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Have you ever had a nightmare where you were literally drowning in little red notification badges? I did once, and it got me thinking: what actually are notifications? And are they just another dark pattern – a form of coercion and online trickery? In this article, I explore the phenomenon of “pseudo-notifications”, and conclude with some thoughts on what the future might hold for notifications as a design pattern.

What are notifications?

Notifications are nothing new. A doorbell is a notification system to let me know that someone is outside my house. The ring of a telephone is a signal that someone is waiting to talk. And an SMS ringtone notifies me that a message has arrived.

However, since the arrival of smartphones, notifications have been subtly changing. First, and above all, the apps and websites we use every day love to notify us of everything they can. Our phones no longer just alert us to calls and texts; they now remind us about game activity, tell us when people are tweeting, and nag us to take our 10,000 daily steps. Unlike doorbells, the things that today’s apps and websites deem worthy of a notification often don’t really require our immediate attention at all.

Second, notifications increasingly reach us by whatever means, and in whatever context, they can. Whether it’s an icon with an unread count, text scrolling in from the top of a smartphone screen, a special ringtone, or a disembodied voice assistant, notifications are designed to penetrate our senses and interrupt whatever we’re doing. Distraction isn’t an unfortunate side-effect of notifications – it is one of their core functions. Notifications are intended to draw us away from our current activity, and refocus our attention on wherever that notification is coming from.

Notifications are a powerful tool for UX designers and developers, because they work by pushing people’s psychological buttons. Appealing to a deep human instinct to be socially integrated and accepted, that number in a little red circle subtly tells us both that there’s a social transaction awaiting our attention, and that by ignoring it, we’re missing out on something. By now we’ve probably all experienced that seemingly irrepressible urge to tap an icon just because it has an unread count – even if we already know we’re not interested in looking at whatever’s there.

Notifications were once there to tell us something we needed to know. But has the desperation of companies to get us to engage with their product turned notifications into an annoyance – a manipulative, destructive dark pattern?

Notifications as a dark pattern

A "dark pattern” refers to any design feature intended to deceive, manipulate, or trick the user into taking an action that they didn’t desire or intend. These first emerged in the earliest days of the web, when disreputable websites created popup windows in your browser, and in many cases would “bait and switch” the user by inviting them to click for one purpose, but then redirect to something unrelated.

The website Dark Patterns has assembled a pretty comprehensive typology of dark patterns, and they maintain a “hall of shame” that calls out companies and products that deliberately trick their users.

These days, dark patterns are both more widespread and more sophisticated. Many sites use fairly harmless dark patterns to gather email subscribers – through things like “subscribe” boxes that appear as overlays on a webpage when you scroll down.

These do annoy users, precisely because their appearance has not been requested. But many companies accept that this occasional low-level annoyance is a price worth paying to build a customer base, and indeed most customers understand and accept that. Although, just as with advertising, we tolerate it more readily if it's executed with some creative panache.

Even that familiar “subscribe” box can be delivered with different levels of trickery. For example, it can pop up in such a way that it is obviously optional and can be dismissed or cancelled. But some sites will deliberately make the popup look like a mandatory step, when in reality, there is usually a way to close the message and continue reading.

OS-level notification managers have become a feature of Android and iOS builds, in order to forcibly suppress notifications from apps. Similarly, apps usually have notification controls built in, but often even these are manipulative. For example, in Facebook Messenger, it used only to be possible to disable notifications temporarily; they would then automatically be turned back on after a few hours. Moreover, app notifications are almost always switched on by default, rather than being off automatically.

Examples of dark pattern notifications

Many of the sites we use every day now exploit our psychological weakness for notifications – our fear of missing out. They use pseudo-notifications to deliver marketing messages, or simply to draw us back to using their product when there is actually nothing of substance to notify us about.

LinkedIn

Go to the LinkedIn homepage, and you’ll see a navigation bar that looks something like this:

“Hurrah,” I think, “I have 7 notifications!” (Although… Reactivate Premium? I never had Premium – another dark pattern, playing on my fear of loss).

But when I click to see these notifications, they turn out to be nothing of the sort. Instead, I’m served with pseudo-notifications encouraging me to 1) engage with changes in other people’s profiles, 2) sign up to their Premium service by promising to show me who’s been looking at my profile, and 3) browse job ads.

LinkedIn’s pseudo-notifications

As a LinkedIn user, when we don’t have any new messages or contact requests, there will nevertheless be subtle forms of advertising waiting in our notification feed. By engaging with this, we spend more time on their site, click through to more pages, and complete a wider range of actions.

