iOS 7 wants: Actionable notifications and push interface

Notification Center debuted in iOS 5 and began transforming Apple's old, unscalable, modal alert system into something less obtrusive and more robust. Unfortunately, iOS 6 spent so much time setting up the future -- kicking Google to the curb, outsourcing social, and improving support for Asia -- that notifications were left pretty much at a standstill. Hopefully iOS 7's flatter and more consistent redesign won't occupy the lion's share of attention this time around, and Notification Center will not only catchup, but leap ahead. And hopefully it'll start with the transition from informational alerts to actionable ones.

This isn't a new request by any means. Many people have made it many times, including me last year. Palm had the beginnings of it in webOS, jailbreak apps like BiteSMS have been doing for ages, and Google started adding it to Android in 2012.

And here's why -- whether we're tired, busy, or just plain lazy, having to go hunting for apps -- even widgets -- just to reply to a message, reset a timer, change a song, or do any other trivial activity is outdated and inefficient. It's pull in the age of push.

It's well past time for actions, like information, comes to us.

From creation to conversation

In the current version of iOS, if we're using an app or playing a game or just fiddling around on the Home Screen, and an SMS, iMessage, IM, Hangout, or any other short bit of text is sent our way, we get a roll-down banner notification. If we tap the banner, it rips us from our current activity and sends us carousel-ing into whatever app owns that bit of text. At that point, we have to wait for the host app to wake up, connect, and download the actual message. (Even if all of it was shown in the push notification, the information isn't passed along and the app has to make its own, post-launch request to get its own, post-launch copy.) Then, after replying, we have to either use the fast app switcher to go back to our previous app, or the old Home button click/icon tap combo. There's no insta-back button or gesture for that.

Imagine instead that, once the banner notification rolls down, we could not only tap on it to go to the app, but drag it down to get an actionable dialog. Then we could quickly enter and send a response, at which point the dialog would disappear and we could immediately resume what we were doing. No carousel app switching, no need to click and tap our way back.

Apple already does a lot of the out-of-app heavy messaging lifting today, in Share Sheets. Launch the Photos app and pick a photo. Tap the Action button, tap Mail, Messages, or Twitter, and an embedded Mail, Message, or Tweet sheet slides up from the bottom. Type and send a message. The message gets sent and the sheet slides down again, allowing you to continue right where you left off. In fact, Notification Center already has buttons for calling up Twitter and Facebook sheets.

Share Sheets in apps like Photos already let you do quick messaging, just not replies.

The current system only works to create new messages, and only for Apple's built-in and integrated partner apps (Mail, Messages, Twitter, and Facebook). It's not impossible, however, to imagine it working for replies as well.

Quick and dirty mockup of share sheets handling replies.

And with third-party messaging apps. At worst, Notification Center could simply keep pulling the icon to identify the app. In a perfect world, those third-party apps could include parameters for/register with with Notification Center to use in presenting their own embedded sheets (similar in spirit to how Passbook provides for some level of design in third-party passes).

Quicker and dirtier mockup of custom, third-party share sheets.

With Notification Center maintaining control of the transactions, communications could be handled more securely and power efficiently as well.

From snooze to choose

The same basic system could also work for changing alarms. Right now, just like with messages, if an alarm goes off, we can either okay it or put it to sleep, but we can't change it. If we want to do that, we have to mishandle the alert in someway, then go track down the app (typically Clock) to do something about it.

In a push-interface world, the alarm would go off and the banner could be pulled down into, or the popup would already be, a widget that could not only be dismissed or slept, but altered right there and then.

Even if it was kept modal, a timer could be scrubbed back from 00:00 to 00:30, for example, right on the alert.

Quick and dirty mockup of Siri timer widget made scrubbable model notification

Likewise, an alarm could be deferred, but could also be quickly changed to another time.

From switcher to center

Controls are trickier, because they're persistent rather than event-driven. No one wants a constant banner with audio controls in it, for example, which is probably why Apple annexed them into the fast app switcher in iOS 4.

They might make more sense in Notification Center, however, where instead of being a double-click and horizontal swipe away, they're just a downward swipe. The brightness and AirPlay controls could easily live there as well, as could all the other settings most people never use, but the nerds among us want faster access to -- everything from Wi-Fi to Bluetooth to hotspot to Airplane mode, to the kitchen sync in there as well. They could be set to off by default, so mainstream users aren't bothered by them, but there and ready to be enabled by those who want them.

Quickest and most dirtiest mockup of controls put into Notification Center

From static to dynamic

As much as we like to compare platforms and talk about who and who isn't innovating, who's blazing ahead, who's copying, and who's playing catchup, the truth is every major player is mostly just giving us variations on a theme.

