyance. I don't read every single email I get, so when my iPad shows 2,134 unread messages, I don't care. And I probably won't notice when it says 2,136 unread messages next time to know that there are 2 new messages there.

The question is: Do you see strong arguments to stick with one or the other out of a) familiarity or b) other issues I may not be considering?

5 Answers 5


I think most people understand the concept of 'new' emails as being emails that they haven't seen since last log in or update. For me, an 'unread' email has a persistent state (i.e. it will remain so unless the user does something to it), whereas a 'new' email can be defined by a specified time frame and/or action, and that's where the confusion might come from. I don't think it is a big issue if you are consistent, and the users will learn very quickly what the behaviour is.


I prefer #1 approach as it will show me number that actually meaningful and actionable. Like what Brendon has mentioned https://ux.stackexchange.com/a/43603/25471 , new does not tell me anything.

Another alternative is to provide a hybrid approach that enables user to clear/reduce the notification count without actually read each one of them. You can use something like 'mark as read' or make something more easier (yet less flexible) like Quora (see pic)

42 unread counts with option to clear 3 at a time

  • So, it seems the problem people have with 'new' is that it's not consistently implemented. Is that correct? If 'new' were consistently implemented would you have a preference for that over 'unread'?
    – DA01
    Aug 13, 2013 at 3:20
  • correct. however, different sites have different ways to implement 'new' / 'unread'. SO, FB, Gmail. And in the case of FB, I have missed so many important items thanks to the way they implement the counter.
    – Aditya
    Aug 13, 2013 at 4:19

This depends on what type of items make up the list.

The first option is how most email clients handle new mail. With email, text messages, etc. it is expected that you view and respond to each one, so it would be important for it to count the number of unviewed messages. Clearly this notion has devolved over the last decade, but for the most part, I expect people to read my emails if I send it to them.

The second option comes from social media where there is a lot of noise. Facebook tells you how many new items are on your news feed since the last time to checked, but stops counting at 20 because at that point, you probably aren't going to read each one. It works here because most of the content on FAcebook and Twitter is just for viewing, not responding.

So, your question becomes, "is the user supposed to be able to view each item in the list, or is it OK if they glance over everything?".

  • That's not for me to decide (IMHO). How people read/manage their email is up to them. I think that's why I find the 'unread messages' count rather useless. It's only useful if we assume all users read all their mail.
    – DA01
    Aug 13, 2013 at 16:58

For email, I would ditch them both. Certainly to me, as a user, they are both meaningless. Okay, so I have '9,319 unread emails'. That doesn't tell me anything useful. And having '5 new emails' is useless because 'new' is a very loose term. Receiving email across multiple devices (mediums) creates a problem -- the counts of each device would be different. If I read most emails on my mobile phone, and the occasional one on the desktop, the counts become quite misleading.

What I would much prefer to see is 'Inbox (5 minutes ago)' or 'Inbox (19:48)' -- showing the last time the list was updated. At least this information actually tells you something.


Two of my frequently used mail boxes use different models (count of unread vs count of new since last visit), but both have labels "New messages".

Actually "count of new" box used to display both parameters in format 2/125, where 2 was new messages and 125 was unread ones. But recently they have changed to pure "count of new" model. And I hardly noticed this because I always was watching first number.

I prefer "count of new" model because it is more informative. It reflects activity during my absence. It is highly useful indicator in cases when I am waiting for particular mail from collegue, or password recovery letter, or some confirmation, etc. I.e., it is more dynamic indicator and more "real-time-like".

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