Fixing iOS notifications

Notification Center on iPhone
Notification Center on iPhone (Image credit: iMore)


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Rene Ritchie: I'm Rene Ritchie and this is "Vector." Vector is brought to you by Mint Mobile. Mint Mobile is just like your traditional wireless service in the US, but it's ridiculously inexpensive.

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Joining me today, we have the man who actually got me started in this industry, both writing and podcasting, so I blame you totally, Dieter Bohn. How are you?

Dieter Bohn: Greetings, mobile accomplisher. I'm doing really well.


Rene: There it is. I still love that. Takes me all the way back. Excellent. We also have Christina Warren, formerly of Mashable and Gizmodo, now at Microsoft. How are you, Christina?

Christina Warren: Hey, I'm great. How are you, Rene?

Rene: Very well, thank you. Because we are at some level talking about design issues, if there's anyone I wanted to lay this problem down in front of, and I'll get to the problem in just a second, it's Brad Ellis. Brad, it's the worst. I'm blanking on the name of your new company.

Brad Ellis: Tall West, and hello, Rene.

Rene: Hello, Brad. How are you?

Brad: Great, thank you.

Rene: We're gathered here today to talk about something that I've seen all of us -- well, maybe not Brad, because he's cool like that -- but at least a few of us complain about vocally on Twitter and on podcasts and all these things, and that is the state of iOS notifications.

Apple was not early to this game. They announced push notifications, and then finally a year after they announced it, they actually shipped it.

They spent a lot of time tweaking it, but if there's one thing that it doesn't do, and that is scale elegantly, when you look at something like going back to webOS or Android now.

Christina, when we were talking last time on the show, this was irksome to you.

Christina: Yes. I made us make it a topic of the show. It was something that we weren't even going to talk about, and I was like, "I really need to complain about iOS notifications," because I finally reached that point where I can't deal with it anymore. [laughs] I mean, I can. I have to, but it's really frustrating to me.

Rene: Is there anything specifically? Is it the scalability? Is it the interruptive nature of it? Is there anything specific?

Christina: It's the scalability...For me, it's a couple of things. One, it seems like every iOS version, or at the very least every other iOS version, there's a major change in how notifications work, and it's just different enough to be annoying.

First, they all are always persisting. Then they disappear after you see them. Now they kind of appear, but kind of disappear. I think that for me, it's kind of triaging things, and you have a lot of notifications keeping up with them.

It's also things like the ability or lack thereof to even go back and see stuff if you did already look at it. Not to mention, for me, from a design perspective, the fact that it takes over your entire screen, and you can scroll endlessly, forever, and see days and days worth of notifications. That's also not fun.

Rene: I get one verge notification, and then I get 200 iMessages.


Dieter: For me, I completely agree with all those points. We can, and I imagine we will, delve into the specific interface patterns for iOS 11, which I find sort of maddening.

For me, the biggest issue that I have, bar none, some people refer to it as simply grouped notifications. It's that issue of I'll have a million Twitter notifications, and then somewhere in there, as I'm trying to scroll through them, I'll have one highly important text message.

They're all treated with the same weight, and they all just look like grey bubbles that are scrolling by incredibly fast when I wake up in the morning. There's no way to triage your life, your work, and your incoming stuff. They're either on or they're off, and when they're on, there's such a flood of them that you end up missing what's important.

Rene: Yeah, there's no collation, and there's no prioritization.

Brad, I remember, one of the reasons I wanted you, specifically, is that back when Watch OS -- even before it came out -- you gave some really good advice to a lot of people. You said, "Don't worry so much about the apps. Make sure your notification game is tight." I think that highlighted the importance of notifications for a lot of apps.

Brad: Yeah, there's also -- because I wear Apple Watch -- so there's a double notification strategy. I have some things that push to my watch, some things go to my phone. I've gone in and messed with a bunch of settings so that no games push to my watch. That's only for text messages. No Twitter notifications.

But I do almost want that granularity of saying, "DMs from Twitter can go to my watch, but regular Twitter notifications can't." I have the same complaint about ads, so Amazon -- I love getting notifications about my packages, but I do not need push notifications about ads, sweepstakes, or things. That, again, has the same priority.

Rene: Android, in theory, has a solution for that problem, although they've done it with yet more check boxes, which is the Android way.


Rene: They are trying to fix it with a little bit of AI. If we have time for a bonus round at the end of this podcast, for me to rant about how I believe the Apple Watch ruins notifications on the iPhone, I will happily do that.


Christina: Please do, because I agree with you. As an Apple Watch wearer, kind of like you were describing, Brad, you have to go through all these hoops to try to make it work one way on your watch, but then it doesn't work that way on your phone, and vice versa. It's very frustrating to me. If we have time, I want to hear your rant, Dieter.



Rene: My thing right now is that I have a Bell phone for it, because Apple Watch is not supported on Rogers, which is my carrier, so I have a separate Bell phone that just does Apple Watch, and that phone gets notifications, even though I never use it, [laughs] like a minute before my Roger phone does. My whole world is upside down.

Dieter: It sounds like what we're doing is we're laying out a giant smorgasbord, a menu of gripes. We can dig into each one.

One my menu of gripes, I've found that when I wear an Apple Watch, the iPhone is really aggressive at not sending a bunch of notifications to the watch.

The thing I do -- and maybe it's just because I'm old -- is I often will leave my ringer on, and so if my phone is across the room or it's just sitting at my desk, and I hear a notification, I'll know what the notification is without looking, because it has a specific ding.

