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I'm working on a project where I'd like to notify a user of an important event in the application. There are two options that I have at my disposal:

  1. Use the browser/HTML5 Desktop Notifications. These require permissions upfront which the user has to approve. The user does not get taken to the tab at the time of the notification.

  2. Use a browser 'alert' call that will open and focus the appropriate tab without asking for permissions. A little more annoying but less permissions.

Which of these two would lead to better user engagement?

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I think the experience of desktop notifications is much better. Browser alerts grabbing focus can be quite annoying. An example of an app that uses browser alerts is Google Calendar, and I find it frustrating to be suddenly jolted away from what I am doing. Also, I may have more than one Calendar window open, and it is even more annoying to have this happen repeatedly.

That said, there are some limitations of desktop notifications:

  • Not supported on all platforms
  • If they are not allowed or understood by some users, these users won't receive the information.

In a world with unlimited development time, I would suggest providing the option for either. However, that may not be possible for you, in which case you will have to think about the trade-offs.

This will have to do with the specifics of your app. For example:

  • What is the computer literacy of the users? Will they understand desktop notifications?
  • What platforms do you expect the app to be used on?
  • How will your app be used? Will people tend to leave it open in the background, or only have it open when actively working on it? (Browser notifications are more acceptable for the latter).
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Desktop notifications are far preferable, even on platforms where the current implementation isn't to your taste. Browser alerts are terrible UX. They break things like drag-and-drop operations, they have the standard problems of modal dialogs, users close them without reading them, and there's no way to defer the notification.

A one-time authorisation for desktop notifications is not burdensome-- it can be part of the flow of your application-- and it's good for users to have that control, and to be made aware that you'll be giving them notifications.

I'd question whether you should use alert windows even as a fallback. Could you make do with a notification pane within your app and/or changing the window title to "ALERT!"? Do users really need to switch to your app the moment you raise a notification? And, of course, if your app doesn't support IE anyway then it barely matters.

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