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Designing Push Notifications for Mobile Applications

How you like that:

Push notifications, which are so natural to the environment of the mobile channel, drive some people mad, while others are delighted.

In particular, if they make it possible to buy something cheaper or remind them of an important visit to the dentist's office.

Perhaps they are not necessarily liked because of the reminder of a visit to the dentist. But anyone who has ever waited for a flight that did not happen knows how helpful information about its delay is, particularly if it is sent directly to your phone.

However, the design of these small messages causes a lot of problems, for instance, regarding timing, form, length, personalization, and adaptation to the requirements of a specific platform.

Designing Push Notifications requires a lot of sensitivity, tact, and restraint.

And last but not least, an understanding of the audience's needs, which in a fraction of a second can turn from satisfied users into annoyed, frustrated enemies of the mobile app, ready to uninstall it.

Push Notifications are a great supplement to app functionality, but they also require understanding and awareness of their capabilities and limitations. Opportunities and risks.

In short, they require learning how to design them and, more so, how not to design them.

If you want to learn how to ensure good communication and improve User Experience in mobile apps with Push Notifications, read this article.

We cordially invite you to read on!

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What are Push Notifications?

Almost every user of smartphones and mobile applications at least once must have encountered push notifications. They represent the essence of the mobile channel.

Push notifications in mobile apps are standard today. You can see them very often on the smartphone screen.

What exactly are they? Concise messages that contain essential information, an offer, a system message, a hint, or a warning.

Push notifications are displayed in at least several places — simultaneously or optionally. We will bump into them by unlocking the screen, using the phone, or using a specific app.

Their omnipresence raises the question of whether we like to receive notifications and messages as users of smartphones and mobile apps.

Push notifications in mobile applications
AliExpress — an example of microcopy that is too creative, wordy, and uncommunicative.

From the point of view of communication, but most importantly usability and user experience, push notifications have a vital function. They are an example of the first of the "10 usability heuristics for user interface design" formulated by UX guru Jakob Nielsen.

As a reminder, the first heuristic — Visibility of System Status — refers to the need to keep the user informed about the system's current state. It provides a form of feedback.

Push notifications also exemplify the third of Ben Shneiderman's 8 Golden Rules, which reads Offer Informative Feedback.

The system (not just the operating system but also the mobile application) should always offer users the comfort of understanding the situation.

Notifications should report the system's status, that is, what is currently happening in the application. Does it work correctly, what tasks it performs, and what state is it in (e.g., ready to work or update)?

As you can easily guess, feedback and messages, not excluding push notifications, are essential to a positive, satisfying, and desirable user experience.

They are an essential part of marketing communication.

As a user, you probably want to make sure that the applications you use are not passive tools but active ones, able to initiate interaction and recognize your needs and expectations.

Which is possible, among other things, thanks to the geolocation function. For example, think of push notifications about nearby restaurants during lunchtime or gas stations when driving on the highway for the fifth hour in a row.

Types of Push Notifications

We should point out that push notifications can have different sources, be sent for various reasons, and fulfill different purposes.

Types of push notifications
AliExpress — another example of linguistic awkwardness and poor microcopy. A lack of connection between text and image makes push notifications annoying and incomprehensible.

They can also meet very different needs. For example, regarding the following:

  • Security (e.g., weather alerts)
  • Fun and entertainment (e.g., games)
  • Control (e.g., notifications related to expenses)
  • Organization, structuring, and goal setting (e.g., messages regarding meetings)
  • Membership (e.g., notifications from discussion groups, forums, or social media)
  • Attention (e.g., FOMO — Fear of Missing Out).

Push notifications are most commonly displayed on:

  • Interfaces of applications — as a hint, clue, or explanation
  • Web browsers — usually as ads or recommendations
  • Desktop screens
  • Lock screens.

Their source can be:

  • Operating systems. They are an essential source of information about the system's state (e.g., availability of internal memory, battery level)
  • Applications that were installed on the phone
  • Web applications viewed in web browsers.

Push notifications most often take the following forms:

  • Graphical form
  • Animated form
  • Auditory form
  • Audio-visual form.

They can be designed as follows:

  • Speech bubbles, icons (in instant messaging, for example)
  • Jingles
  • Banners
  • Badges
  • Verbal alerts.