But all notifications feel the same on the Apple Watch, so if I don't have an Apple Watch on, and I get a text message, I know I need to look. If I hear a different kind of bong, I know it's Twitter, and I know I don't care about it. I can look at it later.

The Apple Watch takes that agency away from me completely. You have to look at it right away on the Apple Watch to see what it is, and if you miss it, then you have to take some active action either on the phone or on the watch to see what your notifications are, instead of just sort of ambiently knowing what they were in the background.

Rene: Can you maybe describe a little bit about how it used to work on webOS, Dieter? For me, that was the first real unobtrusive notification experience I had.

Dieter: Honestly, if you look at the way that notifications basically work on Android now, you've got a pretty good sense of it. They had a notification tray on the bottom instead of on the top, and they had this awkward thing where you had to tap on these little icons.

A notification would come in, and it would just display a little icon on the bottom, and then you could expand up a notification area that would shrink down the rest of the phone, which it was weird, but it worked. Then you would have notifications separated out by bubbles. My favorite part was you could just swipe them away if you didn't care about them, rather than tapping on them to take an action on them. It was the first operating system in my mind that made it really easy to ambiently see what a bunch of notifications are without it interrupting your current workflow, and then triage through to act on the ones you cared about and get rid of the ones you didn't care about.

Rene: That was back when iOS was still modal, which was infuriating, although I didn't know any better at the time, [laughs] but we've since learned. Christina, [inaudible 8:09] . Let's break down some of the specific areas.

For me, one of the issues is that it's supposed to have this super-intelligent triage system that if you have multiple devices, for example, your Mac, your iPad, your Apple Watch, your iPhone, they do sort of this internal vote system -- it's the same thing with Siri -- that determines which one was last used, which one is proximate, which one is the most likely to be the device of convenience for you at that time, and then prioritize notification to me.

I love that in theory, but it seems sort of hit-and-miss to me all the time.

Christina: I would 1,000 percent agree. I had an instance the other day where I was using my iPad and my iPhone at the same time, which is not infrequent. I know that sounds weird in theory. I was doing one thing on my iPad. I was doing another thing on my iPhone.

I set my iPhone down, I got a text notification, and it didn't come up on my iPad at all, because my iPhone was up, or I guess I'd used it most frequently. A few minutes went by, and I didn't realize that someone had replied to my text.

My phone was on silent, so I didn't see it. There was no indication whatsoever, even though I was actively using my iPad at the time. That happens more often than not. It's the same thing with the Apple Watch.

Dieter had a great point about if you've got the sound on or whatever, you can't tell what it's doing, but I even run into the scenario where it's supposed to do a good job of routing what comes to your watch and what doesn't, but a lot of times, I'll either get things late on my watch -- and that's a separate issue -- or, again, certain things will come to my watch that won't come to my phone or vice versa.

That can be really frustrating, because I don't necessarily need to get them on...I feel like I always want it on my phone. I don't always necessarily need it on my watch, but sometimes it'll come to my watch and not my phone, and that can be frustrating.

Brad: I feel like that's because maybe your watch is connected to the WiFi. Is that what it's doing? Your watch maybe catches it before.

Christina: Yeah, probably. That's a related point, but I guess to your first point, Rene, of about the triaging thing, like I said, if I'm actively using my iPad, if I'm actively using it at that moment, I should see a notification.

Just because I was using my phone, and it's sitting next to me and the screen is on, I don't like that it's saying, "OK, we're only going to send this to your phone."

Like I said, in theory, I understand the point, but in practice, it can mean that you don't know where something is going. It's not a big deal if you've got two devices next to each other, but if it's not that sort of a scenario, it can be frustrating.

Rene: Yeah. If your phone is across the room, and it's on vibrate, and it's getting all of these notifications, and the iPad you're using in front of you is not, it's...

Christina: Right.

Rene: I did skip a step. I think if we go through the chain, I feel like the Apple push notification service, APNS itself, is pretty solid these days. I have friends who use it in hospitals as their paging system, and it seems like it gets there. It's what happens after it gets there that is causing most of the frustration. Is that fair?

Christina: Yeah, I think so. I don't have any problem with that, and a lot of third-party apps are using other services -- Twilio and other things -- anyway. I think APNS is fine. I don't have an issue with that. For me, it's how it's displayed, how accurate it is, and how good or poorly it does of triaging what you should and shouldn't see.

Brad: The flip side of it not ringing in the right spot is when you get a FaceTime call, and your whole office lights up. You guys have that, right?


Christina: Yeah.

Dieter: Or a Skype that rings on my phone for like a minute before it rings on my computer, and I want to answer it on my computer.

Brad: I used to have a few calls where I'd be on the FaceTime call with someone, and you could still hear one of their devices ringing for a while on the other side of it.

Dieter: You guys can appreciate this. It's fun with media hits when a station is calling you, and they're wondering why you're not answering this. Because it's ringing on the wrong device, and you want to pull your hair out.

Brad: It took me a while to get my wife set up on iMessages for the computer, because when I first did it, I kept having my iMessages stolen. I wouldn't see them for days, because they were on a computer somewhere.

Rene: Dieter, you mentioned that webOS was similar to Android. What's the Android experience like? I have a Pixel 2XL, but I have most of my notifications turned off, so I don't experience the way that they scale it.

Dieter: There are a few differences. The first difference is because Android doesn't have a concept of force touch. They have a much simpler, in some ways, interaction model. Swiping gets rid of something. Swiping slowly opens up extra options. You can tap on them to open up the app, or you can sort of drag down to expand and reply directly in line.

