Essay

How to Stop Notifications from Taking Over Your Life without Buying the Apple Watch

By Duff McDuffee on April 4th, 2015 1

The tech industry createth, the tech industry taketh away.

Many new technologies promise to remove the problem of too many notifications. Of course the irony is that these notifications were created by the tech industry itself.

First Google Glass and now the Apple Watch, tethered to a nearby smartphone, claim that their revolutionary new screens will help solve our problem of being constantly distracted by notifications which appear on our smart phone’s screen…by showing us notifications on these other screens instead.

Hmmm…

To figure out how we got into this paradoxical predicament, we need to take a little trip through history. So step into this time machine with me…and away we go!

* * *

Once upon a time, the only things that could interrupt us were actual human beings physically coming up to us while we were working and talking with us. We called these people “bosses.” We generally disliked these people.

Sure a letter might arrive once in a while on the Pony Express, but it was usually well-written and from someone we knew and possibly containing candy, and thus was happily received.

Then Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, and suddenly we could be interrupted by individuals not physically present at any time of the day or night.

Now some of these interruptions were welcome — hearing from a loved one far away was like a miracle! But other interruptions were troublesome.

A certain etiquette evolved around the use of this auditory interrupting device. Before calling, the caller ought to ask one’s self if it was an appropriate time to interrupt the recipient of their call. Before 9AM was too early — you don’t want to wake someone up needlessly. 5 – 7PM was family dinner time and thus rude — only shameless telemarketers had such gall.

After 8PM was too late, as people were winding down for sleep. But since most people worked 9AM – 6PM and many people were forbidden to make personal calls at work, basically the only times for making personal phone calls were from 7 – 8PM on a weekday, or just wait for the weekend and hope the person is home when you call. Maybe you should just mail a letter.

It was all very inefficient. Luckily, the technology industry saw a solution.

Most people were excited to get an answering machine. Now others could call them and if they weren’t at home, the caller could leave a message. No more trying to call people only from 7 – 8PM on a weekday!

However, with the invention of the answering machine, telephone etiquette started to become more lax, for one could always leave a message thus in theory unburdening the recipient to actually answer the phone. With Caller ID and voicemail, the etiquette was further loosened, for individuals could now screen their calls just as easily as an executive with a secretary.

But while the rules around telephone etiquette were loosened, they were preferentially lessened for the caller. It was still expected that the recipient would answer if they physically could. The ethical burden shifted from the caller to the recipient, the interrupter to the interrupted. After all, if I am calling you, it must be for an urgent reason, otherwise I could wait until we met in person.

We were freed from the burden of empathy, of having to think about the recipient before we sent our message.

* * *

Voicemail shifted the telephone from a synchronous device, where communication could only take place simultaneously in real time, to an asynchronous device, more like that of mailing letters (albeit much faster). Voicemails could pile up when you were at work, burdening the recipient with even more things to respond to when they got home.

Since phones were tethered to specific physical locations, some people could not be reached easily. This was a problem for emergency workers like doctors. With the invention of the pager, an individual could get a kind of proto-message wherever they were, with a number to call when they were able to get to a physical telephone.

Soon many individuals in non-emergency roles were wearing pagers, and thus burdened with the duty to return the phone calls of everyone who knew their pager number. (In my sisters’ high school in the 90’s, wearing a pager was thought to be an indication that this person was a drug dealer.)

Around this time email was also becoming popular. While email was an inherently an asynchronous communications medium, social pressures quickly turned it into a synchronous one. Work demands began to presume responses to emails within hours if not minutes, even after official working hours.

The invention of the Blackberry encouraged this kind of constant sending and receiving of email, to the extent that it was nicknamed the “Crackberry” due to the addictive nature of sending and receiving emails many hundreds of times a day. Executives were both excited to be able to reach employees at any hour of the day or night, but also themselves burdened with the responsibility of being “always on.”

* * *

Quickly some enterprising individuals realized that email had enormous financial potential. Unlike postal mail, each email was free to send. Collecting email addresses became a very profitable enterprise, and soon unsolicited commercial bulk email known as “spam” (named after the infamous Monty Python skit) was becoming a big problem. Spam further reinforced the idea that the burden is on the recipient.

Anti-spam software was developed, and eventually anti-spam legislation in the CAN-SPAM act made unsolicited, bulk email an illegal activity. But this did not stop the problem of email overload, nor did it even slow it’s exponential increase.

At many workplaces, individuals began receiving well over 100 emails a day, each time alerted with a visual and/or auditory notification. Many workers felt like much of their day was being spent responding to these many demands on their time and attention. But notably, few people could name any reason why to not send an email or make a phone call anymore, at any time of the day or night, to any number of recipients. If anything, people felt they must send the emails they send, in the quantity they send them, CC’ed to the individuals they had to copy.

With the invention of the iPhone, the smart phone industry had finally come about. Text messaging became far easier with the introduction of an on-screen QWERTY keyboard. Like the “crackberry” before it, the iPhone and later smartphones was always available, being carried on one’s person at all times. So naturally, the frequency and number of text messages greatly increased.

With the invention of “apps” for iOS and Android and other devices came too the invention of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Twitter was originally conceived of as a kind of group text messaging, with similar character limits. One could update all one’s friends by texting the app, or by typing one’s update into a web page. When a friend updated their Twitter status with what they were doing right now, you could receive a text message. This was a fun but relatively pointless activity, and quite expensive at the time since text messages were on a $0.10/text basis.