Push notifications, in a design sense, raise a number of questions and dilemmas, most often regarding the:

  • Frequency
  • Content
  • Adequacy and relevance in terms of needs
  • Form of communication
  • Importance.

The last issue may cause the most problems because it is related to correctly estimating, feeling, and knowing the expectations of the recipients of push notifications.

Their demand for such messages, their assessment of their value and usefulness, and their tolerance for notifications that are always intrusive in some way.

The importance of Push Notifications and messages

While from the perspective of the sender of the push notification, its value, importance, and relevance may be obvious and very well motivated, the evaluation of its usefulness may be extremely different from the recipient's perspective.

Displaying push notifications in a mobile app
Ability to set display locations for push notifications on Oppo phone.

Prioritizing push notifications is simply essential.

Most often, push notifications are assigned to one of three categories of importance:

  • High
  • Medium
  • Low.

Determining to which category should a given notification belong is primarily a matter of intuition, experience, and knowledge, but also an accurate assessment of its:

  • Up-to-dateness
  • Adequacy to the situation, context
  • Usefulness — the notification should have some practical, helpful value
  • Appropriateness
  • Importance and indispensability for the user.

The high-priority category most often includes notifications, which require immediate attention and action, because they inform users about the following:

  • Errors
  • Threats
  • Exceptions
  • Need to confirm actions that are potentially harmful to the user.

The medium category includes notifications that do not require immediate action.

And these are:

  • Notifications about changes
  • Expressions of gratitude
  • Confirmations.

Notifications that fall into the low-priority category require little attention and action. Most often, it includes messages containing the following information:

  • about status
  • and news.

The assignment of a notification to a given category simultaneously entails determining the presumed demand for such a message. Not every notification is the same.

While the relevance of push notifications belonging to the first category is obvious to users, the middle and last categories cause more doubts and dilemmas.

This results not only from the character and importance of given messages but also from the character of push notifications.

The character of Push Notifications

Imagine a typical mobile phone user who usually has dozens of applications installed.

If they have not set conditions for receiving push notifications for each of them, it is easy to imagine that they are downright plagued with them every day.

Especially since it is difficult to imagine a competitive application today that would not take advantage of the capabilities of a particular device and the mobile channel.

Push notifications - mobile applications in a smartphone
List of applications with the status of permission to display push notifications.

The problem is also related to the policies of the platforms themselves.

IOS applications are required to obtain permission to send such messages.

The Android platform does not impose such requirements on applications running on it. Permission is an optional matter, not mandatory.

You should keep in mind that each application will fight for its user's attention, which, when added up, can give rise to a situation of excess stimuli and information.

And result, in many cases, in a defensive reaction in the form of disabling the option to receive push notifications (an undesirable option but of moderate harm to business owners) or uninstalling the application (a destructive option for the business owner).

This is why such an important issue in the design of push notifications is their quality and value, understood as:

  • Attractiveness
  • Importance
  • Adequacy
  • Frequency
  • And above all — practicality and usefulness.

You can also recognize the application's value by the quality of the notifications it sends.

As their name suggests, push notifications are a rather intrusive and ruthless form of getting a mobile app user's attention.

They always involve disruption and distraction of concentration. They involve interference with currently running processes, actions, and operations, which can also belong to various categories of importance. The conflict between the two is inevitable; however, its strength and consequences vary.

This is why it is so essential to provide the option to disable or manage push notifications.

One of the biggest design mistakes is hiding or making it difficult to access this functionality.

Apps that are not open to users' needs in terms of managing push notifications are apps that offer really poor UX.

A general principle that supports the improvement of the user experience of a mobile application is the ability to configure push notifications in a precise, flexible, and multi-dimensional way. In particular, this concerns the issue of their sending time, frequency, quantity, and priority of importance.

It is easy to imagine that push notifications disrupting sleep and work and interfering with holiday time will cause frustration and annoyance. They are the nightmare of every mobile device. So is a text message sent at the wrong time.

It is easy to envision notifications that are hard to close and remove to be counter-effective.

It is easy to picture notifications that disrupt work and the tasks performed in the application as intruders. As a side note, we should add that an advertising text message is viewed like that too.

