Time for a makeover: ‘Notifications 2.0’

We’re in danger of being notified to distraction, especially now that the internet of things is getting in on the act. Here are some ways things could be dialed back.

It was the day that my new dryer pinged me to let me know the clothes were dry that I realized the notifications thing had gotten out of hand.

Don’t get me wrong. I love notifications, at least, the way they were meant to be. And the dryer notification turned out to be useful since I have a regular laundry role in my household. Thank God, though, that our new refrigerator, stove and microwave did not follow suit.

If you give them free rein, the notifications on your phone, tablet, Mac, PC and other electronic devices from email, texts, calendars, social media, content providers, newsletters, apps and operating systems, to name a few sources, will keep you up half the night, render you mute with bewildering noises, invade your screen space when you’re trying to do something else, confuse you with duplicate or even contradictory messages — in short, they will quickly become your taskmaster. Especially if you are like me and your OCD tendencies make you feel you must look at every single notification.

On most devices, notification cards can appear in two locations. The fact that Apple has both badges and alerts makes configuring everything that much harder. For me, the salient difference is that alerts are persistent. But why not just call them all alerts?

How many times does a text message in a new conversation chirp to let you know it’s sitting there unread? Two times? Three times? It’s a notification multiplier.

The most blatant example of notifications gone crazy pertains to package delivery. When I order from Amazon, I get Amazon’s website notifications, its app notifications, USPS notifications, UPS notifications and FedEx notifications. What’s more, I am signed up for email and text notifications as well as multiple types of notifications for delivery status, such as “out for delivery,” “you have a package coming tomorrow” and “package delivered.” Amazon echoes some of the shipper messages, so for a single package delivery, I might get upwards of 15 notifications, from order to delivery.

It’s not that I want this many notifications about a box in the mail. It’s that I’ve yet to work out a way to cut back on the overload without entirely doing away with the notifications. Amazon and UPS, for example, give me different types of notifications. And I care a lot more about some packages than others. Basically, it’s a mess. How do you decide whose notifications to keep once you’ve experienced a flat-out contradiction? It’s happened to me more than once. One time, UPS alerted me that it wouldn’t be able to deliver a package until the next day, but Amazon was telling me that the package had been delivered. Surprisingly, it was Amazon that was correct.

What to do about it

For the time being, notifications are the Wild West — no law, no rules and few boundaries. So I can’t tell you how to configure your notifications to perfection. What I can do is suggest some of the ways that notifications could be managed by the computer industry to avoid the kind of frustration that I and other users are experiencing.

Operating systems such as Windows 10, macOS, iOS and Android should be the point of control for notifications on their respective platforms. Ostensibly they are, and the OS providers seem to be committed to that idea, but some applications steer around them. There are several notification functions for which companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Google need to take ownership and do the right thing. Otherwise, we will likely see ads and phishing exploits coming our way through notifications.

Various pundits suggest handling the problem by turning off your notifications altogether. (Slow torture on an Apple device, where you have to turn each one off individually; at least Microsoft, in Windows 10, gives you a one-button off switch.) But turning them all off is a drastic response that will leave your significant other wanting to know why you’re not responding to his or her texts. Let’s face it: There are notifications that you want to see. But a kill switch is the first step toward notification sanity. Users of Apple and other devices should have a similar ability.

I want to configure notifications on the fly, without having to locate a settings box. Voice enablement would be ideal; depending on your level of frustration, you could say, “Stop notifications” or “Shut the ---- up!” I’ve been trying to test whether Cortana can do this, but I can’t get the virtual assistant to operate at all on two different Windows PCs.

Apple has a global notification feature called Do Not Disturb, which with a tweak could be made superb. Do Not Disturb lets you define a period of time every day when all notifications are turned off. It also has settings for preventing the phone from ringing or mirroring TVs and projectors, and you can have notifications zapped while the display is sleeping. It’s a well-thought-out feature that I’ve been using for years. And on iOS, you can block notifications and phone calls while you are driving.

Apple could significantly improve Do Not Disturb with a single bit of functionality. I may like to begin getting visible/audible notifications at 6 a.m. Mondays through Fridays, but on Saturdays, I don’t want to know about them before 8 or 9 a.m. Apple should make it possible to configure Do Not Disturb times differently for each day of the week. (Settings for the iOS alarm clock already work this way.)

Meanwhile, Microsoft offers Quiet Hours, which has no settings whatsoever in Windows 10. It blocks notifications from midnight to 6 a.m., period — you have no option to change those times. It’s a time slot that happens to work for me most days, but I don’t sleep with my Windows PC nearby.

Some third-party services on your devices have multiple ways of sending out notifications. They may have a mobile app, a web notification center and a desktop app. But those notifications should all be connected on the back end so that each device receives one notification per unique message. (I’m looking at you, Amazon.) There should also be clear controls for text versus email notifications.

Another way that notifications might be mediated is by categorizing them: Work or Play, Important or Can Wait, Office or Home and so on. Or the categories could be things such as shopping, entertainment, news or social media. You could allow your social media notifications in real time, but hold back all shopping and entertainment notifications until you are at home. It would be better for users, but it would be more effective marketing, too. An interruption from Netflix at work about the latest TV show it thinks I might like is annoying, but it might be welcome in the evening when I am relaxing and able to act on the recommendation immediately.

All of this could be done with a simple configuration screen that makes use of time of day or location-based information, but even better would be if you could type or speak a category name into your phone or tell it to hold all notifications for an hour while you make a call.

We should tell the companies that make our computer products to make them better — and give them some idea of what better looks like. Notifications are overdue for an overhaul.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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