The first thing is that part of this is understanding and getting used to the behavior models of what different taps and swipes do, but I feel like Android has been more consistent in what those taps, swipes, and drags do than iOS has been over the years.

The second thing, and I think for me the most important thing, is it groups notifications. If I have 50 text messages -- I wish I could get iMessages on Android.


Dieter: If I have 50 text messages, and 100 tweets, and this, that, or the other thing, all of those different notifications get grouped by application and then prioritized, and so especially on Android Oreo, it knows that it's going to put the little thing that controls your media at the top, because you're most likely to want that.

It knows further that the thing you're next most likely to want to see is a missed phone call or a missed text message. If there's 30 tweets, instead of scrolling through 30 tweets, it shows you the most recent 5 or 6, and then you know there's more, and it tells you how many more there are.

You can drag it down slowly, or a two-finger drag on it, to expand the Twitter section to see everything.

What that whole system allows you to do is very quickly see what all of your missed notifications are. Android has taken a pretty decent shot at trying to prioritize them in terms of what you're most likely to care about.

Then there's a bunch of icons on the bottom for the stuff for when you scroll. Android also does a thing where it displays icons for all your missed notifications in the status bar, something that is impossible on the iPhone X, because there's not enough space, and was impossible on other iPhones because that's a lot of icons, and that looks ugly.

But it's actually really helpful, because you don't have to necessarily open up your notification shade to see what's going on there.

I'm just going to say this. You always know where the Clear all notifications button is on the Android.


Dieter: It's always at the bottom right, and it's always there, no matter what. Something that is not true [laughs] on iOS 11. I would say, you've got to hunt for that tiny X. You've got to find it, and then sometimes it's straight up not there if you don't have an older notification section.

When I took this complaint about notifications to Apple in one of our on background don't-say-who-you're-talking-to briefings, both about the grouping and the scrolling, and this Clear all thing, the message that I got is that Apple fundamentally has a different philosophy for how we should be interacting with notifications than, I think, I do.

Apple doesn't want me to be paying that much attention to what's there in the notification shade. It doesn't think I should try and live my life there. That's a recipe for ruining my life with too many incoming messages.

I should just treat it like a river of information. I should snack through it, or glance through it when I feel like it, but that the really important stuff will show up as -- I don't know -- red badges on an icon or something -- and that that is a better way to thing about notifications than as a thing that I actually try to run my phone off of.

I fundamentally disagree with that philosophy. Even if I agreed with that philosophy, I don't think it's very well implemented on iOS 11.

Rene: And it's only true until they change it.

Christina: To your point, Dieter, you're right, that Clear all thing, which I think requires 3D touch -- I don't know if it even works on devices...

Dieter: No, you can long press it on iPhone SE. It does work.

Christina: OK, that's good to know. But that doesn't always show up. That's one of my frustrations with iOS 11, is that all of the sudden, in early built, and then even in final builds -- and I'm not even running beta software on my iPhone X -- sometimes it will be there, and sometimes it won't, which is ridiculously frustrating.

But I would agree with you. I think one of the best parts of Android is grouping notifications together, because that, even if iOS did that, that would save a lot of space, and certainly make it easier to cycle through things.

If you get a bunch of notifications from the same app, it's silly for them to be interspersed, because as you were saying at the beginning, Dieter, you're going through all this stuff, and all of the sudden you miss something that was actually important.

Rene: I don't know how designers feel about machine learning yet, Brad, so maybe you can tell me.

My thinking on this is a lot of these are solved problems, for example, as a VIP system, but it only exists in mail. If it existed in contacts, then regardless of whether Christina is emailing me, messaging me, or FaceTiming me, I would always be able to set "Just show me the important people in my life."

They're doing a job of prioritizing things based on machine learning for other parts of the OS. Why not understand the time, the place, my previous actions, and what I've interacted with before, and then start to prioritize my notifications based on that learned behavior?

Brad: Absolutely, and Rene, you love to talk about gate detection for another way to see if it's actually me, [laughs] but there's a lot of signals that can tell what I'm doing, and if I'm in a stressful situation. If I'm running to catch a bus, maybe now is not the time to push me a notification. There's also that lever which is, "Is this the right time?"

Especially if you're in a text-message conversation, I think a lot of us do that where we're texting back and forth with a lot of different people. We're really trying to manage something. Now maybe a target push notification is not appropriate unless you could also...

Rene: Or I'm doing a voice recording and a notification comes in and kills my voice recording.


Brad: That's right. Yes.

Rene: I think a lot of this is solved problems, but it's not pushed through the system. It's like we have these separate little ponds of intelligence, and it's not deep yet.

Dieter: Well, the other thing to know is I think some of these machine-learning things are solved slightly better system-wide on Android in terms of notifications and iOS. Fair, whatever. There's also the issue that we want this issue fixed with machine-learning as users, but Target does not care.

Rene: [laughs]

Dieter: Target is actually a hostile actor in this conversation.

Christina: That's a great point.

Dieter: So is Amazon. So is everybody else. On Android, I'll just give another example. They rolled out this insane thing where you can have a million different categories of notifications within each app. I think they're called channels. The idea here is an app that wants to send you notifications. Instead of just a blunt yes or no, you can say yes to package notifications but no to promotions.

I think uptake on that has been relatively slow, one, because nobody has phones that run Oreo because Google is terrible at updates, but two, they're motivated not to do that because they want to turn on push notifications because they want to send you an ad.

