Notifications that know me

“As anyone with an Apple Watch will tell you, though, it’s all about the notifications, not the apps. The taps on my wrist make it abundantly clear just how dumb most notifications are.”

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a rather intense meeting at work. My Apple Watch tapped me on the wrist and, as I usually do when I receive a notification, I checked to make sure everything was okay with my daughter and the world wasn’t collapsing into further chaos.

fiona-spruillThe notification had come from NYT Cooking via Facebook’s new app, Notify. It said, “You’re going to need — and eat — a lot of these, tender homemade biscuits next week.”

I was somewhat amused, somewhat annoyed. But most of all, it was abundantly clear to me that we have a long way to go before notifications feel like they know me.

I love everything that NYT Cooking produces. I love their notifications. I even love making biscuits. But I don’t need to be bothered by biscuits in the middle of the workday. Facebook knows that I’m employed and that I live on the East Coast of the U.S., so it’s not a huge stretch for the app to assume I’m at work at 4:52 p.m., and to know that an alert about something other than breaking news can wait until later.

We’re not at the point yet, though, where most notifications use our location, our schedule, our reading habits, and our friends to present themselves in smarter ways. I predict that 2016 will be a year where we see breakthroughs on this front.

As news and other forms of content are broken down into smaller and smaller atomic units, separated from the apps or publishers that produce them, it becomes more and more important that the notification layer becomes smarter. Expecting people to spend time editing preferences for what they want and don’t want is very Web 1.0. News organizations know what we read, so those reading habits should be taken into account when their apps decide to push us something.

This becomes even more important with the rise of wearables, even though, despite predictions to the contrary right here, they still haven’t broken through to the mainstream or proven their necessity yet. As anyone with an Apple Watch will tell you, though, it’s all about the notifications, not the apps. The taps on my wrist make it abundantly clear just how dumb most notifications are.

As Paul Adams, vice president of product at Intercom, wrote recently, “Despite all of the advances of the past 20 years, notifications are still stuck in 1999.”

But there are some developments that should help spur advances. For example, notifications are starting to become a standalone destination where you go for information, just as search and social stand on their own. I’ve been waiting for the Notification Center on my iPhone to stop feeling like wasted space. It has finally begun to happen for me with Slack and Facebook Notify. I now find myself going to the Notifications Center to catch up on what I’ve missed. It’s quicker and less noisy than checking the news on Twitter or Facebook.

Michael Cerda, product director at Facebook, has said that Facebook views notifications as their own medium, separate from other news consumption platforms. If Facebook thinks the notifications medium is still evolving and worth focusing on, then one can assume we’ll see big improvements from them, given their vast array of data and engineering talent.

From personal experience, I know it’s easy to say notifications should be smarter, but it’s decidedly not easy to make that happen. At Meetup, we have a team building a member-centric notification system to ensure that members aren’t bombarded with notifications, as we’ve been known to do with email. We want to make sure we’re sending notifications at the specific time when they’re most useful, like right before or right after a Meetup. Our system scores each notification and will take into account how a member has engaged with notifications in the past, allowing us to determine the contents and timing of the next one we send. Perhaps most importantly, this system will increase the chances you won’t want to hurl your phone across the room because you feel interrupted or spammed.

Our product managers and engineers will tell you these are hard, complicated problems to solve.

The potential is huge, though, and we’re redesigning the Meetup apps with the notification experience at the center, not as an afterthought. Given the serious boost in traffic that news organizations see from push notifications, I would hope they are doing the same. Just sending more notifications isn’t going to cut it. They have to get smart.

Fiona Spruill is vice president of product at Meetup and a former editor at The New York Times.