Evi Hui: What lead you to become interested in the design of notifications?
Gina Trapani: At work, I’m at my happiest and most productive when I have long stretches of uninterrupted time to dive deep into coding or writing or thinking. Getting started in a block of time like that is the most difficult part. Procrastination is too easy when tweets and new email and status updates and favorites and links and breaking news always beckon. Our distraction machines can threaten our creativity, productivity, and ability to think long-term if we let them.
I learned from my work at Lifehacker that you can’t depend on default settings to work for you. One of the first things I do when I set up a new phone or start using a new web service is turn off most push notifications or email alerts. I only enable the notifications that are meaningful enough to justify the mental and digital space they take up.
Now that I’m building notifications into my own app, ThinkUp, I’m reckoning with the difficult design problem of making meaningful default notifications that, as a user, I wouldn’t want to turn off.
EH: What are some great app examples of notifications being done well? and what makes them good?
GT: The biggest problem with many app notifications is that the benefit doesn’t outweigh the cost—the information they offer isn’t worth pulling your attention at that moment. So, I appreciate apps that help you silence the stuff you don’t care about and filter down to what you do. For example, I like that I can limit Twitter notifications to interactions from just people I follow instead of the whole world. Gmail lets you enable new message notifications for just a particular label or priority. I like infrequent but useful notifications like the occasional email I get from Mint.com, when a bank charges a service fee (boo) or when a deposit hits my account (hooray).
EH: What are important considerations when designing an app with notifications? Or what advice do you have for designer and developers making an app for heads-up display technology?
GT: Good notifications are timely, relevant, and contextual. I think many app designers have tunnel vision and see notifications primarily as a way to pull users back into their app. By default, that approach creates more noise than signal. I think the best advice for notification designers is to respect the user’s time and attention, to do more with less.
When you’re designing for a heads-up display, the stakes are high, because the notifications are the interface.
Much the way touchscreen interfaces shifted web and app design across the board to simpler layouts and clear calls-to-action, heads-up displays will evolve notification design as well.
EH: I read you recently got Google Glass, what are your thoughts?
GT: Glass has a lot of exciting potential, and many hurdles to overcome. My main uses for Glass are taking photos and videos (and sharing them), communicating (text messages, phone calls, video conferencing), and navigation. These are the same main things I do with my phone, except with Glass I don’t have to take my phone out of my pocket. I’m using the Glass developer prototype Explorer Edition, and it has a long road to travel in order to become a viable consumer product. So far, I think Glass and tech like it is very interesting, with lots of potential to catch on or die in a terrible fire of pitfalls (lack of mass appeal, price point, lack of social acceptance).
EH: Do you think this technology will make us smarter or live better lives?
GT: Fundamentally I believe that documenting and sharing our experiences, interacting with others, and having easy access to information makes our lives better. If it’s designed well and we use it well, this technology can indeed enhance our lives. It can also make us less present, more distracted, and more dependent on internet-connected electronics to get anything done.
EH: You’ve co-written a few books, host multiple web shows, developed apps, what accomplishment are you most proud of? and why?
GT: I’m always most excited about and proud of the thing I’m about to ship. The rest was just prep, and it’s in the past.
EH: What lasting impressions do you want to leave with your work?
GT: When I’m dead, I hope the main takeaway from my work will be this: Now matter how far it advances, humans must be thoughtful about the way we incorporate technology in our lives. There are certain kinds of thinking the machines won’t ever be able to do for us.
Check out uxweek.com for information on the speaker line up and everything UX Week has to offer. Use code when registering for 10% off.