I’ve written before about how I use apps on my phone:

If I install an app on my phone, the first thing I do is switch off all notifications. That saves battery life and sanity.

The only time my phone is allowed to ask for my attention is for phone calls, SMS, or FaceTime (all rare occurrences). I initiate every other interaction—Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, the web. My phone is a tool that I control, not the other way around.

To me, this seems like a perfectly sensible thing to do. I was surprised by how others thought it was radical and extreme.

I’m always shocked when I’m out and about with someone who has their phone set up to notify them of any activity—a mention on Twitter, a comment on Instagram, or worst of all, an email. The thought of receiving a notification upon receipt of an email gives me the shivers. Allowing those kinds of notifications would feel like putting shackles on my time and attention. Instead, I think I’m applying an old-school RSS mindset to app usage: pull rather than push.

Don’t get me wrong: I use apps on my phone all the time: Twitter, Instagram, Swarm (though not email, except in direst emergency). Even without enabling notifications, I still have to fight the urge to fiddle with my phone—to check to see if anything interesting is happening. I’d like to think I’m in control of my phone usage, but I’m not sure that’s entirely true. But I do know that my behaviour would be a lot, lot worse if notifications were enabled.

I was a bit horrified when Apple decided to port this notification model to the desktop. There doesn’t seem to be any way of removing the “notification tray” altogether, but I can at least go into System Preferences and make sure that absolutely nothing is allowed to pop up an alert while I’m trying to accomplish some other task.

It’s the same on iOS—you can control notifications from Settings—but there’s an added layer within the apps themselves. If you have notifications disabled, the apps encourage you to enable them. That’s fine …at first. Being told that I could and should enable notifications is a perfectly reasonable part of the onboarding process. But with some apps I’m told that I should enable notifications Every. Single. Time.

Instagram Swarm

Of the apps I use, Instagram and Swarm are the worst offenders (I don’t have Facebook or Snapchat installed so I don’t know whether they’re as pushy). This behaviour seems to have worsened recently. The needling has been dialed up in recent updates to the apps. It doesn’t matter how often I dismiss the dialogue, it reappears the next time I open the app.

Initially I thought this might be a bug. I’ve submitted bug reports to Instagram and Swarm, but I’m starting to think that they see my bug as their feature.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a big deal, but I would appreciate some respect for my deliberate choice. It gets pretty wearying over the long haul. To use a completely inappropriate analogy, it’s like a recovering alcoholic constantly having to rebuff “friends” asking if they’re absolutely sure they don’t want a drink.

I don’t think there’s malice at work here. I think it’s just that I’m an edge-case scenario. They’ve thought about the situation where someone doesn’t have notifications enabled, and they’ve come up with a reasonable solution: encourage that person to enable notifications. After all, who wouldn’t want notifications? That question, if it’s asked at all, is only asked rhetorically.

I’m trying to do the healthy thing here (or at least the healthier thing) in being mindful of my app usage. They sure aren’t making it easy.

The model that web browsers use for notifications seems quite sensible in comparison. If you arrive on a site that asks for permission to send you notifications (without even taking you out to dinner first) then you have three options: allow, block, or dismiss. If you choose “block”, that site will never be able to ask that browser for permission to enable notifications. Ever. (Oh, how I wish I could apply that browser functionality to all those sites asking me to sign up for their newsletter!)

That must seem like the stuff of nightmares for growth-hacking disruptive startups looking to make their graphs go up and to the right, but it’s a wonderful example of truly user-centred design. In that situation, the browser truly feels like a user agent.

Have you published a response to this? :


Kyle Neath

Well color me impressed you even went to the trouble of a big report! I just asssume it was an innocent design mistake, fueled by A/B tests with “notifications enabled” as a KPI.

# Posted by Kyle Neath on Saturday, January 20th, 2018 at 6:45pm

Ian Devlin

Totally with you here, I also have all notifications turned off, and Instagram’s notification reminder also annoys me.

# Posted by Ian Devlin on Monday, January 29th, 2018 at 8:32am

Sara Soueidan

I nodded so much reading that post. I, too, have all notifications off for all apps except Travel apps (need alerts when on the road) and whatsapp and viber (only cz family uses them & sometimes they really need me for stuff).

Sara Soueidan

I do feel like they couldn’t care less about the UX though. “We’ll keep annoying you with this until you enable it” which we all know is only a way to keep distracting ppl and bringing them back to the app. Totally disrespectful.

The Apple Watch is less obtrusive than a phone October 9, 2017 Jeremy Keith: I’m always shocked when I’m out and about with someone who has their phone set up to notify them of any activity—a mention on Twitter, a comment on Instagram, or worst of all, an email. The thought of receiving a notification upon receipt of an email gives me the shivers. Me too. I thought this might be a good time to bring this topic of notifications back up. Not only because Jeremy wrote about it but also because I now own an Apple Watch – which may seem counter intuitive to this whole distraction free discussion. However, I’ve found the Apple Watch to be a lovely little device that can easily be set up to unobtrusively notify you of important things. In fact, I believe it is less obtrusive than an mobile phone. I have a few notifications turned on for my phone: Text messages – I get very few of these Calendar reminders – I live by these Dark Sky rain alerts – I like to keep dry Night Sky condition and object alerts – I heart the universe I am not notified of any social network activity or emails. Those things I dive into when I feel like it. With this set up I feel I’m very rarely distracted by a notification. And now with the Watch, I can say I’m less distracted during a conversation with the persons in front of me physically. Here is a scenario: you’re have a chat with someone and you get a text message alert. Your phone either makes an audible noise or it vibrates and the screen illuminates. The other person saw and/or heard the alert. So now they know your brain is wondering what that alert could be. Even if you don’t break eye contact with that other person, they know and you know you have a message waiting. With the Apple Watch I get a gentle tap on the wrist when I’ve gotten a text message. The screen does not illuminate. The other person doesn’t know I’ve gotten an alert. I’m able to stay present and check the alert when there is a break in the conversation. In this way, I think the Apple Watch is less obtrusive than a phone. #apple #apple watch #distraction #jeremy keith #mobile #notifications #phone View all posts Leave a Reply Cancel reply Comment Name * Email * Website Respond on your own site? Send me a Webmention by writing something on your website that links to this post and then enter your post URL below.

# Monday, April 23rd, 2018 at 7:36pm


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Previously on this day

8 years ago I wrote What technology wants

I cried too.

15 years ago I wrote Across the Irish Sea

I’m off to Dublin for the weekend.

16 years ago I wrote Updating Flash sites to work in future Internet Explorer releases

I’m not sure who is most deserving of my anger and contempt: Mike Doyle of Eolas for pursuing a wilfully destructive court case, the US Patent Office for allowing such a ludicrous patent to be granted in the first place or the judge who found in fav

16 years ago I wrote Alice Texas

Another week, another rock’n’roll gig. Last night I saw the New York band Alice Texas in action.

17 years ago I wrote huh?

The huh? corporation: