Windows or Mac? DirectX or OpenGL? Is it pronounced ‘GIF’ or ‘JIF’? People in tech are never short of opinions about the right way to do things. But Troy Goode admits that notifications are a niche that even tech people have a hard time getting excited about.
“Notifications aren’t particularly sexy. They’re not something developers build because they want to build notifications.”
As the founder and CEO at Courier, Goode and his team are making it easy for other developers to create and add notifications to their products. On our latest episode of the Decoded podcast, Goode took us behind the curtain to share why notifications continue to trip up even the best companies, discuss notification best practices, and explore where notifications may go from here.
What Is a Notification?
While most people associate notifications with mobile push notifications, Goode says that developers need to think of notifications as anything that, well, notifies.
“SMS can be a notification. Email can be a notification. I get a notification on Slack. There’s a lot of different channels you could potentially receive notifications on”.
Email as a notification system has matured over the decades thanks to things like spam folders and unsubscribe buttons. Because it was the only notification game in town for so long, developers created best practices that would allow it to be useful without overburdening users.
But once smartphones came around, all bets were off. Goode explained:
“It’s been a march of new notification channels popping up every year for the last decade. Each of them creates a new opportunity for developers to create new, exciting experiences for people, but it also creates an opportunity to screw up and send too many messages on too many channels. It’s creating fatigue that I think we are all feeling across all the different systems that are vying for our attention.”
Delivering the Right Notification for the Job
If you send too many notifications on too many channels, you not only risk having users unsubscribe to your notifications, but you also risk ruining their customer experience. To do notifications right, Goode says that you have to consider the intent of the notification.
For example, there are some notifications that users want to know about right away, such as if an app has become disconnected from a data source or if you need to reset a password. Those notifications need to show up on a smartphone immediately; this means you need to think about how you route notifications so that it reduces latency to near-real time. Other notifications, such as marketing messages, can go through slower outbound service providers to an email where the user can interact with it on their schedule.
Another thing you can do is take an adaptive approach to notifications. Goode says that Slack is an example of a company that does this right. If someone sends you a direct message through Slack, the platform will check to see if you are already using the app on your computer to notify you there. If not, it might instead send a mobile push if you have the app installed, or an email if you don’t. Rather than send the notification to the wrong place or send it multiple times, you should strive to send it in a way that accomplishes the job as unobtrusively as possible. Goode said:
“We have customers that send a very low scale of notifications, but those notifications are mission critical. None of them can be lost. They care about redundancy, failover, and reliability, so you would look at technologies that will help with the reliability side. On the other hand, if you have a product where you can see tremendous scale very early in the lifetime of the product, when you’re looking at the trade-offs, you might say, ‘Let’s design this for scale and maybe dial down the reliability component here.’ ”
When Will Notifications Grow Up?
Goode freely admits that notifications have gotten a bad rap.
“The problem is a small set of very influential consumer-focused products that are hyper-optimizing for short-term engagement and doing it in a way that’s frankly not healthy for their users or, in my opinion, our entire society. Notifications can absolutely be used for evil.”
For notifications to regain their reputation, developers need to ensure that the notifications they design don’t just grab attention, but do so in a way that offers a better experience for the user.
“Anybody who has spent time around a toddler knows it can be very annoying if someone keeps grabbing your attention. Where we are hopefully headed as a society is one where if there are going to be more ways for things to grab your attention, there is a way for us as consumers to control that and be able to be clear around what our preferences are so we can make sure that the way we’re being notified fits with what we want.”
Be sure to hear the full conversation with Troy Goode, and subscribe to the Decoded podcast.