Siri, Google Now, and Kinect are starting to break down the old concepts, not just with natural language and gesture-based control schemes, but with dynamically generated, contextually aware interfaces. They're still new, still experimental, still layers on top of far more static Home screens, apps, and activities, but they're getting there.

If Apple wants to get really avant guarde, Notification Center could become contextual, presenting information, actions, and options depending on the time of day, our location, and what we're doing when we invoke it. And, of course, helpfully nudge us with actionable banners when we haven't invoked it -- the classic example being "Traffic has changed, you will now have to leave 10 min. earlier for your meeting, would you like me to message attendees?"

From the Apple II to the Mac, Apple's been at the forefront of making ever more accessible types of interface mainstream. Actionable notifications could be a piece of the whatever's-next puzzle, and I hope we see it from Apple sooner rather than later.

If you've used webOS notifications, or Jelly Bean notifications, or BiteSMS, or if you're just tired of switching apps every time you get an alert, let me know what you think -- should the future be actionable, and how?

More iOS 7 wants

Update: The number one beef I'm hearing back about Notification Center is, not surprisingly, multiple device support. So, yes, let's hope Apple fixes that too. If you've dismissed a notification on one device, it should dismiss it on all devices. Better still, if you're using one device, and the others are asleep, maybe that should be the only device that gets an active notification?

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.