Frankly, if they send you an ad at a time you don't want it, that's not necessarily the worse thing in the world to a marketing person because if it's more interruptive you're more likely to see it. If it bothers you a little bit, it doesn't matter. They got that impression.

Rene: It's brand awareness. [laughs]

Brad: When you see numbers come back after a push notification like Nordstrom's or one of those, the numbers are so high I feel like you really get addicted to wanting to push out more notifications. We all have those things that send you an email once a day that are ridiculous. They do that because the numbers are high.

That's all they're being judged upon, not whether or not they're being annoying.

Christina: I know. That's a great point. Beacon's stuff works the same way. You could imagine. I can't stand it when I'm walking by a Verizon store, and I get the Beacon notification that the store is nearby. I'm like, "Really? Really?"

Rene: I used to work in analytics for a shopping by market-basket analysis. The whole thing was what is the least it could give you to get you to do the most level of engagement. It was this complete science. Of course, if they gave you $20, everybody would redeem it. If they gave you three cents and a coupon, would you really redeem it?

It was a constant battle between, "We know this will piss off a certain amount of people, but it will get this much interaction from the rest of the people." We were desperate for more intelligence.

Brad, to your earlier point, if they didn't want to send you an offer for beer when you were walking through the cold on your way to work, they'd rather send you an offer for hot chocolate.

When you're on your way to the baseball game, they would much rather [laughs] send you a coupon for a beer. We have stuff that'll let them detect time, place, location, all these things now, but none of it is being leveraged to give us any filter or segmentation.

Brad: My big one is you can tell from the keyboard how hard I'm typing.


Brad: You could know that I'm in an argument with someone.

Christina: Right. [laughs]

Brad: There's really a great time not to push me anything.

Rene: Forced touch should automatically, if you're doing it really hard, make everything all caps because it knows you're angry.

Dieter: The other thing with notifications on iOS is, if you get a notification that annoys you, the distance between getting that annoying notification and acting on it by turning off notifications on that app is relatively high.

Christina: Yes.

Dieter: You got to get the notification. "Ugh. God." Do something with that. OK, go back to the home screen. Quit whatever else it is you were doing. Open up the settings app. Scroll down to the app, or open up notifications and scroll down to the app. Then open up that thing. Then look at the app and see what it's going to do, or you need to dig into the app itself and see if it has any toggles for different notifications inside the app for different categories of notifications.

Android in this regard is slightly better insofar as you can get a faster access to notification settings directly from the notification or by long-pressing the app on the home screen. It's also worse in terms of there's not a good, great, single, unified place for all notification settings for apps in the way that they are in the settings app in iOS.

In terms of trying to craft a thing that empowers a user to deal with a problem in the moment, I think Apple could go a step further than it currently has.

Christina: You took what I was going to talk about next, Dieter, out of my mouth. No, I love it. No, but this is one of my bigger frustrations, too. Even if you have the notifications set up, how do you turn it off, or how do you alert it? How do you change that? It's such a convoluted process. We talked about it last time I was on, Rene. It's much more complicated than it needs to be.

I think you're right, Dieter, in that Android is a little bit easier on the service because you can get there faster, but it's still complicated because it doesn't have a distinct place. I feel like iOS should make it easier to either turn all notifications on or all notifications off like you can with location settings.

I don't understand why I have to go app-by-app because Do Not Disturb mode is not what I want.

Dieter: The notification still comes in. It just doesn't show it to you, which is a different behavior than actually turning off [laughs] notifications.

Brad: It seems like a great Siri feature. You can just ask her to turn off notifications for an app.

Christina: That's actually really smart. I wonder. Do you know if that works, if any apps support that or if that's a Siri thing you can do? You're right. I think that would be actually a perfect use case for Siri.

Brad: Oh, no. We could try it though. [laughs]

Dieter: The one thing that's interesting to me, Brad, and I think I'm pretty sure you've hit on this numerous times, is how you balance making it easy and accessible to people who are new to technology and new to smartphones just in general, and also making it powerful and customizable for people who've been using them their entire lives and finding that sweet point.

You could overload a control. You could swipe to access a message to delete the message to remove notifications from that thing, but how much can you overload some of these controls?

Brad: Arguably it's overloaded right now. You swipe left to get to actions, right to get to actions. You can tap on it. You can force-push. There's a lot of stuff going on. If it comes in while the app is open, you can pull down on it to respond to it really quickly. There's a lot of stuff going on. It's hard to describe to people.

The question always comes up when you're designing a system like this, which is, "How much rope do you give people to hang themselves with?" That's true both for the content producers, and it's true for people that are using it.

I saw Adam Lisagor tweeted I think two days ago or whatever where he's like, "Gosh. My phone is dinging, and there's nothing on the screen." [laughs]

"Someone please tell me what's going on here." It was a reoccurring calendar event was what was causing that.

Dieter: I had that problem with the mail app on my iPhone for, I swear to God, a year. It would happen. I'd be like, "I think it's mail. I don't know." You just start playing just a guessing game, like literally roulette just opening up different apps. You're like, "OK, does this have sound? No. Does it have sound? Yes, but it also displays, so I know this isn't it."

You just start going through your apps when you're watching TV trying to figure out what rogue thing is causing the behavior.


[commercial break]


Rene: Let's switch gears to what we'd like to see happen. Christina, how would you like to start seeing this be fixed? What steps could Apple start doing with iOS 12, for example, to start making this work better for you?

Christina: Well, I think the first thing would be unifying, grouping notifications together by app. I think that would be the first thing just to make it more cohesive and easier to go through. That would be a good start for me. I think the second thing would just be as we were talking about. If they're going to take this AI machine-learning approach, be smarter about it.

