Push notifications: the latest communication channel to become gummed up

By August 20, 2012Mobile

notifications-iphoneWhen I saw a Techcrunch article this morning titled App developers: Stop abusing push! I tuned right in. The notifications on my Android have become a mess recently and the cluster of notifications on the homepage of my iPad are far and away the least well designed part of the iOS user experience. In short notifications are starting to suffer from a spam problem. If you’re not suffering from this problem yourself (yet) then check out the Techcrunch article for a ridiculously long list of types of push update that developers are building.

As I read the post I was struck by the parallel with stories in our Facebook feeds. When Facebook first opened up their platform app developers pushed lots of stories into our feeds, and when that got too much Facebook moved to protect the user experience by restricting access to the feed. Android and iOS notifications are now reaching the point where the user experience is suffering and it will be interesting to see what happens next.

I think we what is happening with mobile notifications is the latest version of a three part story that has repeated itself many times over the years. The first two parts of the story are always the same:

1. A new communication platform emerges
2. Entrepreneurs leverage the platform to communicate with customers, eventually reaching a crisis point where the signal to noise ratio falls to a level which threatens the viability of the platform – this is a great phase for startups like Zynga and Instagram who can leverage the platform to grow extremely fast

The story then ends one of two ways:

3a. The user experience is saved by restricting access to the platform is restricted (closed platforms) or by the creation of filters (open platforms) and the platform thrives
3b. Users drift away from the platform

We’ve seen this play out well for the platform with email and spam filters (now built into email services like Gmail), and on the telephone with legal restrictions on cold calling, and we’ve seen it play out badly for the platform with numerous small discussion groups and email lists, and arguably on Second Life. I’m sure there are many, many more examples.

Smartphones are obviously here to stay, but there is a risk that users will start turning off notifications, which would hurt the app ecosystem and therefore the underlying platform. I suspect that Apple and Google will soon move to protect the user experience by restricting the notifications that apps can send us. These restrictions might take the form of guidelines for app developers who want their apps available from the app stores or they might be UI innovations which group notifications from individual apps or frequency cap the number of notifications an app can make. Or both.

In advance of those restrictions app developers who are building for the long term would do well to heed the Techcrunch article and avoid abusing push. Sending lots of notifications might be good for short term traffic, but in the long run it will lead to people churning off the app.