28 Feb Getting Notified
Category: Apple, Design, News, webOS

There’s some discussion on Apple-centric and tech news websites about a video that’s doing the rounds with a new approach to notifications for iOS. While the system in the video is really nothing new (there’s been at least one alternative notification system in the App-Store-for-jailbroken-phones “Cydia” since 2010) it is getting a lot of attention, presumably because iOS users are quite satisfied with almost all the interactions of the OS except those dang stacking modal dialogs that interrupt your game of Angry Birds every time you get a text message.

And I can relate: when I am abroad, with my three email accounts, whenever I open Mail on my iPhone, I have to dismiss three ‘data roaming is off’ dialogs, and three ‘cannot get mail’ dialogs ( — that’s one per mail account). On an iPad, it can be even more jarring, with a tiny alert disabling the whole 9.7″ screen until you act on it.

This is a real issue. I have no doubt Apple is aware of this, like they were aware of copy and paste and multi-tasking.

This is not a post about what Apple will or should do to improve notifications on iOS. It’s a post talking about what solutions other platforms currently use to notify the user, and why Apple is (possibly, probably) taking such a while to create an optimal solution to the notification problem.

The biggest current smartphone OS, Android, has a well-known approach to notifications. They gather in the status bar, a never-hiding, tap / swipe-able interface element at the top* of the screen that slides down to cover the entire UI when invoked. When notifications come in, icons gather in the bar. Note that these icons gather at the left, while system status icons illustrating current battery life, signal strength, 3G status, Wi-Fi status, time, location services status and more gather at the right. As you can probably tell by that line-up of status items, it doesn’t take a lot of notifications on Android to fill up the entire top bar.

Most casual users I know solve this by either sliding the status bar down and using the ‘Clear All’ function to get rid of the unmanageable and opaque mess of icons or manage all the notifications as they come in, so they don’t miss anything important when it does pop up between the others.

Notifications have interesting design consideration you have to take into account: priority. For instance, Android attaches equal UI importance to a notification telling the user that the phone is connected through USB, that there’s new mail, and that there’s one missed call. They all get the same sized icon in the top bar. Only very rarely does Android throw a modal dialog on screen demanding action, like iOS does for most of its notifications.

You could say Android’s solution to all that incoming information is to throw them into a big junk drawer. Organized people will no doubt create a system around the drawer and find all their stuff in it, but why put that burden on the user? I don’t want to manage the information flow — it’s a smartphone, right?

What about webOS? I’ve seen a lot of arguments in online discussions that webOS is about as good a solution for notifications as Android. I disagree. webOS handles notifications in a far more clever way.

To illustrate that, let’s grab a smartphone. Anything the size between a tiny Palm Pre or a huge HTC EVO 4G will do. Hold it in your left or right hand, and tap the bottom of the screen with your thumb. No effort, right? Now tap the top of the screen. See how much more effort that takes? I’ve got pretty big hands, and tapping the status bar of my iPhone 4 forces me to stretch my thumb. Fortunately, I never have to tap the status bar unless I want to scroll to the top of a long content view.

For exactly this reason, and the aforementioned ‘clutter bar’ of Android, webOS cleverly puts notifications at the bottom. In mobile UI design, it’s often recommended to put the most accessed controls at the bottom. In fact, it’s in the iOS HIG. As a notification comes in, webOS shrinks the screen a little bit, shows you some of its content with an icon and then puts a little icon at the bottom of the screen. You tap it, and it shows the notification content, allowing you to act on it, ignore it, or swipe it out of view. This doesn’t just prevent you from stretching fingers, it doesn’t clutter the webOS status bar with icons that tell you little to none about the device’s status. With some stretching, you can still swipe down on the status bar to reveal a quick menu that lets you enable / disable Wi-Fi and other system actions.

I’d say webOS has one of the most elegant systems for notifications on the market today, even compared to desktop OSes. Even when the notification ‘tray’ fills up with a lot of Facebook, Gowalla, Twitter, SMS, low battery and USB mode alerts, it’s a manageable mess.

Let’s look at the video I referred to at the beginning of my post again. When notifications come in, they literally cover the screen. Is there a control below the notification? Tough luck. Act on it now, or lose that part of your screen. It’s not shown, but if it scales like I think it does, it will simply fill your entire screen with three to four notifications. Going back to my example of Mail on iOS, that would mean I have to do more than tapping “Okay” six times to get back to interacting with my phone. How is this “iOS Notifications done right”?