Whether that means getting more telemetry in places because they're getting this data but being smarter about how they're using it. When things are predictive and they work well, it feels like magic. When it doesn't work well, it's the most frustrating thing in the world. Either figure out how to make it work more accurately, or I would almost be in favor of not even trying.

If you're not going to make it work all the way, I would rather it not be there. That's me. For me the first step would be to start grouping apps together.

Rene: What about you, Dieter?

Dieter: I'm in the same boat. Grouping apps would make a huge difference for me. I really like this idea of trying to get Siri to be able to solve some of these problems...

Christina: Me, too.

Dieter: ...because...Well, no. Android solves it by a slow swipe. Then it reveals a gear to make sure you don't swipe too fast and get rid of it. Then you can tap the gear, and you can do stuff, which is overloading the control. That's a really great phrase.


Dieter: To be able to say, "Hey, Siri. Stop. I don't want notifications for this app anymore" would actually be pretty killer. I will say that I don't actually want Apple to do too much because the other end of the spectrum is this thing called the BlackBerry Hub on BlackBerry's Android phones.


Christina: No, that's the worst in the entire world.

Dieter: Right? Where they tried to create a super-powered mega inbox that's all-singing, all-dancing, and handles all of your incoming messages in a single unified place.

Christina: It never stops. Everything...

Dieter: Is it Synergy-like?

Christina: ...that anybody's ever sent you ever. No, it's worse than that because it's every tweet. At Synergy, at least it was one place, one inbox, or whatever. This is one inbox but also every notification you're getting. It never stops. If you have a lot of accounts, it never stops. Then it's hard to get into. It lives in two places.

The email will live in your inbox, and it'll live in this BlackBerry Hub. Dismissing it from your inbox doesn't dismiss it from the hub and vice versa. At least in my opinion, it's a disaster.

Dieter: The thing that I actually want is not necessarily to prescribe the solution to Apple, but I do think that I would love for there to be an exercise. "The New York Times" once a year makes all of their reporters use the website on their phones and use their app. It does not allow them to go to on their computers.

I would love for a week for a bunch of Apple engineers and designers to have their home screens disabled. They can only use their phones the way that I use my phone, which is notifications first, and then only after you triage that stuff do you go and open up an app. Usually by the time you're done triaging, you want to move onto something else anyway.

It is possible to use an Android phone and almost never tap an icon on the home screen to deal with something because everything that you want is so carefully curated and set up in your notifications panel. I'd love to see an iOS engineer try and live that way because I bet that we would see some fixes pretty quickly. [laughs]

Rene: That's super-interesting to me because the -1 home screen, which is the -- I forget what they call it now -- Siri Today view thing plus widgets plus all of that is supposed to be a step towards a more modern home screen, but it's two things...

Dieter: It's the most underrated part of iOS, also, by the way. I love that screen.

Christina: I do, too. I wish that I could make it my main screen.

Rene: I think it's sort of a soft test for that, because they reiterate it so often. It's like every version of iOS, it gets a little bit better, a little bit smarter, and it does a little bit more, but it's still separate from notifications.

I'd be really interested to see what would happen if -- and Brad, maybe this wouldn't work from a design point of view, and maybe it would -- if they made it more live, so you have all of those things, but they're also influenced by what notifications you've got coming in.

Brad: Yeah, maybe. Gosh, I have two vectors to talk about this and keep going.

One, you guys keep saying the word "triage," and I thought I'd circle back on that, which was, I guess there's this root question which is how many push notifications do you guys get between phone pickups?

For me, it's probably like five, and I'm picking up my phone every six minutes, so I'm getting a notification a minute. What is it for you guys?

Dieter: That's probably not too far from mine are. I've been pretty aggressive at only getting priority emails. My clever trick for email notifications, by the way, is they don't get to vibrate, they don't get to make sound, but they do appear.

Rene: I'm doing the same.

Dieter: You can see them, but they don't actually bug you.

The big problem for me isn't necessarily the every five minutes issue. It's the waking up in the morning issue, because I'm on the West Coast, and most of the people I work with or interact with are on the East Coast, and so a bunch of stuff is happening. No matter how early I wake up, I'm already behind, and...


Rene: ...can trash the Vikings for three hours before you wake up, right?

Dieter: Yeah.


Brad: I think the way I would start attacking the problem if I were tasked with this as a design thing is I would separate these different parts of the day where you do have five minutes or six minutes between pickups versus that first time in the morning, or maybe after you see a movie, where you're going to have more. That may need a different design solution than other things.

The other one would be there's low-impact people, like my parents or my grandparents. They're going to get only a few push notifications a day, whereas I live on this thing, and so I'm getting so many at a time. I think we would all need different experiences, perhaps.

Rene: The phone is aware of that. It knows you haven't done anything in two or three hours, and it knows how many notifications are stacking up, and it could start to adjust context accordingly.

Christina: It would almost be great if you could almost have a notification digest in the morning or after a movie, where you could get a list of, "You've had x many notifications from email, x many tweets, x many whatever." In my mind, that would be beautiful.

Rene: Call it the Lion King Morning Report.

Christina: Exactly. They do it with news, right? It would be really cool if you could do that with your notifications, so in the morning, it's all there. You could even integrate Apple News into it if you wanted to. "This is your morning report," or, "You've been away from your phone for a while. This is what's happened since you've been gone."

Rene: The terrible things that happened since you've been sleeping.