When to provide Push Notifications?

Timing is perhaps the most critical issue when thinking about designing push notifications and if you want to offer a positive UX.

One of the most recommended design patterns is offering users the ability to specify rules for receiving push notifications in terms of time.

Push notifications android
Push notification settings on Oppo phone.

In particular, this applies to time management during:

  • Circadian rhythm, in which there is a clear division between work, rest, and sleep
  • Seasons, specific time of year
  • Daily routine (related to chores and daily activities)
  • Secular holidays and church holidays
  • Planned activities and duties.

In other words, when designing notifications, you should be very meticulous about the temporal context in which you will send the message. Ensure that it does not interfere with customers' specific needs and activities.

The message must arrive at a neutral time, when they will not be perceived as unwanted, disruptive, harmful, or violating customers' cultural norms.

The designer should therefore consider in particular to what extent a specific push notification matches the following:

  • Time of year, season
  • Month — also in terms of its beginning, middle, and end (which is related, for example, to the structure of expenses, financial capabilities, or typical patterns of purchasing products)
  • Day of the week
  • Hours during the working day or time off.

Important questions that you should ask yourself in the context of the relationship between notification and the time of its delivery are:

  • What will the recipient be doing at that time?
  • In what situation will they be (e.g., business, private)?
  • What role does a particular moment in time play in their life (e.g., does it affect their work or leisure time)?

Push Notifications design. The best UX patterns

As a general rule, push notifications design is the ability to answer the following essential questions accurately:

  • Will receiving a push notification be useful?
  • Will it be perceived as important, helpful, or needed?
  • Will it make using the app more straightforward and more satisfying?
  • Do users expect to receive a notification?
  • What attitude do customers, users of this type of functionality, have toward them?
  • What form of notification is the most attractive to users?
  • To what extent can notifications be imposing?
  • To what degree should they be discreet and tactful?

The answers to the above questions set the design framework aimed at ensuring proper UX.

Push notifications - an example
AliExpress' graphic-verbal notification.

Moreover, it is advisable to design push notifications as messages:

  • Of relatively small size — they should not obscure the entire screen, especially the very important so-called thumb zone.
  • That are concise, simple, and understandable, directly communicating their meaning and conveying the most important information first — especially since platforms impose character limits.
  • Rich with graphics, animations, and audio content while keeping in mind the differences resulting from the platforms' policies in this regard
  • Valuable — enabling the user to receive a specific benefit.

The most common goal of push notifications — contrary to their name — is not just to inform the user but to prompt a specific action.

That is why hyperlinks, which redirect users to specific tabs, functionalities, and offers, are their constant element.

Microcopy in Push Notifications

UX Writing plays a special role in the case of notifications because of the character limit or perception of such messages, which users read in fractions of seconds.

That is why it is vital to properly formulate and format the verbal message and combine it with a graphic.

Concise, short, communicative, persuasive texts are designed to attract and gain the mobile application user's attention and evoke in them the need to interact with the push notification.

Microcopy and push notifications - an example
AliExpress notifications do not worry about frequency.

An excellent way to achieve these effects is to refer to universal attractors related to:

  • User curiosity (e.g., by informing about novelties)
  • User benefits (e.g., by offering free samples, discount codes, and tokens)
  • The need for inclusivity or exclusivity — to secure access to something essential or unique.

The most common mistakes made when designing Push Notifications

When you look at the problem from a more general perspective, the errors most often relate to push notifications' content and distribution.

Among the most common mistakes in creating content are overly long descriptions that do not respect character limits and the diversity of content presentation on different devices and platforms.

The length of the descriptions is also significant in terms of the visual-verbal harmony of the message. Both verbal and graphic layers should create a coherent, complementary, and clear message.

Very often, the descriptions also sin with excessive creativity, which, while usually desirable, is not always advisable in the case of push notifications. You should remember that notifications have a utility function.

A notification is supposed to be helpful to the user, to bring real value, and not to be merely an interesting but not necessarily practical entertainment.

Many applications do not care about respecting the user's time. Push notifications are sent out repeatedly, almost in a spammy manner.

Push notifications - iphone
AliExpress app notifications and ING bank app notifications.