I’ll keep looking forward to what the talented design teams at Apple are doing to tackle the hard-as-nails problem of notifications.

My views are my own and not those of Apple Inc. I do not have access to information on upcoming designs or interface conventions of iOS or other aspects of Apple products. All content of this blog post is uninformed speculation and opinion, attributable to my own person only.


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51 Responses

  1. 1

    whatever, what matters is that ios notifications suck.

  2. 2

    Actually, the first jailbreak solution to solve this problem appeared in 2009, GriP (growl for iphone). In many ways it´s still the most complete


  3. 3

    Great response, Stefan. What would we do without your input?

    I think that mixing the passive badge numbers and the Android notification system would be awesome. So that, when too many icons showed up, maybe it just shows a number badge indicating that you got shit going on up there.

  4. 4
    Ilari Sani 

    In a way, I hope that Apple doesn’t make notifications too convenient for developers. Having a notification API in place makes developers feel they need to notify about every trivial thing. This is why I don’t run Growl on my Mac – it turns apps into petulant children, constantly vying for the user’s attention.

  5. 5

    This I agree with, and I also don’t like Growl for that reason. You can already see Apple takes overload seriously with the Push Notification controls, though.

  6. 6
    Luca Nalin 

    I hope we will see the solution in iOS5: Apple hired the designer of notification system for Palm’s WebOS, Rich Dellinger.

  7. 7

    I also have a iPhone, but I ordered a Palm Pre. It is always good to have another Plattform that cares about UI-Design. The version of Android has one big advantage: it doesn’t interrupt you in your workflow. The webOS notification do.

    Perhaps we will see a (hopefully good) solution for that in two days. In every iOS version was a solution for a huge problem (iOS2=AppStore, iOS3=Copy&Paste, iOS4=Multitasking). Apple need some new features for iOS 5 and I hope it will include a better solution for that.

  8. I’ll expand on my reply to your tweet here.

    Whatever the interface, if you get too many notifications you’ll be overwhelmed. Every notification source is arrogant and feels important enough to clutter your experience and interrupt your work.

    There really honestly isn’t a user interface approach that solves this problem. Too many modal popup notifications interrupt you, too many notifications queued up in a hidden pane either go ignored or overwhelm you once you look at them.

    Can the current iOS situation be improved? Sure, there’s no question. Is it a user interface change that improves is? I don’t think so.

    Apple might address it by rejecting apps that don’t give users enough control over when and how they notify users (for example apps that ask to send you push notifications before explaining why or what they’ll push).

    Apple might also change the way developers create notifications, to tunnel them all through a centralized settings panel that gives users more control.

    In essence notifications are more about policy than interface.

  9. 9

    @Duncan Wilcox
    On iOS every user can choose what notifications he want to get. And he even can turn them completely of. So I think this is not the problem. And yes it is part of the UI to improve that experience. A notification system must be able to display/store more than one notification. Not every user is 24 hours on his phone.

  10. 10

    The beauty of webOS notifications is that they are so much more than a passive system. Many webOS apps have active controls in their notifications. This lets you actually do something with the info without actually opening the associated app. Music programs, twitter clients, utilities, what have you. The notification / dashboard system is just so elegant. You get data, act on the data, and get on with your work all in a simple, relatively non-intrusive interface.

  11. 11

    I don’t like how webOS shrinks your app to half its size after a couple of notifications. iOS apps just aren’t designed to scale like that.

    iOS should adopt something similar to webOS, but instead of stacking the notifications vertically, it would show only one notification at a time, and the user would swipe through the list. Kinda like the iOS multi-tasking bar currently works. Not only do your apps get more screen space, but you also avoid information overload.

  12. Hey, funny this was mentioned today. I just read about (and installed) messagenotifier from @peterhajas http://www.peterhajas.com/blog/2011/2/27/mobilenotifier-beta3-copious-corn-flakes-1.html

    I’d gladly pay for it (it’s free, based on a BSD license). What do you think of it?

  13. 13

    VERY big fan of Android notifications. Good apps build information into a scroll when the notification first arrives, so no interaction is needed at all for many. And the “junk drawer” is fantastic. As more things pile in, I know I can get right to them at any time, WITHOUT sacrificing UI space to keep them one swipe from the front.