Christina: Which, as Dieter said, now that I'm on the West Coast, that's what I'm learning. It's been six months, and it's very new for me to be three hours behind everything.

Rene: It feels like you're in a time machine, right? Like the future is happening without you?

Christina: It does. You wake up at 7, or whatever, and it's 10 everywhere else, and so the day is well on its way, and you're like, "OK, how many horrible things happened?" Yeah.


Brad: I think Louie Mantia made a mockup of this in 2015. I'll send you guys a link. We can put it in the show notes.

It was the idea of when your alarm goes off, to not snipe me with 400 things, but to just give me the general overview of the, like, "Here's some apps that you could launch. Here's what the weather is going to be like today." The concept of a nicer morning wake up.

Rene: I still love that my wakeup alarm goes off while I'm using the phone. I understand how other alarms should go off, because I might have set them for other reasons, but the bedtime wake-up alarm is specifically... [laughs] I'm already awake, because I'm using the phone.

Dieter: The other thing that we've been sort of circling around here is, "Oh, they could fix this with machine learning. They should make the...," yeah, the negative one screen, the Siri screen, the whatever we're call...widget screen do all this stuff. I want to point out that Google tried to do something like that with Google Now, and oh, my God, did it fail. [laughs]

They've given up on it, and they've made it a news feed now. Your ability to get to that personalized list of things has been buried under another button. They've converted the whole thing to basically push notifications that show up silently in your main notification channel, rather than giving you a single stream.

This dream that "It should know what phone I'm currently using. It should know the context of what I'm doing all the time," everybody in Silicon Valley talks like this, like they could do this, and I would say 98 percent of the actual implementations I've seen have been not very good.

I think it's going to be a little while before a machine-learning prioritization or machine-learning aggregation of notifications and so on and so forth is going to be more useful for people that have a high volume of high-priority notifications than just giving me the tools, the check boxes, the geegaws, drags and whatever to program what I want my notifications to look like on my own.

Christina: I think that's a good point, and I think that kind of puts...You were saying, Dieter, that when you were speaking to people that Apple's view of notifications, you think, is very different from what your view is. I do think this puts into stark contrast some of the...

One of the things that makes iOS so great is that is it fairly easy to use by anyone, and it's intuitive in a way that Android has gotten a lot better, but in many ways, can be confusing to figure stuff out.

The negative side is that because you have a billion-plus users, you have different types of users. I feel like it makes sense to, probably from a design perspective -- and Brad could speak more to this -- to design for the mainstream user.

What that means is that your power user, your person who lives on your phone -- and I think increasingly your power users are what is going to become the future. Whether the people look like us or not, they're going to, people who have grown up on their phones, as Rene was saying earlier, become more and more of the user base, means that it's frustrating when we find these pain points.

For someone like our parents, who might not get a lot of notifications, it might not matter, but when you are one of those people who is living on your device, it becomes really problematic, and where do you draw that line between what are you designing for and who are you designing for.

Rene: I think that's really apt, too, because there's a lot of...And this has been a huge struggle, because there are people who, they want to use the lock screen as sort of their dashboard, and there are other people who just want to blow through it and get to the phone as fast as possible.

There's some people who want a live-in notification center and have all this stuff persist there, and other people who look at it like this big, cluttered. stressful, anxiety-causing junk drawer, and just want it gone as much as possible.

I think it's hard to architect around a solution that makes everybody happy. You sort of have to look for something that either scales elegantly, or is customizable enough that you can make it useful without making it overly complicated.

Brad: I also feel like this device is increasingly my external brain, and notifications are a big part of that, who's asking for something, and who's attacking me, questioning me, and whatever the things are that are coming at me. It's hard to design the perfect external brain for every person.

On the flip side of that, with whatever system they have -- and Christina, you brought this up a while ago -- with every version, it changes, and so it's hard to...

I have to retrain myself every time, and it also feels like I have to retrain everyone in my family to now understand what notifications mean in this new world. It feels like I have to teach them a different way to do math.


Rene: I think that's very apt. What is your strategy, Dieter, for older notifications? Do you pretend they don't exist, or do you want to be able to go back to them and reference them?

Dieter: When I'm using an iOS device? I will...

Rene: Or any device, just you, like "the Dieter method."

Dieter: The Dieter method is look at them, look and try and find the most important one -- and it's much easier in Android than iOS -- deal with that one, swipe, and as I'm going through, I like to dismiss the ones I, like, "OK, I saw that. I don't care. I saw that. I don't care."

Actually, swiping to dismiss notifications on iOS is, for me, very difficult. I have a hard time figuring that out, just getting rid of them quickly. Eventually, I probably declare notification bankruptcy, notification zero, and clear everything out, maybe twice a day, depending.

If something was wildly important, it'll stick in the back of my mind, or on iOS, at least, it'll leave a badge on the app icon so I'll know I can go look at it later, which is useful. That's kind of it.

I don't let notifications stress me out too much over time, because I'm pretty aggressive at if there's something important, I handle it, and if there's something important that I can't handle right away, I'll either leave it in notifications and come back to it, or I'll pin that in a to-do app or some other method so that I know that I can come back to it.

One thing I've been playing with but haven't really enjoyed is Android notifications now have a snooze option, which is hilarious, because Gmail doesn't have a snooze option yet, because Google has not put resources in inbox, but not enough to actually make it good.

The snoozing notification in Android is, you can only do it for like an hour. It's a little bit weird. It still feels awkward, but it's something I've been trying a little bit more. Every now and then, it's been useful, like if I'm on a call, and something pops in, I'll snooze it, so I know I can look at it when I'm done with the call, rather than just leave it there.

