How Tiny Red Dots Took Over Your Life

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What’s so powerful about the dots is that until we investigate them, they could signify anything: a career-altering email; a reminder that Winter Sales End Soon; a match, a date, a “we need to talk.” The same badge might lead to word that Grandma’s in the hospital or that, according to a prerecorded voice, the home-security system you don’t own is in urgent need of attention or that, for the 51st time today, someone has posted in the group chat.

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The Age of Alerts: Wake Me When It’s Over

Illustration by Christoph Hitz

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…Call me a selfish misanthrope who takes his sleep and peace of mind too seriously, but I could live with fewer of the alarms and alerts that keep coming at me these days… As may be expected, public response to Amber Alerts since the latest system was put in place a few years ago has been mixed.

To the system’s credit, there have been cases when cars with endangered children have been found. But even Marc Klaas, whose daughter Polly was kidnapped and later found dead, a tragedy that helped fuel the understandable hyper-vigilance of today, was an unlikely critic of the Amber Alert system that California rolled out in 2013. He told CNN that he believed it had great potential, but that he feared residents too far away to be helpful might be put off by the noise and opt out of the program.

That’s what happened here in July, when an emergency weather alert roused households at 4:19 a.m. from northeastern New Jersey to the five boroughs and southern Connecticut, involving flash floods that never occurred. Instead, it caused a flood of public and Twitter complaints.

The Wall Street Journal found New York City Councilman Pete Vallone’s tweet: “Like many NYers I’m waking up with the question, ‘how the hell do I get this ‘flash flood alert’ at 4 a.m. stuff off my phone?!”’ ”

The Psychology Of Notifications

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What makes an effective trigger? How can you be sure that the notifications you’re sending are welcome and lead to higher engagement instead of driving users away? Below are a few tenets of notifications that engage users, instead of alienating them.

Good Triggers Are Well-Timed

…For instance, imagine you have a connecting flight and only 40 minutes to spare. As soon as you land, you’re worried about which gate to go to next and how long it will take you to get there. You turn your phone off airplane mode and, voilà, there’s a notification from your airline with all the right information. Your boarding time, gate number, and whether your departure is on time are presented at the moment you’re most likely to feel anxious. Now you can get to your next connection without having to frantically scan one of the terminal’s crowded departure screens. By providing information at the moment the user is likely to need it, the app builds credibility, trust and loyalty.

Good Triggers Are Actionable

Good triggers prompt action while vague or irrelevant messages annoy users. It’s important that a trigger cue a specific, simple behavior.

…The intended action prompted by the notification can also occur outside the app. Google Now tells users when to leave for an appointment based on what it knows about their location, traffic conditions and mode of transport: “Leave by 11:25 am to arrive on time.”

Good Triggers Spark Intrigue

…Timehop, for instance, sends a cheeky notification reading, “No way, was that really you?,” and prompting the users to open the app. To see the photo, users need to simply swipe. It helps that Timehop’s messaging is lightweight and humorous enough to be out of the ordinary.

Why everybody wants a piece of your smartphone’s lock screen

obama-phone

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It seems like every new app you download these days practically begs you to turn on notifications, or the ability to send you alerts when the app isn’t running. Sometimes these alerts are useful, as in the case of apps that tell you when a taxi has arrived or a message has been received. But there are many more apps—music, travel, games—that simply want your attention for their own benefit. A new report from Localytics, an analytics firm, explains why.