    And don’t forget that Android Widgets for many apps give the front-line interactivity you seek. THAT is something iOS has to address as well, and soon. Idle bricks ain’t cutting it.

  14. 14

    > On iOS every user can choose what notifications he want to get. And he
    > even can turn them completely of. So I think this is not the problem.

    That is not really true. Some of the built-in apps ignore this. If you turn off notifications entirely, you still get Calendar reminders.

    I’m definitely hoping they have something improved in store for us in iOS 5. Notifications are probably my only complaint with iOS. Everything else stays entirely out of your way. Notifications by nature have to be somewhat intrusive, but do they have to mess up an audio recording I’m making with a 3rd party app? Right now that is a common problem for me.

  15. 15

    “Hold it in your left or right hand, and tap the bottom of the screen with your thumb. No effort, right? Now tap the top of the screen. See how much more effort that takes?”

    Actually, it depends more on distance-from-corner, not top-or-bottom. For example, if I’m holding it in my left hand and tapping with my left thumb, the top-left and bottom-right corners are about the same. The far top-right corner is a little harder because it’s a stretch. The bottom-left corner is by far the hardest: it’s basically like trying to touch the center of my palm with the tip of my thumb, which is virtually impossible, so I have to completely adjust how I’m holding it (just to tap one dang thing), or just give up and use my other hand.

    “presumably because iOS users are quite satisfied with almost all the interactions of the OS except those dang stacking modal dialogs”

    Heh, well, I wouldn’t go *that* far! There’s plenty of other interactions in iOS that frustrate me. :-)

  16. 16

    You mention near the end of the article that the jailbreak iOS notification system covers any controls that might happen to be underneath, necessitating dismissal anyway. How is the webOS system any different? Perhaps I’m ignorant, since I’ve Never had the chance to use a webOS device, but it seems to suffer from the same basic issue.

  17. 17

    @Scott: Cleverly, (probably thanks to its web technologies), the apps and UI scale instead of the notifications covering the UI. It ‘shrinks’, like iOS also does when there’s a ‘tall status bar’ for a call or recording.

  18. 18
    El Aura 

    sebastiaan, I think you are holding your phone the wrong way ;)
    I hold my iPhone by placing it flat on the four fingers of my hand, not touching the sides at all. This way my thumb hovers right above the center of the screen and can reach any point of the display easily. I can easily hold the phone at up to a 45º angle this way, probably helped by the fact that I tend to have slightly sweaty fingers.
    And I need to get to the top left corner of the screen fairly often, whenever something is playing in the iPod app, the only way to select other audio content is to hit the back arrow in the top left.

    On topic, I am usually only bothered by the network notifications (Enable Data Roaming, Do you want to connect to this WiFi network), the message notifications (Missed Call, SMS) are rare enough for me that I never get two together.

  19. 19

    Isn’t it that the UI sucks, not the notifications itself? I think it worth waiting for the iOS 5 beta info. Which could very well be at the iPad 2 announcement this week.

  20. 20

    Speaking of iOS and the ‘tall status bar’ mode, my money would be on Apple making use of that (or at least the 20px reserved for it) for a future notification UI, simply because it allows existing apps to work unmodified.

  21. 21

    It’s not quite true that the Android notification is never-hiding. Apps can hide it. It is usually absent in games, and other apps disable it, including the New York Times app for Android, and the stock Camera app.

  22. 22

    With either LockInfo or Notified Pro you can basically emulate Androids notification system with a pull down drawer/slide containing all of your notifications. Notified Pro it a step further by having various plugins for different types of notification UI.

    You can do it similar to the Mobile Notifier way with the GRiP plugin. But the GRiP plugin is much more configurable as you can configure position, stacking, covering of statusbar, toolbar, rotation, max number, auto close time. It shows what app it is and you can dismiss it right away with one tap or expand it to show more informaion like the content of the message.

    Or for a less unobtrusive solution there is the statusbar plugin which scrolls the content of the notification on the statusbar. The only problem with this is full screen app with no statusbar showing.

    I am excited about what Apple is going to do though. I expect it to be perfect since it has been so long coming. Probably very similar to the WebOS method but even more well thought out and polished.

