The Need for Notifications
Back in the day, cell phones did one thing — make calls. Since they were so simple, the only time they needed to alert their owners was with a ringtone.
Obviously, phones do a few more things these days. They can send and receive emails, SMS and MMS messages, surf the Internet, give turn-by-turn directions and much, much more. One of the core problems with smart phones is how to handle all of this incoming information and present it to the user in bite-sized chunks.
The iPhone handles notifications in one of three ways: Sounds, Alerts/Pop-ups and Home Screen Badges. Each of these is flawed.
The Problem with Audible Alerts
I think the shortfalls of using sounds for alerts are pretty obvious. First, they aren’t persistent — they are a one-time event that if is missed is missed forever. If I leave my iPhone in my car and it sounds an alert, then when I remember to go get it two hours later, I have no idea it went off. Not to mention an audible alert can be missed by something as simple as too much background noise. When it comes to getting the user’s attention, this isn’t the way to go.
The Problem With Alerts
Alerts are used by Apple for SMS and MMS messages, and by many third party applications. Alerts are much more flexible than other alerts, as they include content.
Alerts are the easiest way on an iPhone to get the users’ attention. That said, interrupting what the user is doing and forcing the user to address the alert (and leave what app they are in at the time) or ignore is quite annoying. They also suffer the same flaw of persistence that audible alerts do — if the user taps “Ignore” the alert goes away.
The upside is that alerts — when ignored — become Badges.
The Problem with Badges
Badges are also used by Apple — mainly for incoming SMS and MMS messages and emails. Badges are usually used to show how many unread or new items are ready for the user.
Badges are far superior than Sounds of Alerts, but are vague — they don’t give any indication about what they’re notifying the user about. A obvious example of this is Mail. If I get an email, I can’t tell if it’s in my personal Gmail account, my ForkBombr account or my work account. Likewise, if Mint has a badge, I don’t know if we bounced a check or I got paid without opening the app.
The downside of the Badge system is that is tied to the app’s icon. For example, I have Mint on my third page of apps, and unless I scroll over to that page, I don’t see that there’s a notification.
What Android Gets Right
Android groups all of its notifications in the menu bar across the top of the display. The menu bar shows several icons, including separate ones for different email accounts. For more info, the user simply taps the menu bar and drags their finger to the bottom of the screen, revealing additional details.
In many ways, Android’s solution is like the solution Microsoft uses in the Windows task bar — put icons there when needed, but don’t annoy the user about them.
This solves all the issues raised with Apple’s solutions — Android’s notifications are specific, persistent, can be seen from any screen in the UI and don’t interrupt the user.
I hope iPhone OS 4.0 adds some additional flexibility when it comes to notifications. Before OS 3.0, only a few of Apple’s built-in apps used them, so the shortfalls weren’t that big of a deal. But now that many third-party apps use push notifications, Apple has to figure out a way to make notifications more powerful and better at informing the user with a simple glance.