Everyone hates smartphone notifications. They are interruptive, annoying, annoying and less and less valuable. The signal-to-noise ratio on the lock screen of your average smartphone is completely out of control. The solution, of course, is to immerse yourself in your phone's settings and turn off as many app notifications as possible. But it's a constant struggle: every new application you install you want to get on the lock screen and the small pop-up window is too easy to say yes to. After ten years of the smart phone revolution, we are still understanding what things we should allow ourselves to interrupt.
It is easy to forget the repercussions of the Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal, but during the first months of the year, the biggest concern in the technological areas was not the privacy of the data, but the attention. Notifications are the most visible way these devices steal our attention, often for reasons that are more related to the end result of an application developer than a genuine need to receive notifications.
The New York Times, to its credit, was placed at the epicenter of this discussion earlier this year, with stories such as Nellie Bowles' call for their phones to change their phones in black and white to reduce their power of distraction, Farhad Manjoo says: "It's time for Apple to build a less addictive phone", and John Herrman's analysis of why those red spots of notification on the iPhone are particularly useless. Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, has been on a months tour promoting his "Time Well Spent" initiative. He is part of an organization called "Center for Human Technology", a name that is completely related to my own beliefs about how we should relate to gadgets.
I agree with all these concerns, but I've also found myself in a curious place: the notifications on my Android phone do not worry me that much. I think there are a couple of reasons for that. First of all, I've done the job of editing my settings and curing my home screen so my phone feels a little more like it's under my control.
Second, and more importantly, I think Android is doing a better job of providing tools to corroborate notifications than the iPhone.
Both platforms have no shortage of notification configurations. If you look at the notification settings for any given application on the iPhone, there are six different options. The main switch turns them on or off, there are two. Turn them on and then there are five more buttons. If you add all the different possible permutations of those combinations, you end up with a total of 50 different ways that a notification (or not) can appear on your iPhone.
Those are many options, and the cheap photo (which I will always take) is that there are too many options. But Android is even worse in that sense: there are so many checkboxes and variations between the settings of the application that it is almost impossible to count the number of ways in which a notification could appear on Android.
On both platforms, the question is not (or is not fair) if there are too many options or not. It is whether the final state of those options is good or not. The difference, I discovered, is that Android has a way of doing things that make notifications more "human" than is possible on the iPhone.
On Android, you can tell that application to shut up forever when you see the notification
You can set a notification to appear silently in the notification tray and the lock screen. They're there if you want them, but they do not turn on your phone or drop a box on what you're seeing
Android does a much better job of prioritizing notifications. Instead of appearing in reverse chronological order, they are sorted by importance. The music controls the top, then the messaging, then the email and everything else. The idea is that the things that come from real people that you really know come first.
The notifications are grouped. That is great for me. If I have a dozen emails and a million Twitter notifications, all that appears on my notification screen (or lock screen) in just a couple of lines. I can expand them to dig or slide them en masse
But perhaps the most important thing is that you can go directly to notifications settings from the notification with a slow / medium glide and then touch a gear icon. This is huge. On the iPhone, when an annoying notification appears, you must discard it, then go to the configuration, then search the application and then change the settings of the notifications.
It seems petty to complain about a few additional touches, but those touches impose a heavy cost of cognitive change for the user. On Android, you can tell that application to shut up forever when you see the notification.
Android has many other options. (Again, I think there are probably too many). You can postpone notifications as you would with email. There is this complicated set of check boxes called "Notification Channels", where, by application, you can set priority levels for each type of notification that the application wishes to send. And then customize even more what each level of priority means.
Working is a lot of work, but you can do things right when a notification appears. I think Google needs to continue interacting and, honestly, apply a little more of that learning machine that is always talked about. . But even though all the different configuration options are dizzying, at least I'm happy to see that Google is trying to solve the problem, even if it's just more checkboxes.
The iPhone, however … Apple and I have fundamentally different philosophies about how we should relate to notifications. I see them as a new type 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 should not enter for all that. Notifications are fundamentally a distraction, so I think Apple's solution is to convince us to stop paying so much attention. Turn them off, let them float, do not worry about reaching "zero notification" (so to speak). My colleague Vlad Savov called it "an endless drop-down list of bloated notification clouds" and I think it's apt. The result of this philosophy, I think, is that the tools that Apple provides to handle notifications are blunt instruments. But I also think it's the wrong philosophy. Some notifications are super important, but they are too easy to miss in that endless pile of clouds.
So, yes: focus on your notifications. Enfant yourself with the developers of applications that send them. But above all, use the tools that these platforms have provided to deal with them, and demand that these tools remain sufficiently defined to eliminate them without killing them completely.