  23. 23

    “I am excited about what Apple is going to do though. I expect it to be perfect since it has been so long coming.”

    LOL Just like iOS multitasking?

  24. 24
    Andre Richards 

    I happen to like the badge system actually. It’s integrated right into the UI, no need to pull down and manage an extra list, one fewer layers of complexity. But that’s because my usage of iOS doesn’t include as many messages as other users. I can understand not wanting the modal dialogs to pop up, but if Apple adds a notification list, I hope they don’t remove the badging system. Maybe a couple of preferences settings to turn these various parts of the notification UI off and on would be best. Imagine if you could turn badges, list, and modal dialogs off and on. It would pretty much solve everyone’s problems without having a major overhaul of the way things work.

  25. 25

    So it’s handy that they put notifications in your main work area so you have to deal with them, then? I’ve missed something.

  26. 26

    I was too recently thinking about iOS notifications, and came up with a blog post:

    It isn’t a complete rework of them, just a concept on how Apple can fix them quickly waiting for the next version. I’d love to have your feedbacks :)

    That said, I can’t wait for a webOS device to come here in Italy to test it.

  27. 27

    Apple will simply use the badge system, a colorful sign in the top info bar to inform there are some badges to see and it will not annoy my life with geeky widgets and message.

    Keep it simple !

  28. Great write up. Have you seen the latest notification system on IOS via cydia? It’s a nice development in this area. Beats apples original version anyhow.

  29. 29

    I like how Maemo 5 did it. Essentially it’s like Growl but the notifications appear top right and then shrink into the task switcher icon top left, which changes from blue to a glowing yellow to indicate there are notifications.

    When you press the task switch icon, it expands out like Expose showing windows for all apps running on your phone but on apps that have notifications, that is replaced by a big yellow sticky overlay with details on.

    See http://www.anandtech.com/show/3764/two-omap-3430-phones-nokia-n900-and-motorola-droid/11 which shows how it works.

    Symbian essentially just sticks status icons in the top bar and then relies on desktop widgets if you want more information. ie. each app has it’s own widget you can stick on the homescreen showing updates. Maemo has desktop widgets also.

    Neither suffer from notification overload like iOS, probably because the OS keeps notifications out of your face and they’re stacked up elsewhere. Nothing interrupts playing angry birds. ;-)

  30. 30
    Iljitsch van Beijnum 

    Hoi Sebastiaan,

    As is invariably the case, one size does not fit all. There are at least three types of notifications:

    1. A program that you’re interacting with throws up a message. Like the mail app complaining about lack of connectivity when you start it.

    2. Something happens in the background that you may or may not be interested in, such as the arrival of a text message.

    3. An event occurs that demands your immediate attention, such as an incoming phone call.

    I don’t think type 1 are a problem in general, it’s just that Apple has been strongarming people into throwing up connectivity warnings, which can be annoying (I know there is no connectivity, I put the phone in airplane mode 10 minutes ago!) and doing it separately for different accounts is just Apple being lazy.

    Real type 3 notifications aren’t a problem either: if there’s a phonecall, you don’t mind being kicked out of Angry Birds.

    But whether something is really type 3 or maybe more type 2 probably depends on how someone uses their iPhone and probably on circumstances that are subject to change.

    The problems that the iOS notification system has is that it doesn’t differentiate enough between type 2 and type 3 notifications and how it handles multiple notifications. The former doesn’t really have to be a problem and/or can easily be fixed: you can already set for each application whether it gets to throw up alerts or only gets to use a badge and/or sounds. This should of course be extended to the messages and mail apps.

    Another improvement would be a choice between always popping up and foregoing popups for applications that take over the entire screen and/or are time sensitive, such as games. Personally I would never want an SMS to pop up while I’m playing a game but that’s probably different for some people.

    That leaves just the issue of multiple popups. Maybe the people over at Apple can come up with something awesome, but I think simply going from 1 – 3 or so individual popups to a meta-popup that says “3 apps have notifications” and then having the badges take care of the difference would be good enough.

    However, that is predicated on whether applications show you the information that popped up (which you could easily have missed) inside the app when you open it. This has to be obvious enough that missing one or more popups is not an issue.

    It might also be nice to have badges have a different color based on whether something has changed since the last time you opened the app. I always have a badge for the app store and most of the time for mail, because updating all my apps or reading all my mail isn’t part of the way I use my iPhone. Knowing that there is something new in addition to the stuff I already decided to ignore would be good.

