How to Notify

Exploring the Field of Notifying Between Human and Machine


When talking about communication between humans, we are all unconsciously or consciously dedicating the moment of expression, not only with words we are using, but also with timing, medium, or the expression. Humans make a couple of decisions to control the way of communication, no matter the goal is to make the listener feel comfortable or uncomfortable as they expected. However, as for communication with our smartphone or computer, we suppose what they notify us is from a machine without humane filter. We all met the situation that our smartphone push notifications while we are having a meeting or class and didn’t check our schedule before, like our mom or partner would do. The smartphone pretend to be humane. But in most cases, they just spread out the message synchronically and skip the humane processing or thinking. It is not a dialogue. It is just a one-way notification. Those notifications are designed and controlled by humans. But now, they seem to have been out of control because of technical constraints or lack of design thinking.

I noticed this problem while I was working for Google+ as an intern. I found there are fifty seven types of notifications in that social platform. What surprised me is that I interviewed a person who received more than sixty unread notifications since he last checked one hour ago. Although this is just an extreme case for the 1% powerful users, not for 99% general users, noticing the long list of unread notifications shown in the notification center on my phone, I see this is a general problem that our smart devices are not smart enough to send notifications.

This article is mapping a problem that we are facing, that technology, as a notifier, is not delicate enough for people. We are trying to adapt ourselves to the technology and changing our lifestyle, our way of communication, even the way we think. Through looking at the history of notification, as compared to conversations between humans, and seeing the notification through the spectrum of technology and society, I am trying to propose a direction to address those problems.

History of Notification

The notifier in the past is much more versatile. People used fireworks to update the status of the war, pigeons as messengers, or a professional messenger for face to face communication. They are all a bunch of notifiers with different formats.

With the development of technology, we gradually used the telegram, mailbox, phone, answering machine, and pagers as communication tools. The ringing of a phone call, the numbers shown on the answering machine, the physical mail when we open the mailbox, are all traditional notifications.

At the beginning of the 21st century, we only heard the phone ringing, beeping message, and our alarm clocks. Then, the mobile Internet came out. We now can check our email on our phone. Windows phone, iPhone and Android phone, gradually took the place of non-smart phones. We got Apps, Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, WhatsApp. Most of people have installed more than one hundred Apps on their smartphones. Apps started to send out notifications. Our friend tagged us in the post. The weather app tells us the weather today. The email apps send us new emails in real-time, including the promotion mail from Nordstrom, the news feed from Medium, and your new notifications on Facebook. We entered a world with massive notifications.

As the key entry point for digital products,  good notifications play the role of attracting users and improving the retention of the App by two to three times. But what means good? There are always complaint about how notifications are annoying for people. At the same time, we are getting used to the tone or vibration and learning how to ignore them. 

Notifications are not like a letter left on our mailboxes. We have a specific time, maybe at 6 p.m. when we go back home, to open the box, an action which is totally intentional rather than passive. Of course, we have the choice to turn off notifications but barely anyone turns that off completely. Why? It is probably because we do not want to miss out messages from our important person, the phone call from family, and the email sent out from your boss. The settings are complicated and people are lazy. Whereas, the question should be why we have to adjust ourselves to adapt to the technology that we do not like at all? The technology was supposed to be our best helper when we needed it rather than a nasty jerk who never learns.

Conflict Between Social Media and Life

Some people are standing out and speaking about the reverse side of technology besides convenience. Sherry Turkle, the professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, wrote a book named Alone Together, sharing her research about how people became more lonely when we entered the era of technology.[1]  “You can end up hiding from each other, even as we’re all constantly connected to each other. ” Sherry said.[2] People prefer the conversation online because they can totally control the language. They can edit, delete, or even retrieve the message now, which means they can retouch who they are to be better as who they want to be. People are getting used to online communication and they are looking at their smartphone everyday.

Paul Miller, a journalist and editor, stayed one year offline.[3]  He abandoned the Internet and disconnected from all social media. He felt his life, mostly young people’s lives,  on the Internet made him unproductive. When he decided not to use the Internet, he gained more freedom and happiness.[4] His experiment reminds me of Henry David Thoreau, a philosopher who lived alone in a forest around the shores of Walden Pond from 1845 to 1849 and wrote the book Walden. [5] In this book, he wrote “Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. ” [6]

It is not surprising that people in the past centuries spoke about that they dislike their social lives, which dominated their leisure time and took up moments alone. We cannot deny that social media shortens the distance between people. Meanwhile, people are drawn into the digital world and barely have no time to be alone and think independently. We are too busy with checking the new notifications on our smartphone.

