The tyranny of notification numbers

Something I find interesting about design is how patterns often emerge that then get rapidly copied and widely adopted. The 'like' button, which I moaned about in my last post, is one of these. Another is what I'm calling 'notification numbers'.

The basic principle of this pattern is to notify the user of something that needs their attention through the metric of a number which quantifies how many 'things' there are that need to be dealt with. The most common example is an e-mail inbox, where the number of 'unread' e-mails has always been displayed fairly prominently within the application. The 'notification number' moves this magic number up a level though, by displaying it next to the actual app icon on your dashboard/desktop view.

The iPhone was the first example of this pattern that I experienced. Here's a quick view showing the applications on my phone which have notification numbers at the time of writing:

There are plenty of other examples of sites and services using this pattern. Here's the Wordpress admin interface showing numbers of unmoderated comments, and available upgrades in the left hand nav:

Facebook does the same, although it's a little more subtle (for the time being). There's even some talk of the feature making its way to web browsers themselves (as browsers start to support 'app tabs').

I'm in two minds about this design pattern. On the one hand, it feels like a useful way to see at a glance the things that there are to 'do'. On the other hand though, this can start to feel like a real burden - the numbers are really there to nag you, and you can end up with a cacophony of apps all demanding your attention.

The problem is that there are some things which really do require or merit attention (and sometimes a response), but plenty of other things that don't. More thought needs to go into which apps should be allowed to urgently request your attention, and how often.

E-mail inboxes are one of the worst culprits. As you can see from my iPhone screenshot, I currently have 162 unread e-mails. It's actually far more than that though, as the iPhone only syncs e-mail from the last month. I've actually got 18056 unread e-mails. There's plenty of reasons for this. Some of them are from mailing lists that I don't bother to read any more. Many are marketing e-mails that I ignore. And plenty more are e-mails notifying me of messages on other services (like Twitter or Facebook), which I often don't open because I've already read them on those other platforms. So the 'unread e-mails' count for me is both inaccurate and utterly useless. It's for this reason that, in Gmail, I've actually enabled the 'Labs' feature which removes the number from the interface.

For e-mail inboxes, I think there's a simple fix to make the notification number useful again. Instead of showing the number of 'unread' mail, show the number of 'new' mails received since you last opened your inbox. That way, you can simply open the inbox view, scan the e-mail subject lines/snippets, either opening or ignoring them, and then close the app to reset the number to zero.

Other apps should simply consider whether they need to surface notifications at all. Asynchronous multiplayer games (like Words With Friends and Carcassonne) reminding me of how many moves I have to play is actually pretty useful. The App Store and Wordpress constantly urging me to upgrade apps and plugins soon gets annoying - upgrading is not an urgent task, it's something that can be done silently in the background, and then completed when the computer senses that you've got a spare moment.

A problem you may have spotted though is that this all requires application developers and designers to think more carefully about when to use notification numbers - and in the attention economy, it's tempting to issue as many notifications as possible in an attempt to drive people back to your app.

Facebook already try to manage this with the following policy:

... you must use the counter only to inform users about legitimate actions that they should take within your application, and must not use the counter for promotional or marketing purposes. You should increment the counter only once for each item or action about which you need to notify a user.

There's still quite a lot of wriggle room in that for app developers to notify users about every conceivable thing that users might wish to 'action'.

So I think ultimately that managing this attention spam is going to require a combination of preaching best practice to designers and developers, and putting more control over notification numbers into the hands of users.