I'm not so anal retentive about notifications that I'm trying to hit notification zero all the time, like some people trying to hit inbox zero on their email.


Dieter: I get pretty close, and I do clear everything out once or twice a day, just like, "Nope, I'm done. I don't need any more of these," when I clear my lock screen off.

Rene: I declare notification bankruptcy every once in a while as well, but the thing with me, I keep most notifications off. I only have SMS and iMessage, VIP email, and DMs, I think, very, very few things.

But still, my problem is that I'm really terrible at multitasking. If a notification comes in, and I'm doing something else, and it disappears, I forget what the notification was for, and I have to go back and look and remember, "What was it?"

It might be three, four, five minutes ago. If I'm on a call, it might be an hour ago. I have no idea what app to go to for that, so I sort of need those notifications to be persistent, but also be easy to find, again, like what we said, the priority. Were you "Uh-humming," Brad?

Brad: Yeah. No, I was agreeing.


Brad. Gently.

Rene: Gently?

Brad: We, in our family, we call that getting phone sniped, which is when you pick up the phone to look up something on Wikipedia, or the other person does, and then a few minutes later, you're like, "So what's the answer?"

They're like, "Oh, good God. I don't know. I was looking at my email and responding to texts," because in notifications, it does feel like if you don't get to it now, then I'm never coming back, because I'm not going to see it again. I'm going to forget. I have to get it while it's hot.

Rene: Yeah, I have that so often. What about you, Christina? What is your use case for notifications?

Christina: I'm kind of like Dieter. I don't declare notification bankruptcy every day. I probably should, but because I can't Clear all all the time, and like Dieter, I have a hard time swiping them sometimes. Sometimes it'll creep up more than it should.

I try to see what I can see, and then the rest, I don't. I'm pretty good about...I only get Twitter DMs, for instance, and those, sometimes they show up, and sometimes they don't. That's actually an interesting one is that sometimes...But I blame that on Twitter. I don't blame that on iOS. I get things for work email, and I let Gmail do its thing. For some of my other accounts, it does a pretty good job, and VIP mail, or whatever.

I try to not let it fester, but like you, I wish sometimes that there was a log of sorts, even if it was hidden away, where I kind of see a listing of, "This is what happened." I know it exists somewhere. It would be sometimes useful.

Not enough that I need it as a feature, but it would be nice if I could look back up and say, "Wait, what was that?" because like you said, sometimes it comes in, and like, "What was it? I'm not sure what that was." If you get stuck in a wiki hole or your phone snipes, then you'll never figure it out.

Dieter: I'll tell you what I would do. When I'm using an Android phone is, I would just quickly squeeze my phone and say, "Hey, Google...," or not say it -- you don't have to say Hey, Google. Quickly squeeze my phone and say, "Remind me to do blah at blah," and then let it go.

I don't like using Google reminders, because Google reminders disappear into a strange Google hole, and you can never find them again, but it's a useful thing to do in Assistant, when you've got something, and you want to do something really quick.

I find more and more I am willing to talk to my phone, even when there's other people around, because if I could do it very, very fast, and it's not intrusive to everybody else around me.

That's a useful thing with Siri, if you see a notification, you can say, "Remind me about this thing later," and then get rid of it.

Rene: Yeah. I love that they have the "this" thing for Siri, and that all comes from the continuity bookmarking framework. They basically hijacked it, and said, "We know what you were doing, and we'll save a record of it somewhere for you."

I would love that to be everywhere. I'd love it to be like, "Siri, read this. Siri, go to the...," let Siri really do a lot of things for me, because exactly what you said, if I'm busy doing something -- and this is why I'm probably one of the few people who use Siri on the Mac, because while I'm busy typing, I'll tell it to look up things for me or do things for me, just because I...

Humans are really bad at context changing. It's why you forget what you're doing when you're going between rooms. You forget what you're doing when you're going between apps, or you're going to other things. That's why I used to love the Just Type thing, and I'd love it if we had more.

Like at oDrafts on iOS does a really good job at this, but things that just let you type and keep doing what you're doing, but can affect change on the system. I would like if a notification comes in, "Siri triage that. Siri prioritize that. Siri, bookmark that," do something.

Siri is not always great, because it's like a time compression. You do have to stop and talk to it, but even just having the option there, I think would be really useful for me.

Dieter: The joke that's been in the back of my mind since we started talking about intelligence assistants making interventions with how we use our phones is literally what Samsung is trying to do with Bixby, and that's not going so hot, so we shouldn't...


Rene: It's almost the entire navigation stack. I love the idea of that. They haven't executed it, but the idea of that to me is great, not just for accessibility, but for my use. I would love it to navigate for me. "Press that button, just press it. Press that button." [laughs] That would be my dream.

To start wrapping this up, I remember a long time ago, Dieter, we did the smartphone Round Robin. We did a podcast on it, and we were talking to a mutual friend, Kevin Michaluk, about BlackBerry back then. He was sort of praising those notifications.

We talked about how, at a certain point, notifications become interruptions. You really want to know about what's happening, but if it tells you everything that's happening, you have no ability to deal with it anymore. It feels like across the platforms, we're getting to that point where everything wants our attention all of the time. We're no longer...

Back in the day, people would sit on our websites and hit Refresh over and over again, but now, the Kardashians want their attention, politics wants your attention, and sports wants your attention. We have apps that deliver us all this information, and it's, at least for me, impossible to really work through.