From this perspective, notification, as the entry door of massive information that technology brings to us, plays the role of distracting our lives if we do not turn it off. The impact of notifications is easy to be ignored in this situation. As Paul Miller said, we cannot totally be away from the Internet, but we can learn how to use it as a tool, a utility, while not a hole that drags us into it. That is to say, it is impossible to totally turn social media or email off. We have friends and family from another city or country to keep in touch with, our boss who sends us email everyday, but we can find a better way to be notified.

Delicate Moments Within Humans

Thinking about some delicate moments when we are talking with real humans, people make a series of decisions to make they are good notifiers.


When to notify is the first thing every one is concerned. Sometimes, a good timing when talking about a big issue will help a lot in making the conversation go well. Here is a typical example: My friend Jiani, told me a story about how her mom notified her of the death of her grandpa and grandma. Her mom didn’t tell her immediately. Her mom called her in the middle of winter vacation. Because her mom did not want her daughter to worry and go back to China during that vacation. Jiani felt sad but she could totally understand that. Another example was that my friend who decided to tell her mom and dad she got a boyfriend when her parents were not busy with their work, during the weekend. These notifiers tried to find out the best timing to have those conversations. For people who are receivers, some people, in some cases, also prefer to be scheduled. For instance, friends ask us out for the next weekend. Some people would like to be informed in advance so they can prepare.

Compared with notifications we receive every day, our smartphone doesn’t decide when is the right time to notify us by itself. It doesn’t care whether it is bothering or interrupting us because it lacks consciousness.

Language and Tone

Humans choose the right words they think express their ideas or deep meanings. When I studied English when I was a kid, my teacher told me the difference between could , can, and able. When we refuse someone’s proposal, people with empathy would never say something bad directly. When people want to request something for their boss, they would be careful to choose the softer tone. Because as humans, we were educated as children to care about the receiver.

The notification is still from a machine. Even though word designers or copywriters are designing every word for the text, however, the machine cannot send notifications with abundant understanding of its receivers.


In some cases, the way to have a conversation is also something people are concerned with. People usually send emails rather than text messages in business or formal cases. For personal purposes, people tend to choose the text message. Also, a casual phone call for family or intimate friends usually is not scheduled. While in the case of business, people would usually schedule a time with the receiver, especially when scheduling a phone interview.

But notifications just stay in the notification tray. They show a badge with a number for every notification. The phone still keeps ringing when we have a meeting if we don’t mute it. It is not concerned about when we can receive a phone call and when we prefer text message.

Strategies of Current Products

Product designers are noticing the problem of notifications and trying to fix them. Here are some strategies that current products are using.

More Options for Setting Up Notifications

The common solution for most products is to give users more choices to set up notifications. Take Facebook for example, users can choose whether they want to get notifications about activities that they are involved in, as well as, friends’ birthdays, friends’ life events, memories, close friends’ activities, tags, pages, group activities, and App requests and activities. Users can also choose what they will receive from different mediums, such as, email, mobile, and text message.

For system level, iOS also provides settings for notifications. Users can decide whether to receive notifications from apps and the format of notification. They can choose whether to allow the notification shown in the notification center, whether to show the badge on the App icon, the sound of notification, and whether to show on lock screen. Also, there is a Do Not Disturb function where people can select the time period to mute all notifications and only allow important calls.   

It seems that this strategy provides enough freedom for users to customize notifications. But the problem here is not everyone would like to customize one by one, which might take a half hour to finish those mechanical motions. Even worse, some people do not know how to mute those notifications, like my mom. She just got used to it and ignores new notifications instinctively. Although this could be solved by teaching users how to customize notifications, why is the smartphone not the one that helps us make our lives easier? Why do users need to spend time to do this meaningless customization?

Inbox: Coalescing Unimportant Emails or Same Category Items

Gmail noticed this fact. They designed another product named Inbox to help people to organize their emails. They created bundles for promotions, purchases, and trips automatically in this new email App. More than that, another way to use Inbox is treating email as a task. Users can create a reminder based on the content of emails they got and choose whether they finished this task or remind later. This new method to organize emails makes more sense than ever. It helps people to filter some notifications with lower priority. Users do not need to check promotional emails every time.

However, the problem is still there. Inbox app still does not send notifications like a real human who would consider timing, medium, and language carefully. People still get notifications when they have a meeting, have a lunch with family members, or sleep at night.

Gadgets and Watches

One of the function for Apple Watch is to receive notifications so that people can get themselves free of checking iPhone every time. This sounds like a good idea. And many users say the watch really helps them stop holding their phones all the time. However, the notification with less consideration is still there. Some people complain that the watch will warn them to stand up for a while if they sit for fifteen minutes, which usually happens when they attend a meeting. It is absolutely ridiculous.