  31. 31
    Andrew Durdin 

    Iljitsch van Beijnum’s categorisation of notification types seems useful. Type 1 can be passed over—being app-specific and related to the task the user is performing, they need not be the subject of a system-wide notification system. But many proposed “fixes” to the notification system overlook the difference between type 2 and type 3—the delayed or immediate response demanded of the user.

    For example, Vittorio proposes an elegant solution for type 2, but his solution does not work at all for type 3 notifications where an immediate response is needed. The current solution in iOS is problematic in large part because it also does not handle these differently.

    (Note that not all notifications fall neatly into one category or the other. A text message might be either; a notification of an incoming call is type 3, but if I fail to argue it, the notification changes to be a type 2 telling me of a missed call).

    Any notification system based around the status bar in iOS has to handle the problem that the status bar is not always visible. Most games hide it, playing videos hides it, and some other apps hide it as well. And there is already a behaviour defined for tapping the status bar, so defining other interactions with it is problematic.

    It is also insufficient to consider only how notifications will appear when proposing an alternative; you must also consider the ongoing actions which they will interrupt. Type 3 notifications—which require an immediate response for the user—also have to be able to handle the situation where the user is interacting with the screen when the notification appears. If the user is just about to tap the screen, and a notification appears over that element, they will end up accidentally responding to the notification—with a response they didn’t intend.

  32. 32

    @Mo wrote: “I don’t like how webOS shrinks your app to half its size after a couple of notifications.” – It doesn’t shrink. FIrst, only tiny icons appear on the bottom right corner (shrinking the application by about 16 pixels). When you tap one, the notification bar comes (which shrinks the app by “two fat lines” height). Then you can swipe out or tap it to hide, or choose another one of tiny icons.

    When a fullscreen game is running, or the Phone is “turned off” there’s not even 16 pixel-space for notification. But there’s solution for these situations: the button blinks. It’s an important part of the notification system, don’t forget it!

  33. 33

    “Speaking of iOS and the ‘tall status bar’ mode, my money would be on Apple making use of that (or at least the 20px reserved for it) for a future notification UI, simply because it allows existing apps to work unmodified.”

    here´s the doubleheight statusbar plugin for GriP that worked on iOS 3.x


  34. 34
    John Walker 

    Surely ‘Notification Types’ 1 & 3 are not notifications at all, they are Alerts.

    Type 1 shouldn’t be even seen if you’re not actively using the app (perhaps with the exception of a networking app that performs background duties, but even then I wouldn’t mind betting that Apple would say don’t notify the user unless absolutely necessary rather keep on trying at reasonable intervals before giving up or asking the OS to tell it when it should retry)

    Type 3 being a system function (it has ‘Phone’ in the name for a reason) seems pretty obvious that it works the way it does.

  35. 35
    Iljitsch van Beijnum 

    Yes, type 1 aren’t really notifications but Sebastiaan brought them up and they look pretty much the same on the iPhone.

    For pure type 3 the current behavior is good, but there’s also the stuff that is maybe 2.5: you don’t HAVE to react immediately, but maybe you’ll want to. Like an instant message or an SMS coming in.

  36. 36

    It was definitely easier for me to touch the top of the screen than the bottom on my Samsung Captivate. Its all in taste, IMHO Android and WEBOS are about the same.

  37. 37

    The problem with changing the notification system is that it makes it harder for most users. Sure, power users prefer to see this level of control, but I am convinced most users can only just handle the modal dialog box of iOs.

  38. 38

    As it has bee discussed above in some comments, not all notifications should be treated the same. Alerts that require immediate action (a Skype call for example) should use modal popups or other methods that interrupt the workflow. If users are not okay with that they can still disable them in the settings. Notifications that inform users of incoming data (IMs, emails etc) / background tasks completion should not interrupt the workflow. They can be stacked somewhere (for a given period of time) or completely disabled in the settings.

  39. 39
    danny grob 

    So, i guess Apple listened to you, in iOS5 :)

  40. 40
    Bren Gunning 

    The problem with bottom notifications on iOS is the on-screen keyboard. The Pre, with its hardware keyboard can get round this. It means that iOS had to put notifications on top (which it did) because it had no choice.

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