  • I can't stand the stupid top bar pop down on ios. it invariably obscures UI elements and I have to wait until the notification goes away to continue on with what I was doing.
  • Just grab it and throw it away (swipe left or pull down slightly and then toss up). That dismisses it.
  • It's still annoying to have to do this, though. Or sometimes I get a notification in at the exact moment that I'm interacting with an app at that part of the screen and then I'm kicked out of the app and into the app that sent notification. SO. ANNOYING!
  • Option 2: Turn them off? Sounds like you don't want visual notifications...
  • I do want visual notifications, I just don't want them to interfere.
  • no you dont
  • To quote Rocky of "Rocky and Bullwinkle" fame ... "That hardly ever works." Seriously, almost no one even knows they can do this and once you find out its weeks of training before one can reliably execute the move. Who wants that?
  • i think these would all be good idea and it would be something new for ios and iphone users.. was just wondering if ios7 would be avaliable only to new iphones or would the iphone 5 would be getting ios7?
  • Would be nice to tell Siri to cancel notifications about specific events or topics. For example, "No notifications about the Indy 500 today." So I can watch my recording of the Monaco GP first without any spoilers about my recording it the 500.
  • And, on the API side, how about some basic Siri features for all 3rd party apps? Sounds like Apple may be allowing this already for certain high-profile apps. The iPhone version of the DirecTV app may or may not be using some kind of Siri API. It sounds like Siri and it responds exactly the way Siri would respond. ("One of these two results for Mythbusters may be what you're looking for.")
    Siri is never mentioned in any DirecTV copy, but Apple could be testing an API with DirecTV. (As well as the Android voice command system soon.)
    One weird thing. If you have the DirecTV iPhone app, try saying "Hello Siri" to it. See what you get. (I got 5 references to Hustler videos.)
  • +1000 I would actually like it not just in the app, but also system wide, assuming that Apple could develop some way to namespace Siri requests ("espn, load me the gamecast of the pacers-heat game"), which Apple may not be willing or able to do given the complexity of the task without resorting to the sort of lengthy user options Apple typically avoids.
  • Web page bug? Added two comments above from the iMore app running on iPad, and now can't fix typos from Safari on MacBook Pro. Edit box is grayed out with "This field has been disabled because you do not have sufficient permission to edit it." OS X 10.8.3, Safari 6.0.4. Update: I added this comment from OS X / Safari on MacBook Pro and I *can* edit it. Only the iPad-added comments can't be edited from OS X / Safari.
  • Android has started to get this right (music controls, system controls, semi-actionable emails etc) in the notification shade, though many items still throw you to the app. I'm really hoping both iOS and Android implement some variation on the FB chat heads idea for messaging... I've personally found this works really well.
  • Guess you've got your head too far in the dirt to realize the BB Z10 already does all of this.
  • * dusts off head *
    Not sure about music/system controls in BB10, but many reviewers found the BB Hub drove them insane. I'm personally happier to keep my communication categories (email, social, messaging) as separate streams, so on that basis I haven't seen anything in BB10 that's compelling vs either Android or iOS.
  • I was a very avid iOS user until I played with a Z10 my co-worker had. In love. Everyone has their likes and dislikes, and I Luv the Hub! Spectacular. It has everything there so I can respond immediately.
  • I was using biteSMS when I was j/b (I restored do to Siri not working) it was really nice being able to reply quickly but it isn't to much work to go into whatever app and do what I need to, I would like Actionable Notification but its not a must for me
  • Just got iphone 5 so I lost my jailbreak and... I hate it. Lockinfo and bitesms are amazing. I hate having to open the phone and then go to an app. Thats 2007 and old. Cmon Apple... take from the jailbreak community again.
  • My number one request? When a song changes in Music (or Spotify, or any audio app) we get a notification drop down. Off by default, but let me enable it.
    Oh, I want this in 10.9 as well.
  • This seems like it should be possible on a per-app basis at least with Local Notifications. Perhaps Apple expected developers to do it themselves, and have not gotten around to it themselves, and perhaps the app developers, since background audio funnels through an Apple pipeline, expected Apple do it for them. Catch-22 :)
  • If we tap the banner, it rips us from our current activity and sends us carousel-ing into whatever app owns that bit of text. At that point, we have to wait for the host app to wake up, connect, and download the actual message.
    >>>> Rene - what do you think, are they gonna change it or improve the method where apps on sleep mode and doesnt download the content ? so that we dont need to wait for 3rd party app like whatsapp to connect and then we can reply to others.
    b/c in Andriod whatsapp app is always connected in background unlike in iOS.
  • They announced that in the WWDC keynote at some point. The app will be up to date as soon you hit the notification. It's probably one of my favorite features of iOS7. It's gonna save so much time.
  • Excellent article, but I disagree about the quick settings idea. I think it makes more sense to have the settings right on the home screen. I would like to see a small option button that basically says "would you like to have a control for this on your home screen?" Then someone who is always fiddling with bluetooth can choose the option to have what amounts to a bluetooth "button" or app appear on their home screen, while another has a Wi-Fi "button" etc. The way it's described in the article, it's basically like having Apps in the notifications pull-down which makes no sense. At least the weather and the stocks are actual "notifications." Apps should remain on the home screens and notifications should stay on the notifications sheet.
  • You haven't used android have you? Quick toggles are very nice to have so you don't have to dig into the settings app. You pull down your notification shade, hit the toggle and done. Who wants more "icons" on their home screen for simple things like turning wifi on/off?
  • My objection was more conceptual. I have no personal need for quick toggles at all, nor do most of the iPhone buying public by all accounts. Anyone who wants to always quickly change their settings needs a button for it or an icon, that much is obvious. You say you want it in the notifications drop down and not on the home screen, but you don't give any argument as to why having a button in notifications is better than having a button on the home screen. I on the other hand prefer it to be on the home screen and gave excellent detailed reasons as to why. I will even add another ... If its in notifications instead of on the home screen, the. It's at least one extra gesture away.
  • To counter one of the "excellent detailed reasons as to why" (can't believe you actually wrote that btw) in the last paragraph.........I might be in the minority here, but MOST of the time on my device I'm in some sort of app, not staring at my homescreen. The only time having a "button" would be quicker than a notification toggle would be if u were on the homescreen at the moment u wanted to toggle that particular setting. Having it in the notification bar makes it only 1 gesture (pull down) NO MATTER WHAT you're doing on the device.
