Are notifications our new plague ?

How many notifications do you receive every day ? 10 ? 50 ? 100 ? Our days are punctuated by the notifications we receive from message, business, media… apps. Chopped would even be more relevant than punctuated since these notifications capture our attention, force us to switch, refocus, and even distract us from important tasks to take us to more trivial ones.

Notification : a solution become a problem

Notifications are the perfect example of the good idea become a problem. Remember… At the beginning any information, message, alert used to come in one’s email inbox, to such an extent that email were interruption us all day long, that we were lost in the amount of messages etc.. The inbox was a messy and unmanageable catch-all that used to get filled faster than we emptied it.
Then two things happened.
The first is that many conversations moved to public or professional social networks or messaging applications. The first, to stay at the top of our minds, send us notifications that pile in our inbox. Even if I understand that even if email is still there its nature changes, that the content stays in its context where it’s easier to manage it, the fact is ou inboxes are more saturated than ever.
Then came the mobile phone or, more exactly, the smartphone. Not because its mobile but because it led to an APPificiation of all the services we use. Each service became an application capable of pushing its notification on the main screen of our phone without sending an email, the OS gathering notifications from all the apps. And since we’re only using a few apps compared to what we installed, the best way from an app to remain “top of mind” is to send notifications, most of the apps are notifying at any occasion for any reason.
And since we’re constantly switching between mobile and laptops/desktops, we needed a continuity of experiences. So notifications followed us from one screen to another.
In the end not only we did not solve the question of the interruptions by emails but also multiplied the problem by 10. Before we used to say “oh… I remind having seen something on this matter…I’m gonna search my inbox”. Today it’s “I saw an alert about this matter but can’t remind what app it was coming from”.

Notification addiction : between a sense of self and the Fear of Missing Out

You’ll respond that notification can be parameterized. Right. Yet nearly nobody does it. There are three ways to explain that.

The first is that it is, rightly or wrongly, a power user habit. The average user installs lots of apps and suffers from notifications. Only the most advanced ones take the time to specify what they want to receive, from what (app) and even from whom (people).

The second is known as FOFM or “Fear Of Missing Out”: the fear of missing something. It’s a major cause of information overload. While most of the consumer or enterprise applications we use allow us to decide what we want to receive vs. what we’ll have to search for if needed, the fear of missing something makes people follow everything. As the quantity of tools, media, channels and the volume of information is exponentially increasing, humans can’t keep up. That’s even more true at work where employees fear so much to be blamed because they miss something than they follow everything without reason.

Notification : aggression or recognition ?

The third is that notifications give a sense of oneself. It makes people feel they exist. I’ve read/hear that receiving notifications makes us generate dopamine, a neurotransmitter related to motivation and recognition. From a personal standpoint I consider that at some some point notifications looks like aggressions to me but science says the opposite.

And don’t count on vendors to make notification management easy or to make use aware of their impact. An application which notifications are turned off won’t be not top of mind anymore, will be forgotten, not used anymore because our attention will be caught by the others. But if in our personal lives it’s a matter of self-responsibility, I think that in a enterprise context employers should make their employees aware of the consequences of a poor notification management as they do for emails. That’ even something they should care about when designing/implementing enterprise applications, digital workplaces etc… It’s a good case for employee experience.

In short if it’s humanly possible to fight against notification overlook most of us are doing nothing and are torturing themselves with their own consent. This torture comes with a price in terms of stress, attention and productivity.

Photo Credit : Notifications by Georgejmclittle via Shutterstock