I think at an architectural level, scaling it is great, and grouping it is great, but I would love tools that would let me make better decisions about what actually gets to interrupt me throughout the day.

Dieter: Take an afternoon, put on a Netflix show to binge. There's the fourth season of "The Great British baking Show" on Netflix now. Not as strong as the first three, but a very good season. I highly recommend watching that.

Just go use the tools that your phone gives you to normalize and sanify your life. Turn off a bunch of notifications. At least turn off vibration and sound on a bunch of notifications. Let them badge the app icon, but not show up in notification center.

Take stuff out of your dock or out of your first home screen that you know are a time suck for you. Move Facebook over to the next screen. Move Twitter over to the next screen.

Put a thing in that home screen that actually feels like it's enriching your life instead of taking away from your life. My Games folder now, I've got a bunch of phone games, but it lives over to the side, and I just have Crosswords. At least that feels a little bit more productive, or a little bit more useful to my brain.

Rene: It makes the nuns smart, right?

Dieter: It makes the nuns smart, yes. It's going to be a while before Apple, I think, is going to figure this out, in part, because I don't think that Apple has a clear sense of what its notification philosophy should be. Or it does, and I disagree with it.


Dieter: The onus is on you to do a little setup ahead of time to make sure that it doesn't drive you crazy.

And don't forget that no matter what system Apple -- or if you use a Google product, Google or whomever, the Windows notifications, whatever product you're using -- those companies, fundamentally, they want to do a thing to make you happy, but everybody who's pushing those notifications is fundamentally trying to steal your attention.

They're hostile actors, and so you should be thinking about your notification center defensively rather than as a thing where you'll find out if you have a text message.

Rene: I agree with all of that. I don't want to use the word wrong, Brad, because the last time I used affordance incorrectly, I got a very polite note from Mike telling me I was using it incorrectly.


Rene: But I like the idea of a dynamism in this where if you're All-Pro, and you're doing things, well, the system will recognize that and sort of fill you up to your capacity, but if you're messing things up, if you're ignoring things, it'll realize that maybe you're new to this, or it's a bad day or something, and it slows it down and sort of helps you.

I think I said this before. I asked Ken Case if OmniFocus could use machine learning to delete stuff from my list without telling me, or if things could do things so that I can't add anything else until I've completed the first one.

I sort of want notifications to do that. If it knows I'm not responding, just start intelligently to, like the way they do app removal now. "We are taking this app away, because you're not using it, but you can get it back if you want." Just have a little thing saying, "We're taking these notifications away. You can get it back if you want, but, Dude, you would never try tapping on them."

Brad: Yeah. I want that, and I want to keep all to be important. Something with text messages that I don't like is that when I get a notification, is that it says that it's a text message, and there's a text message icon, but I don't have an icon of my wife or Mom. I want the whole thing to be more about people instead of about apps.

Rene: That's really good. What about you, Christina?

Christina: Yeah, I think people more than apps, or actions more than apps. I do like now with notifications where at least some of the things you can reply quickly or do other things. I would like to have the ability to do more of that stuff.

That would make me less stressed about notifications if one could come in, and I could either use Siri to say, "Remind me later," or even pull down and have it send itself reminders or something would be cool.

I think Dieter makes a good point. The people who are trying to notify you are trying to steal your attention, and the companies themselves want you to be happy. I don't know if those things will ever be reconciled. I hope they can be.

Rene: That's very true. I always think that it's, if you've ever worked in tech support, you know it's much better to state a problem than a solution, because you never know if there's a better solution to the problem you have.

If you give someone a solution, they'll go, "No, no, no. You're just dumb." But if you give them a problem, they've got to go and solve it. I think we've given Apple a lot of problems tonight, so I'm happy about that at least.

Dieter, if people want to follow up with you on the Web or read your really smart writing, where can they go?

Dieter: I don't know. It's not smart. My ranty writing is over at I'm pretty active on Twitter as backlon, and I have a Facebook page which is a thing that I'm supposed to be putting videos on. You can find me there.

Rene: Really? OK. Is the Facebook page "Dieter"?

Dieter: Dot Dieter dot Bohn.

Rene: Awesome. What about you, Christina?

Christina: You can find me at @film_girl on Twitter, and you can find my writing -- I don't really have a place to write anymore, but you can see videos that I make at, and if you want to listen to me rant about other things, I do a podcast called "Rocket" on Relay FM.

Rene: It is epic. Brad, how about you? Do you use the Twitters?

Brad: I use the Twitters. Find me on there @BradEllis, and...

Rene: And your website?

Brad: No, I don't know. Do whatever you want.

I've got a website,, for my work. There's also a link to that in my Twitter. I'm on Medium. I'm on all those things.

Rene: A couple shows ago, Jalkut and Gruber and I were praising you for your MarsEdit remake.

Brad: Thank you so much.

Rene: The new icon is boss. Thank you so much for joining me. You guys are all the best. I really appreciate it, and awesome conversation. Maybe when they fix it, we can come back and do it again.

Christina: Seriously.

Rene: [laughs]

Dieter: I'll see you in 2025.

Rene: Yes, sir.


Rene: Cold-blooded. As always, you can find me at Rene Ritchie on all the social things, and you can email me at I'd love to hear your thoughts on notifications and what Apple could do, or what problems you're having, and what Apple could do to fix them for you.

I want thank Jim Metzendorf for the wonderful job he does editing and producing the show, and I want to thank you so much for listening. If you haven't already, please subscribe. Please leave a review. Please leave a rating. It means so much to me. Have a great day. That's it, we're out.


Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.