Such ill-considered, chaotic, and mass communication that favors quantity over quality must bring a lot of harm.

Not only to a single mobile app, but it also discourages users from this functionality.

The frequency of push notifications never turns into quality, and the scale effect cannot compensate for the damage. You should keep this in mind when planning your calendar for distributing push notifications.

Understanding the audience's needs, style, and lifestyle — especially their habits, routines, and preferences — is much more effective, although it is neither easy nor cheap. It requires relevant research and updates.

An equally common problem affecting the quality of the User Experience is the excessive massification of the message, which does not take into account the character of each audience group.

Personalizing push notifications translates into greater acceptance, higher conversion, and perception of the brand and functionality.

You should also remember that not all industries have the same level of acceptance and permission regarding sending push notifications. The most natural and desirable are industries where time, and information, about status, availability, and changes are critical.

The tourism and hotel industry, transportation, financial services, E-Commerce, news media, and streaming platforms are the industries where push notifications meet with the greatest acceptance and enthusiasm. This is because they bring substantial value to the user's life.

Good metaphors for illustrating the usefulness of push notifications are those of concierge, assistant, and manager.

They allow you to find out about flight changes, the ability to book a room that has been reserved until now, learn about your account balance, or get news about the state of the economy and stock market performance.

With that said, even in such compatible industries, respecting the notification delivery time is extremely important.

Designing Push Notifications for mobile applications. Summary

  1. Push notifications arouse various emotions and attitudes. They range from extremely negative to almost enthusiastic. They also generate different levels of engagement.
  2. They are a ruthless form of getting a mobile app user's attention.
  3. Designing push notifications poses many problems regarding timing, form, length, personalization, and customization to the requirements of a given platform.
  4. Designing and distributing push notifications requires a lot of sensitivity, tact, and restraint.
  5. Push notifications are concise messages that contain essential information, an offer, a message, a hint, or a warning.
  6. They are displayed simultaneously or optionally in at least several places.
  7. They are an example of two very important heuristics, Visibility of System Status, by Jakob Nielsen, and Offer Informative Feedback, by Ben Shneiderman.
  8. Push notifications are a vital part of a positive, satisfying, and desirable user experience. They are an essential part of mobile services. They increase the engagement of mobile app users. New as well as already attracted ones.
  9. Push notifications have different sources, are sent for various reasons, and to fulfill different purposes. They also allow you to take advantage of the smartphone's native functionalities.
  10. Prioritizing push notifications is an essential practice that helps improve the UX of a mobile app.
  11. Push notifications can be divided into three categories of importance. Determining to which category should a given notification belong is primarily a matter of intuition, experience, and knowledge. It is also important to decide when to send notifications and how many.
  12. The high-priority category most often includes notifications requiring immediate attention and action.
  13. The medium category includes notifications that do not require immediate action.
  14. Notifications that fall into the low-priority category usually contain information about status or novelties. They are typically sent to maintain relationships.
  15. Each application will fight for its user's attention, which, when added up, can give rise to a situation of excess stimuli and information. It results, in many cases, in a defensive reaction in the form of disabling the option to receive push notifications or uninstalling the app. The costs of such activities are easy to imagine.
  16. Apps that are not open to users' needs in terms of managing push notifications are apps that offer really poor UX.
  17. Timing is the most critical issue in designing push notifications.
  18. Mobile messages must arrive at a neutral time when they are not perceived as unwanted, disruptive, harmful, or violating cultural norms.
  19. The most common goal of push notifications is to prompt a specific action. Hyperlinks are their permanent element.
  20. Concise, short, communicative, persuasive texts are designed to attract and gain the mobile application's user's attention and evoke in them the need to interact with the push notification.
  21. Mistakes in the design of push notifications most often relate to their content and distribution.
  22. A notification is supposed to be helpful to the user and to bring real value.
  23. The level of acceptance of push notifications is inconsistent. Industries, where information about time, status, availability, and changes is crucial, have the highest level of acceptance of receiving push notifications.
How you like that:
Journal / Redaktor
Author: Radek
UX Writer and researcher by education + experience. Collects The Story's knowledge and shares it on the Journal.
Reviewer: Dymitr Romanowski

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