There are also some gadgets as a part of smart home or wearable technology. Whatever the format it is, lighting cube, bracelet, ring, or hue light bulb, when users receive messages, the light flickers to indicate new notifications. This reminds me of many years ago, when I only had a cellphone, which was not smart at all. It was popular to put a small hanging on the phone so it would shine when the new call came in. I had that too and I felt excited when I saw the light up. Of course, there was no other kind of notification except for phone calls or text messages. I guess I would freak out if I had that now.

In this case, people still play the role of deciding when to check the notification and whether it is important for us, rather than the machine.

A.I.: Higher-level machine interactions

How do people solve this problem in the future? It is interesting to see the way that people interact with A.I. in science fiction.

The Friction Between Human And Machine

There are many movies or TV shows that elaborate robots as humans’ helpers. They can do housework or take care of old people. In the TV show named Humans, the story set in a parallel present where the latest gadget for any busy family is a highly-developed robotic servant. [7] They look like humans but they don’t have self-consciousness, while some of them were reprogrammed and have their own thinking and desire to be a real human. The conflict origins from that they didn’t grow up with a process of understanding the society and family members to help and love them. They were born as adults with adult thinking so the way they act is different from a real human with humanity and social growth.

Another interesting movie related to this topic is Ex-machina. Eva is a humanoid robot with artificial intelligence.[8] She made use of the programmer Caleb’s empathy to escape from the lab and walked into the real world. An opposite story is Time of EVE. [9] Robots were eager to be treated with emotional conversation. They did not choose to harm humans. They just wanted to build a relationship with their hosts.

The common point for those shows is that they discussed what would happen when robots started to have self-consciousness. They had their own desire and made decisions on their own, which potentially become a problem for humans. This situation with friction and conflict between two species needs time to resolve and requires humans and machines to understand each other.

Even More Emotional

Some movies didn’t present that high level intelligent robots. Wall-E, a cartoon movie without any word for the robot Wall-E, presents an empathic and humane robot. [10] The movie named Moon, only has one human character and one robot. [11] The robot had a screen to show its expressions, which gave the character more emotion when it had a conversation with the astronaut. Also in the movie Robot and Frank, the robot only had limited functions but he always supported Frank, who got senile dementia, which was heartwarming for the lonely old man.[12] Those robots do not have so many fancy or inconceivable functions, but they all were friendly to humans.

The Way To Be Highly Intelligent

Not so many movies indicate the solution for improving intelligence level. Black Mirror: White Christmas, gives us a novel glance at how people can make the intelligent system become highly intelligent.[13] The solution is to duplicate the user’s brain and put that into a device. That is to say,  a duplicate person without real body knows everything about the user and can help the user to arrange life, even make decisions. The interesting fact is that as an independent consciousness, the duplicate brain refused to serve the user at first.

Direction to Explore

During my research, I’ve noticed some fields with potential for further research and exploration. From my research, I found most people said they got used to notifications. They like some notifications to be synchronized, while they prefer some of them to be not synchronized. I need to learn how people think of each type of notifications and how they deal with them in their daily lives.

Another direction is to study delicate moments of how people think carefully as notifiers. I need to gather stories about delicate conversations and understand why they made that decision when they thought about timing, medium, and language.

The final outcome could be a series of explorations on the notifying field or a design guideline for notifications in the near future.


I have worked for Google+, on notifications, which gave me a new perspective to see how notifications, a not powerful function with powerful impact on people’s lives, affect people’s opinions about technology, society, and themselves. Considering the real conversation between humans, people make decisions on timing, language, and medium to make sure the conversation goes as they intend it to. People carefully think before talking when expressing their happiness, anger, attitude, aspiration, or preference. This interaction is totally different from the way our smartphone notify us. The smartphone was programmed and they do not think and act with humanity, which causes a problem: they keep bothering people when we have a meal, attend a meeting, or just enjoy our alone moments. Sociologists noticed this problem and advocated for people to think about the reverse side that technology brought to us. We are connected, but still alone. From current movies and TV series about artificial intelligence, we can imagine the world with higher level intelligence machines, which might be a good thing or totally a bad thing in the transition point. What I want to do is to explore more possibilities in this area based on what I find out. I think it would be valuable for designers to think about technology and society through the spectrum of notifications in this world filled with massive information.


[1] Sherry Turkle, Wikipedia,

[2] Sherry Turkle, Ted Talk: Connected but alone,

[3] Paul Miller, Paul Miller: Offline,

[4] Paul Miller, TedxEntropolis talk: A Year Offline, What I Have Learned,

[5] Henry David Thoreau, Wikipedia,

[6] Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854

[7] Humans, About the Show,

[8] Ex-Machina, Wikipedia,

[9] Time of EVE, Wikipedia,

[10] Wall-E, Wikipedia,

[11] Moon, Wikipedia,

[12] Robot&Frank, Wikipedia,

[13] Black Mirror: White Christmass, Wikipedia,


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