TechTechnology

Why iPhone notifications need an overhaul

Everybody hates smartphone notifications. They’re interruptive, distracting, annoying, and increasingly less valuable. The signal-to-noise ratio on your average smartphone’s lock screen is completely out of whack. The solution, of course, is to dive into your phone’s settings and turn as many app notifications off as you can. But it’s a constant struggle: every new app you install wants to get on your lock screen and the little pop-up box is all too easy to just say yes to. Ten-ish years into the smartphone revolution, we’re still coming to grips with which things we should allow to interrupt us.

It’s easy to forget as we slog through the repercussions of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, but for the first couple months of the year, the biggest concern in tech spheres wasn’t data privacy, but attention. Notifications are the most visible way that these devices steal our attention — often for reasons that are more related to an app developer’s bottom line than to a genuine need to be notified.

The New York Times, to its credit, placed itself at the epicenter of this discussion earlier this year, with stories like Nellie Bowles’ call for people to turn their phones black and white to reduce their distracting power, Farhad Manjoo’s “It’s time for Apple to build a less addictive phone,” and John Herrman’s analysis of why those red notification dots on the iPhone are singularly unhelpful. Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, has been on a months-long tour promoting his “Time Well Spent” initiative. He’s part of an organization called the “Center for Humane Technology,” a name that’s entirely with my own beliefs about how we should relate to gadgets.

I agree with all of these concerns, but I have also found myself in a curious place: I’m not bothered by the notifications on my Android phone all that much. I think there are a couple of reasons for that. First, I’ve done the work of editing my settings and curating my home screen so that my phone feels a little more like it’s in my control.

Second, and more importantly, I think that Android is doing a better job of providing tools for corralling notifications than the iPhone.

Both platforms have no shortage of notification settings. If you look at the notification settings for any given app on the iPhone, there are six different options. The main toggle turns them on or off, that’s two. Turn them on and then there are five more toggles. If you add all the different possible permutations of those toggles together, you end up with a total of 50 different ways a notification can appear (or not) on your iPhone.

That is a lot of options, and the cheap shot (which I will always take) is that it’s too many options. But Android is even worse in that regard: there are so many checkboxes and variations between app settings that an accounting of the number of ways a notification could potentially appear on Android is nigh impossible.

On both of those platforms, the question isn’t (or isn’t just) whether or not there are too many options. It’s whether or not the end state of those options are any good. The difference, I’ve found, is that Android has a way of doing things that make notifications more “humane” than what’s possible on the iPhone.

You can set a notification to silently appear in your notifications tray and lock screen. They’re there if you want them, but they don’t buzz your phone or drop down a box over what you’re looking at

Android does a much better job of prioritizing notifications. Instead of just getting listed in reverse chronological order, they get ordered by importance. Music controls up top, then messaging, then email, then all the rest. The idea is that stuff that comes from actual people you actually know comes first.

Notifications are grouped. That’s the big one for me. If I have a dozen emails and a million Twitter notifications, all that shows up in my notification shade (or lock screen) on just a couple lines. I can expand them to dig in or swipe them away en masse

But maybe most importantly, you can jump directly to notification settings from the notification itself with a slow / half swipe and then tap on a gear icon. This is huge. On the iPhone, when an annoying notification comes in, you have to dismiss it, then go to settings, then find the app, then change the notification settings.

It seems petty to complain about a few extra taps, but those taps impose a pretty heavy cognitive switching cost on the user. On Android, you can tell that app to shut up forever right when you see the notification.

Android has a ton of other options. (Again, I think there are probably too many.) You can snooze notifications like you might do with email. There’s this complicated set of checkboxes called “Notification Channels,” where, on a per-app basis, you can set priority levels for every type of notification that app might want to send. And then further customize what each priority level means.

It’s all a lot of work to set up, but you can kind of just do it right when a notification comes in. I think Google needs to keep iterating on it and, honestly, apply a little more of that machine learning it’s always talking about. But even though all the different configuration options are dizzying, I’m at least happy to see that Google is trying to address the problem, even if it’s just with more checkboxes.

The iPhone, though… Apple and I have fundamentally different philosophies about how we should relate to notifications. I see them as a new kind of email: annoying, necessary, and ultimately super useful. I want a framework for managing notifications — just like I have a framework for managing email.

Apple seems to believe that I shouldn’t go in for all that. Notifications are fundamentally distracting, so I think Apple’s solution is to convince us to stop giving them so much attention. Turn them off, let them float by, don’t worry about reaching “notification zero” (so to speak). My colleague Vlad Savov called it “an endless scrolling list of puffy notification clouds” and I think that’s apt. The result of this philosophy, I think, is that the tools Apple provides for dealing with notifications are blunt instruments. But I also think it’s the wrong philosophy. Some notifications are actually super important, but they’re too easy to miss in that endless pile of clouds.

So yes: be annoyed about your notifications. Be annoyed with the app developers who send them. But mostly, use whatever tools these platforms have provided to deal with them — and demand that those tools are kept sharp enough to cut them down without killing them entirely.

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