Smartphone notifications aren’t all that smart

I order something on say, Myntra or Amazon (or any of the e-commerce apps, for that matter):
Notification 1: Email from the bank if I paid via net banking/credit card/UPI.
Notification 2: SMS from the bank if I paid via net banking/credit card/UPI.
Notification 3: Email from Myntra confirming my order.
Notification 4: E-commerce app’s in-app notification!

If I withdraw cash from an ATM:
Notification 1: Alert from the bank’s app on my mobile.
Notification 2: SMS from the bank confirming the withdrawal.
Notification 3: Email from the bank confirming the withdrawal.

The less said about notifications from the many social media apps the better.

What they all end up doing is severely degrading the value and importance of notifications on our phones.

I don’t know about iOS, but Android does have nuanced ways to fine-tune notifications, but that’s where things get complex. There are so many options that it is utterly bewildering, and you are forced to go with one of the extremes – turn every notification off, or keep all of them intact in the fear that you may miss something important.

For instance, I have turned most notifications off across all social media apps and enabled only direct messages (the equivalent of email, to some extent).

But then, for essential apps like text messaging, WhatsApp, calendar, and email, I have enabled all notifications because of the basic assumption that all notifications are going to be important/useful.

To be fair, the folks working on the bank app or the e-commerce app are only trying to be helpful when coding the triggering of notifications for email, SMS, and order completion/withdrawal. The reality is that 3 (or more) triggers for essentially the same piece of information that is useful to the user are redundant. But you cannot blame the many product/app coders for this notification deluge.

I assume the mobile OS needs to think through this conundrum differently and intelligently to find a solution.

In an e-commerce purchase scenario, there are specific elements that are common to all notifications – the price paid, and a product name/code, among others. Isn’t there a way for the mobile OS to understand the context from common elements and trigger a single notification that combines the multiple triggers and presents a unified update that makes practical sense?

Similarly, with a simple withdrawal of money, I’m sure there are enough common elements for the OS to decipher context and trigger a single, meaningful notification.

But this would mean that the individual apps need to subsume their coding to the OS’s rules. Some apps—like Truecaller—ask the user to explicitly allow it to modify system settings, so the reverse could also be possible, I reckon.

The larger question, though, is whether the mobile OSes are intelligent enough to understand the context and behave like smart gatekeepers of notifications.

This kind of intelligence already happens inside a single app. Recall how, for instance, Facebook clubs the birthday notification if there is more than one in a day. Or how Twitter clubs the Likes or Retweets if there is more than one for a single tweet. Things collapse only when the apps need to work with each other to understand the context and think of the user’s point of view instead of considering the individual app’s code alone. But then, they are simply doing what they have been coded to do 🙂

But imagine how much more an intelligent mobile OS could do.

Right now, without any intelligence, Android simply throws at us gazillion radio buttons for every single app that we can tweak it all to glory and still be annoyed with what ends up in the name of notifications. But imagine if we could simply club any few apps together (say, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram, for instance) and set notifications to a ‘summary’ for specific durations. So, club those 4 apps and set it to ‘summary notifications’ every 2 hours (for example – the duration should be set manually) between 9 am and 6 pm. So at 11 am, 1 pm, 3 pm and 5 pm, I get summaries of notifications across all 4 apps.

This demands that the mobile OS takes primacy over individual app-level triggers and throttles them based on my specific needs. Android, for instance, can already perform the function of throttling individual app-level triggers when we use a sweeping ‘do not disturb’ option, but whether it can ‘summarize’ notifications, that too across multiple apps is a question. It doesn’t seem impossible as an ask, though.

But this kind of nuance is far more productive and purposeful than what we end up doing now, in 2 extremes—stop all notifications or keep everything on—because the effort to tweak notifications by going into the many, many options is a waste of productive time. It’s not very smart either. That’s quite ironic for a device we call smartphone.