Notifications, Unread Items and Information Overload

Last week I wrote about the strategies Quora.com employs to engage its users and keep them coming back to the site. A big component of their strategy is the idea of notifications--the email and on-screen alerts the application uses to let you know that your attention is needed. Their notifications are tactful and largely welcome. Unfortunately, however, like many other tools in the software architect's chest, notifications can quickly cause insane levels of information overload when they're used without careful thought.

Take for instance the Facebook iPhone app. Every time I open it and navigate to the main menu screen, I have some notifications waiting for me (usually people commenting on one of my wall posts or something similar). I'm alerted to this fact by a little bar on the bottom of the screen highlighted in a different color. This much I'm okay with.

However, if I then choose to close the app at this point without explicitly viewing the notifications, the app icon now has a little red number superimposed on it, telling me how many notifications I didn't check. If you're anal like me, this is torture. I now have to go back into the app and view the notifications in order to get rid of that annoying little red number.

"Unread" counts in email and news readers like Google Reader are another good example. Again, because of my mild OCD, I never let my inbox contain any unread messages. I even click on messages I know to be spam just so that they don't keep notifying me of their unread status. Same goes for Google Reader. If I'm too busy to read everything and I have to skip some articles, I still have to mark them as unread so I don't have to see that notification anymore. I've often thought that these applications should archive (or mark as read) any unread messages automatically after a certain amount of time goes by. If I haven't read an email in a few days, I'm probably not ever going to read it.

All of this information desperately begging for our attention leads to apathy at best and resentment at worst. It's like the boy who cried wolf. Eventually we're just going to tune it out.

I think the trick here is to think like the user before implementing things like this. Do I really want to receive more than one or two emails per day from a given application? Should notifications be persistent, or should they fade away over time? Should they be mandatory, requiring the user to take a certain action so that they go away? Or should they merely be indicative of an action that is optional? Should the notifications be opt-in or opt-out?

These are crucial decisions to make when creating software, decisions that could lead either to delight or disgust.

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