Facebook

Facebook was one of the original engineers of the kind of notification feed we’re used to seeing today. The company has in the past couple of years also turned to using pseudo-notifications to draw people into interacting with their service more consistently, and in new ways. For example, when I arrived in Paris recently, I got a notification inviting me to see where my friends had been in the city. First off, Facebook, that’s kind of creepy. And second, it’s not something I want to be pinged about in my notifications feed.

Facebook’s notifications panel: none of these are really notifications

Similarly, Facebook will create notifications in response to how you are using their service. If you are short of “real” notifications (comments, likes, etc.) at the moment you refresh, it will use that lull to propose other forms of engagement – for example, by encouraging you to look back at Facebook “memories”, by giving you information about how many consecutive days you’ve shared content, or by telling you how many views your Pages have got.

Twitter

Twitter effectively shows you other people’s notifications when you’re short of your own

Twitter uses a similar strategy, populating your notifications feed to ensure there is always something new for you to engage with.

When the service doesn’t have any direct interactions to tell you about, it will start telling you about other users’ interactions instead. In the screenshot above, it’s telling me about what people I’m following are doing on the site – a kind of meta-notification.

Twitter pushes this kind of notification into your phone’s notification bar as well, inviting renewed interaction with their app.

Engagement at any cost?

I’ve picked LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter here as three big and prominent examples of this trend in notification design, but of course the practice is increasingly common across a whole range of sites and sectors. (Troublingly, my wine club’s website notifies me that I have 117 bottles of wine to review.)

The questions to be leveled at companies that use notifications in this way must be these: Are you acting in your users’ interests, or in your own? And if you’re acting in your own interests, are you fairly balancing these with the interests of the user? Many sites rely on clicks for ad revenue, and have discovered in notifications a quietly coercive way to generate both.

In fairness, companies are faced with the problem that these methods are very effective. Even when we, as users, understand that we are being manipulated, we still carry on clicking and tapping. And in a commercial environment, it can spell disaster to refuse on principle to deploy an effective marketing technique, when all of your competitors are doing it and reaping the rewards.

Peak notification?

However, whether this approach to notification design remains effective will depend precisely on the evolution of our attitudes as users. We have probably all experienced notification fatigue at some point. Speaking personally, the intrusive notification practices of platforms like Twitter make me want to use those services less (but I remain problematically addicted to Facebook).

As users learn to identify and avoid pseudo-notifications, just as we learned to identify and avoid ads, notifications are likely to become less persuasive, and therefore less effective as a way of leveraging user action. And perhaps more significantly, if people’s attitudes to notifications harden, their deployment as a dark pattern will begin systematically detracting from people’s perception of a brand. Conversely, in that scenario, companies and services that adopt a simpler, more honest, and more transparent notification regime may benefit from having exactly that selling point.

Notifications and the Tech/Life Balance

If yesterday’s problem was work/life balance, then this story is about tech/life balance. The use of notifications as a dark pattern is important because it raises questions about how we regulate and control our personal use of smart technology in a world not only where it is pervasive, but also where those running key services have no qualms about bombarding us with information.

Technology has the potential to enhance our social and personal lives by keeping us connected. But notifications show that technology also has the power to impair our lives by supplanting real connections with ones that have been commercially brokered, mediated, and processed.

This touches on the question of what it means to be human in the developed world in the 21st century. We are learning together how to enjoy the benefits of our newfound connectedness, without losing touch with why we actually value those connections in the first place, and what we want technology to help us accomplish in and through our social relationships.

The future of notifications

Tech companies are not ignorant of the question of tech/life balance. As it becomes more pressing in the years to come, we can expect services like Facebook to get smarter with when, how, and how often they deploy pseudo-notifications.

I’m sure that before long, Facebook will automatically learn what kind of notifications I tend to engage with, and which I tend to ignore or dismiss. This data will enable the service automatically to send me a personalized mix of notifications based on what it has learned about my preferences. For example, if its algorithms note that I always dismiss or ignore notifications about being in a new city, a future iteration of Facebook might learn to simply stop showing me that information, or show me something else instead.

But with this comes an ethical hazard. At the moment, the pseudo-notification dark pattern is quite crude, which at least makes it easy to identify. But as services refine how their messages are chosen and delivered, it may become less and less obvious when information is being tailored on the basis of machine learning about our individual online behavior and latent preferences.

This begins to open the door to manipulation not only by fellow humans, but also by faceless algorithms that eventually learn to present each of us only with information that we already want to see — perhaps even only the news stories that are consistent with our present worldview.

As users, we should be vigilant to ensure that we retain the capacity to challenge and be challenged. As designers and developers, we must seek to develop experiences that respect users as people with agency, boundaries, and human dignity, and don’t just treat them as a vessel for clicks.

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