“Unlimited” data and texting plans were soon invented, and with it the “notification” in an “app” on the smart phone. One of the original notifications was the ring of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone — it notified you of an incoming call.1 But these new notifications were not only different in number, but in kind.

When a person in the 90s connected to the internet through their dial-up modem and then logged into AOL Online, if they were lucky if they heard that reaffirming voice call out, “You’ve got mail!” Back then, logging onto the internet meant no phone calls could come through, so one could either receive calls or check email (unless they were so rich they had 2 home phone lines).

The internet was also painfully slow, so people used the internet sparingly and thus were rarely interrupted by email notifications more than once or twice a day, when they chose to check their email. But with the circa 2015 smartphone, now all sorts of software applications could notify us of all sorts of things, hundreds or thousands of times a day, wherever we were, at all hours of the day or night.

* * *

With Twitter came Facebook, and Facebook introduced notifications for everything under the sun: when a new person “friended” you, when someone “liked” a comment or post of yours, and so on. Twitter and Pinterest and other social media services copied these notifications because they were so successful at increasing the amount of time users spent engaged with these services, and thus increased ad views and ad revenue for these companies.

With new desktop operating systems came even more notifications. Despite many productive years without them, in Apple’s OSX Mavericks, desktop notifications were introduced for every conceivable activity, turned on by default, and with no way to permanently turn all of them off, all of the time.

Instead of solving a very practical consumer need such as the ring of a telephone or a doorbell, these later notifications seemed primarily to serve the financial interests of corporate entities as in the case of social media, or “just because” in the case of desktop operating system notifications. It was simply assumed that everyone wanted to be interrupted with notifications of everything, all the time.

At the time of this writing, the average teenager sends and receives hundreds of text messages a day, and many adults cannot do a #2 without their cell phones to stare at. We have become addicted to being interrupted.

As you can see from our little trip down memory lane, the entire problem of too many notifications was created by the tech industry. At no point did any additional layer of technology decrease the number or kind of notifications — with each successive technology the burdens on the recipient have increased. Even spam filters did not stop total email volume from increasing over time.

And while notifications used to be practical alerts, all too often now they are meaningless interruptions, no longer designed to help the user but to benefit the producer.

* * *

Originally, all notifications were either informational or immediately actionable, and relatively infrequent. Because of this, these notifications were useful. Notifications are only broken now because they fail to do what they are intended to do.

Take the humble doorbell (or prior to that, the door knocker). When a person heard a doorbell, they immediately knew what action to take — a person was waiting for them at the door, probably someone they knew and liked. The doorbell became “broken” as a notification when salesmen and Jehova’s witnesses took advantage of the immediate response of homeowners. Soon “no solicitors” signs became common, and peepholes were drilled into every front door.

The telephone was functional when we only received one or two calls a day, at a reasonable hour. It was broken by telemarketers and political campaigning robocalls.

Email was functional when we had to log on to receive it, could only do so once or twice a day, and only received email every few days. It was broken by spam, marketing emails, and email notifications from social media.

Text messaging and other on-phone notifications were functional when they occurred only in actual emergencies or just a couple times a day, and from people we know. On-phone notifications were broken once they were irrelevant, non-actionable, or just too frequent, as in Facebook and Twitter. As of this writing, marketers are just beginning to break text messaging by sending more marketing messages through this “untapped” medium.

Imagine a Grandfather clock that didn’t simply chime every 15 minutes, with a longer chime at the top of the hour, but chimed randomly 20 or 30 times an hour, indicating…something. If we had a clock like this, we would get it repaired or throw it out. But when our smartphones, desktop computers, and other devices do the same thing, we don’t think to do anything to fix it. After all, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

A Short Guide to Helpful Notifications

Notifications should never occur unless a) they are notifying you of something truly urgent and important — more important than being present with whatever you are currently doing, and b) you can act on them now. They should also c) occur very infrequently, both as individual notifications and keeping the volume of total notifications at a minimum.

Most people have no sense of what is important and respond only to what is urgent as Stephen Covey pointed out his his quadrant model decades ago now. Just because something is calling for your attention doesn’t mean it is important to respond to it.

If you run your notifications through these criteria, you’ll quickly realize that virtually all notifications fail to be well-designed. Even most phone calls and text messages ought to be delayed until later if you are doing anything even slightly important.

Until designers care about and design tools with these criteria in mind or allow the user to control notifications with great precision, just turn off all notifications. Then only turn on specific notifications if and when you need them. Avoid apps that do not allow you to turn off notifications, such as Facebook as these notifications are not designed to serve you but to serve Zuckerberg.

Problem solved.

* * *

But this low-tech solution, as it costs $0 to implement, does not translate well into a hip, new product line. If you ask a carpenter to build you something, he’ll suggest using wood. Similarly, if you ask the tech industry how to solve a technology problem, they will say “more technology,” not less.

Adding a new feature gives a selling point — pruning features is not as marketable, even when it meets customer needs better. Instead of turning off the firehose of interruptions, the tech industry wants to sell you a high-tech raincoat.

It’s like asking “what can I eat to lose weight?” or “what can I buy to save the planet?” Consumer capitalism has been so successful that we now think only in terms of what we can buy, what new gadget we can get that will solve the problems of the last one. But each new techology comes with new problems.

Sometimes the solution is not more, but less.

Footnotes

1. Other early notifications included roosters, the alarm clock, the washing machine, the school bell, the doorbell, and the toaster. All these notifications were inherently useful.

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EDIT 4/10/2015: Also check out the more practical follow-up to this article entitled 23 Ways to Use Technology instead of Technology Using You.

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