Smart Notifications 2: Differentiation & Cohesion

I have written on notifications before and yet I feel compelled to go deeper. (My moniker should be ‘never satisfied’.) Notifications are such an integral part of our digital lives that they demand more than a simple poster board, even if it is interactive. This time I look at the UI of notifications, time/location based toggles, ethereal notifications, permanent updating notifications, and notifications that require user intervention to dismiss from the lock screen.


A list of text notifications grouped by app is useful but not cohesive. There is no unified view to show you what a comprehensive view of everything you have to deal with. When I wake up I want a cohesive view of my day, not a mish mash of random notifications.

Certain notifications have context with other notifications. I would argue that your iOS device should:

  • Look at the type of notification. (Is it a personal communication? Is it a company mailer?)
  • What other notifications is it related to?
  • Is it time sensitive?
  • Would the user benefit if it was given more space? (To show you a map for example.)

iOS crunches the data and presents you with a cohesive view of everything. It’s more personal assistant that simple bulletin board which would improve the experience greatly. By changing the order from the time they arrived or by app to what is important, what is time sensitive, and what do you want to see first it would be a much more powerful tool.

An Example Of How It Could Work

Think of this as an example, it doesn't look great. 

Expand by clicking on a list item. I like the cards motif and a flick away would take you back to the summary view. It's busy, I know.

Right now I can set my to do list to notify me of tasks that are due, and my calendar of events of the day but these are shown as separate things. By unifying notifications together into a ‘Day View’ you could see not how your day unfolds with relevant notifications to the tasks/events. For example, you get an email, or iMessage, from a coworker or friend and it puts it right next to the appointment you had with them to make it clear they are related. Such as: “The meeting is cancelled.” or “You don’t need to bring any more hedgehogs to the party, I found a guy.” This could be done in a “dumb” way by just pairing messages from calendar event participants or, by taking a page out of Google’s playbook, look at the context of the message. I realize that Google get’s a lot of scrutiny for scanning peoples messages but Apple has the advantage of not needing/wanting the data the messages contain.

Another way to add cohesion is to make the information more compact at first glance. Minimize notifications from the same app into one summary notification. To see more you just press on the button that says “3 Emails” or “2 Snapchats” to expand them into full notifications. This allows you to quickly decide if you can deal with them from the lock screen or have to go into the app. Some people might find it crazy to put so much functionality on the lock screen but this really isn’t adding anything that Apple isn’t already doing, it is just making it more palatable and easily digested. If people have security concerns they can always just shut it off.

An alternate basic view. This works a little better with the cards motif I think.

Another way the UI could go, scrollable cards. I both like and dislike this idea. If you have a lot of notifications, it becomes a very long list.

Note: Everything I am saying here could be transferred to the Notification Center, duplicate the functionality but accessible from an unlocked phone.

Lock Screen Toggles

'Morning' turns on your internet connected devices.. (Kettle, lights, turns up heat, etc.)

We are at the cusp of a new digital age. The Internet of Things is set to sweep the world with all of its internet connected devices which will be controlled by our iPhones/iPads. We are already seeing Wemo switches, Hue lightbulbs, and a plethora of other connected devices being released. Apple’s Homekit will be the much needed unifier to put all of these services together in one place rather than having a different app for every company or device. Why am I talking about this when the post is about the lock screen? There are going to be certain actions you do at certain times everyday, like turn on your lights or start your kettle in the morning. How can we do this, from our phones, currently? Right now you can go to the individual app and turn it on, or in iOS 8 you can use Siri. Even if you have Homekit to unify where you turn things on and off you still have to go hunting for it and not everyone wants to talk to their phone. (Or has a partner asleep beside them and can’t talk.) I propose that we have time specific toggles put on the lock screen to turn on our ‘Wake Up Group Action’ that turns on the lights, turns on the kettle, turns on some music, and opens all the blinds in your house. Or even toggles for specific actions like ‘Turn On Coffee Maker’.

Another use for lock screen toggles are for device specific utilities like your alarm or Do Not Disturb. If you wake up before your alarm there would be a toggle to shut it off from the lock screen, rather than unlocking your phone, going to ‘Clock’ and turning it off. It just removes a bit of friction. Once again this works parallel to Siri because she could shut off your alarm for you. It would work the same with Do Not Disturb. If you start using your phone before it is set to shut off you can toggle it off from the lock screen.

See Once Notifications

Tap to interact with it.

Mmm, popsicles.

I recently realized that I never use my weather app until I am walking out the door. This is a problem for a couple reasons, first off if it is Winter I am bundled up and more phone is under a couple layers of jackets. Second it doesn’t give me forewarning to dress appropriately. I realize I could easily solve this problem by opening my weather app earlier but to be honest I couldn’t be bothered. So that led me to look for an app that gave me lock screen weather notifications. IFTTT works great for this but there is an annoying caveat, I have to manually erase the notifications from Notifcation Center. There should be a new type of notification that is lock screen only. You see it once, or a couple times, and it disappears.

While I think this warrants its own post, I think Apple devices need to communicate much better between themselves. (iOS 8 is a good start.)

Persistant Updating Notifications (Simple Widgets)

This changes as the weather changes.

There could be a significant advantage for persistent, updating notifications. Once again we are back in Google waters, this time Google Now, but this could add serious functionality. Imagine a weather notification that is updated every time you access your lock screen. It sounds a lot like a lock screen widget and it basically would be. A simple lock screen widget for simple things like weather, stocks, ticket trackers (Get price updates every time you access your phone), and a number of other single purpose functions. Apple is allowing developers simple widgets in Notification Center is allowing, why not the lock screen.

Notifications Stay On The Lock Screen Until Interacted With

There are certain types notifications that I want to stay on the lock screen until I interact with them. Messages and reminders are perfect use case scenarios. If I get a message from someone from iMessage, Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, or any of the messaging apps I know it is something I want to read. It is most likely from a friend or family member and something I want to interact with as soon as possible. If I unlock my phone those notifications go away, well they are still in Notification Center and badge icons but I can often overlook badge icons and I hardly ever go to Notification Center. By having them persist on the lock screen I see those specific notifications every time I access my phone.

Due task notifications are possibly an even better example of why this would be awesome. They would stick on your lock screen until you marked them as done. Giving you periodic reminders of things you have to do.

Another great example would be calendar events. You know that you have a meeting today in a strange part of town and a basic notification is put up in the morning just to remind you. Later in the day a map shows up that you can press to get directions to the place. Getting closer it monitors traffic and makes sure you know when you need to leave by. If you haven’t left on time it could text the people you are meeting that you will be late. If you were cool with it, it could even add a notification to their phone that showed your location and how far away you were. The basic idea is taken from Google Now but I think the escalating level of notification would add benefits to it.

A card view like Google now shows you less information on one screen. I like the summary notification that when you press on a specific type it turns into a card with extra information.

Final Notes

I started writing this post before iOS 8 was announced, basically the idea was that in the morning you would receive a single notification that contained a “Day View” and the things you missed while you were asleep. These would be interactive and allow you to quickly get through everything and then you could start your day. After WWDC 2014, and the announcement of interactive notifications, I threw the old post out and looked at what was still needed. A single morning notification would be cool but it was very limited. This led to a whole new avenue of thought. The cohesion was still paramount. I still think Apples lock screen is to disjointed and places too much importance one the app the notification comes from. I looked at treating different types of notifications differently which led to this post.