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March 21, 2014

The Frustration of iOS Banner Notifications

Filed under: Apple,Design,Experiential,Ideas,Interfaces,iOS,Mobile,Usability — admin @ 5:18 pm

Sagi Shrieber has written a thought-provoking piece on his annoyance with iOS notifications, offering some suggested improvements as to how notifications appear and how users might interact with them. The whole piece is worth a read but the basic jist is:

  1. Too often, iOS doesn’t get it right when you try to dismiss a notification by swiping it off the top of the screen. iOS interprets this swipe as a tap, taking you away from your current task. (I believe that you actually have to tap & hold the notification, drag it down a little then ‘throw’ it off the top of the screen to dismiss it — not easily done.)
  2. Because of the inherent clumsiness of the dismiss gesture you might opt to just ignore the notification instead and carry on with what you were doing. However, the position of the notification banner over the top of your currently-running app’s UI means that some of the controls of your current app are obscured for the duration of time the notification persists.

So when a notification arrives that you’re happy to ignore, you’re too afraid to swipe up and dismiss it because of the first issue yet you cannot really ignore it because of the second.

Sagi offers a couple of solutions to these issues:

  1. When a notification arrives, pull it down to show the necessary interface to deal with the notification. Once dealt with, swipe up to ‘put away’ the notification and return to where you were. (Note: Sagi’s initial sketch shows this swipe up feature, but his mockups do not seem to demonstrate it).
  2. Position the notification underneath the currently-running app’s titlebar, thereby keeping relevant UI and/or controls relating to the currently-running app visible and usable. So if you want to ignore a notification and keep doing what you’re doing, you can.

Whilst I love seeing other people’s ideas on improving already well established UIs (I’ve done it myself), I can’t help feeling that these suggestions overcomplicate notifications, their associated interactions and app hierarchy within iOS. A banner notification is designed to notify you of something in way that’s unobtrusive, along with offering you a way of ‘doing’ something with that notification — including dismissing it or ignoring it. In a nut, notifications should be simple, obvious and easy to act on or ignore.

Sagi’s piece focuses on a Whatsapp notification interrupting his use of the Homebudget app, so let’s keep going with that scenario here. I have a few questions on Sagi’s suggested improvements:

  • When I pull the notification banner down to load the Whatsapp interface, am I in the Whatsapp app or still in Homebudget? This is important when considering how I exit the Whatsapp interface to get back to what I was doing in Homebudget.
  • Considering the above, how do I get back to Homebudget? I want to be able to slide it back up to get back to Homebudget — the reverse of what I did to get into Whatsapp. If I can do that, where’s the affordance in the Whatsapp ‘sheet’ to tell me I can do this? And if I can swipe up to dismiss the Whatsapp interface, how will iOS know whether I meant to dismiss the Whatsapp interface or whether I wanted to invoke Control Center, also available by swiping up from the bottom of the screen?
  • If I can’t swipe the Whatsapp UI off the top of the screen to get back to Homebudget, how else do I get back? Double-tap the home button to show recently opened apps and select it from there? How is that any less annoying than what happens today?
  • Because the notification now sits within the content of the currently-running app — underneath the title bar — how will iOS know whether I’m trying to dismiss a notification or scroll? Granted, this is a challenge that applies to the current implementation of notifications (and is, perhaps, a reason why dismissing them is so hit & miss).
  • Is showing the notification underneath the title bar really a better solution? Whilst it avoids obscuring any controls residing in the titlebar, it’s still sitting over the top of content I was looking at. A notification over the top of a photo you’re about to post or a tweet you’re about to send is still in the way. (In either of these two scenarios, I’d most likely try to dismiss the notification before continuing with what I was doing, regardless of whether it obscures content or controls. It’s still in the way.)

I completely agree with the issues Sagi highlights. Dismissing a notification is currently a game of pure luck; the number of times iOS has misinterpreted a dismiss gesture for a tap is far larger than the number of times it’s been able to get it right. But as I was reading Sagi’s piece, it struck me that perhaps a better interaction model for notifications already exists in iOS: those that are shown on the lock screen.

A mockup of an iOS banner notification being swiped to the right

What if, when I receive a notification, I were able to ‘action’ it (read, reply, post etc.) by swiping the icon to the right, as I do on the homescreen? This would take me off to the app that invoked the notification. It’s fairly safe to consider this gesture as something relatively ‘bullet-proof’, in that there’s no mistaking what I want to do if I swipe.

Tapping the notification would therefore do nothing. Swiping to dismiss the notification would therefore be a whole lot more accurate.

Also, what if we let iOS assume that when I receive a notification but carry on interacting with the currently-running app, that I do not want to action it just yet? The notification arrives, I continue tapping or scrolling in the app I’m in, so iOS hides the notification as I’ve made it clear I’m in the middle of something. If I do want to do something with the notification, I can pull down Notification Center to see it and action it from there.

We could take this further and say that swiping an icon invokes an ‘inline’ or contextual interface to let me action it, much as notifications on the desktop in Mavericks does. The notification arrives, I swipe the icon, but instead of taking me to Whatsapp, I get a modal box (like the one Sagi mocked up in his piece) that lets me reply to the message without taking me out of Homebudget. Importantly, it would also let me ‘cancel’, so if I changed my mind and didn’t want to reply immediately, I wouldn’t be forced to do so by a limited UI.

To me, these interactions fit with the notion and purpose of banner notifications much more comfortably.

Sagi’s post really resonated with me and sparked a lot of internal debate, so none of my comments or questions are meant as a negative critique of his original point and subsequent ideas. I wholeheartedly share his frustration with iOS notifications and refuse to accept that there’s not a better way of doing them.

Perhaps that’s why, after reading his post, these ideas have been tumbling around my head all day.

Thanks for the inspiration, Sagi!

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