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.