    --in case you don't follow:
    "Your way"= having to leave whatever app you're in to get to the "button" placed on the homescreen
    "Our way"= 1 swipe down on the notification bar in every situation
  • Everyone !!! René is back with us !!! YEAAAH !! Finally, this is the reporting I have been missing for the last month or so.
  • Ok. I like. There is One thing I would add that would would put apple way ahead and not just caught up. When a notification comes in. Tap to open and carousel away...swipe left to dismiss....swipe down for more info on that in notification center (like your article showed...but then swipe right and get settings for controlling the notifications of that app. There is NOTHING more agrivating to me than getting a notification, pulling my phone out of my pocket, and realilizing it's some stupid game I played once and haven't touched in 3 months. I then have to go to settings, notifications, hunt that app down, and turn its permission to bug me off...or delete the app. I say swipe right across the notification and get right into notification settings for that app and be able to control it. That's my 2 c.
  • I'm sorry but it wouldn't put it ahead. Android already does all of this. Swipe down from the top to get the notification shade. When there are things like email or other apps like Pulse (app) notifications you take 2 fingers instead of 1 and drag down. It then expands so you can read the beginning of the email or the different articles in pulse. Swipe right or left to take the notification away. When you expand the gmail notification you can delete that email right from the notification without going to the app. If you have an app that spams your notifications you just click and hold for about 5 seconds and an app info window pops up. Select it and it takes you to the screen that allows you to disable notifications from that app that sent that notification to you. Android has the notifications down pat. Sure there is always room for improvement but pretty much everything Renee is describing is in Android now.
  • " If we tap the banner, it rips us from our current activity and sends us carousel-ing into whatever app owns that bit of text. At that point, we have to wait for the host app to wake up, connect, and download the actual message. (Even if all of it was shown in the push notification, the information isn't passed along and the app has to make its own, post-launch request to get its own, post-launch copy.) Then, after replying, we have to either use the fast app switcher to go back to our previous app, or the old Home button click/icon tap combo. There's no insta-back button or gesture for that." Get a BlackBerry Z10 and all of your problems are solved. Apple is outdated.
  • "Get a BlackBerry Z10 and all of your problems are solved."
    This may be the funniest thing said on the Internet.....EVER!
  • Not sure why you think that's funny... It seems that BB and even Android know how to deal with these things better than iOS. I don't have an Android phone, but I can tell you the sleek multi-tasking system used by BB's really does do everything Rene is complaining about. BB admitedly doesn't do a lot of the stuff iOS does, but not because it can't. Either there's no app (yet) or the same ecosystem hasn't evolved yet. But on the other hand, there's a lot of things that iOS can't do that QNX can, and very efficiently at that. Messaging is BB's strong suit and notifications are just a small part of that.
  • At least you can use your iPhone for DoD purposes:
    No Safari browser (you have to use a containerized browser that will have far fewer features)
    No iMessage
    No iTunes
    No App Store (as in only apps the DoD allows on your device through their own App Store)
    Containerized segregated email client
    No Wi-Fi access on DoD Wi-Fi networks though you can use it at home or publicly
    Must be connected to a MDM (Mobile Device Management) solution
  • Nice concepts. And I totally agree with adding the most common controls in the notification control. Pulling down the notification center is so much easier than dragging 4 finger upwards, on an iPad. It looks silly too, when I fail in doing so.
  • Wow, that last sentence.............
  • Sarcasm? :P
  • Rene I love all these posts you do!! I would love to see actionable notifications for sure!! Would love to see a widget for the music play in NC kind of akin to that iOS 7 concept video from the forums. It would be awesome if you clicked on the banner it would bring up a box to reply from anywhere like you can post to Twitter or Facebook from the NC but it would be awesome if apple extended this function to third party apps like tweetbot.
  • This is great! I completely agree with notifications acting this way. Especially the example of traffic and 10 minutes. Great write up!
  • I wish there was a notification light on the front of the phone, or a way for the screen to flash, rather than the camera flash on the back. When my iPhone is in it's belt clip, that can distract people nearby, who don't have anything better to do than pay attention to someone's phone flash, flashing...
  • I agree with everything you said. Apple needs to step up this nxt iOS not only to compete but also take it that nxt lvl so others have to follow us again. I hope everything I've seen from u guys about IOS7 happens. Minus the "flatness" I've seen.
  • So you're just not a fan of vowels in certain words??
  • What about Siri, Passbook, 4G for us Europeans as well? Or reliable Maps? Of course, I will not be buying another iPhone given the let-down iP5 has been (a larger-screened 3GS with iOS 4 costing 1000$ for us non-Americans), but since I plan to keep my phone for at least a year still, it would be nice to use some of its capacity at least at some point. Just a thought. Or why bother. Google will own the market anyway, as their market share gains show, for they cater to users' needs. Such an ingenious concept...
  • WTF?
  • Thanks for implementing Google Log ins. So tired of using Facebook for log in.
  • Yea, Apple is lightyears behind BlackBerry when it comes to notifications.
  • I download the "Scroll Web" app for my iPhone. Recommended!!!
  • Y'know what I miss? The catch-all "Notifications: ON/OFF" switch that we had prior to Notification Center. In iOS 4, if I wanted to conserve battery and/or avoid annoyances while I'm gaming or otherwise focused, I could just switch it all off in one fell swoop, and it'd disconnect from the Apple Push Notification Service entirely. Nowadays, to get that same peace, I have to manually turn off badges, banners, icons, sounds, and lock screen notifications for each individual application, and then go back and turn them all back on afterward. (Do Not Disturb does not stop things from happening while the screen is on.) I also miss auto brightness actually working. I have to manually adjust my brightness all the time these days, because the auto brightness has been royally screwed in iOS 6. This would be a perfect use for the notification center becoming a sort of iPhone dashboard. The center for all notifications, widgets, search, and multitasking features.
  • I think Apple needs to take a hard look at the jailbreak community and what they have been doing: BiteSMS solves a major problem with handling an incoming text. IntelliscreenX and SBSettings make the Notification Center worth a damn. Auxo and Activator makes the case for getting rid of the home button all together. Hey Apple! Don't keep spending time trying to block these guys! Hire them and bring all these functions mainstream!