The Evolving Notification

Notifications play a crucial role in how we interact with technology. Just as gadgets evolve, notifications haven't remained static. As we enter the wearables era, the notification is about to undergo one of its more significant advancements in history. The Apple Watch will improve on the pager from the 1990s and position silent haptic feedback as a notification. The ability to send and receive messages via "taps" on the wrist will turn the modern notification into a communication medium. While the smartphone may have taken the notification and run a little too far with it in the wrong direction, the Apple Watch will likely put the notification on a new, more sustainable path.   

Even though we now associate notifications with pop-ups on our phones and tablets, the idea of a notification has been part of our lives for a very long time. A notification is simply something that gives us information to compute. A few everyday examples have included:

1885: A steam train whistle (and smoke) alerting people of an approaching train.

1935: A raised mailbox flag indicating to the mail carrier that a letter needs to be picked up.

1975: An air siren to warn of a nearby tornado.

1995: A vibration and chime on a pager alerting the user to an incoming call. 

2005: A chime alerting the user that a new AOL IM has been received on the desktop computer. 

2010: A blinking light on a Blackberry indicating new email.

2015: A popup on a smartphone indicating Sam Smith won a Grammy.

2016: A double tap on the wrist from Apple Watch informing us that our significant other is leaving the store.

Taking a look at some of these notifications through the years, some of which are still common today, the smartphone's impact on notification evolution stands out. The smartphone era expanded the notification to include various types of data, including: breaking news, app updates and song recommendations. The ability to push text notifications have produced negative side effects as companies have flocked to notifications to get attention. Not only are we inundated with pop-ups, unless we manage our phone settings carefully, but even the idea of a proper notification has lost its meaning. The notification went from a useful source of information to mostly a marketing plow generating interest in apps. 

Apple Watch has the potential to put the notification back on track. With the expectation that the device will be worn on the wrist for most of the day, an Apple Watch will not only add personalization and customization to notifications, but it will transform the way we think of notifications in mobile. Apple Watch will turn notifications into a new form of communication.

Notifications on Apple Watch will likely continue a few broader notification trends that have been evolving over time:

  • Personalization. Wearable devices promote personalization in a much more effective way than smartphones. I would expect more notification filtering, reducing the number of notifications pushed to a wearable compared to a phone. It will be very hard for a news app to be able to push breaking news to Apple Watch in the same way popups are sent to a smart phone. Whereas we may not mind getting notified on our phone whenever someone messaged us on Twitter, we may want to only be notified when certain people contact us if notifications are pushed to Apple Watch.  
  • Customization. Having the ability to determine what kind of notification is desired (Short Look or Long Look) dependent on location or social setting (wrist raise or not) will become the norm.

I would expect the definition of a notification to once again include haptic feedback (vibration) with Apple Watch. In such an example, a simple tap on the watch face would produce a silent vibration on the recipient's wrist (assuming they are wearing Apple Watch). That tap, or a series of long and short taps, can both serve as a notification and message. In this context, the pager of the 1990s stood out. While a pager could have been worn on the waist to alert the user via vibration, the notification contained only so much information that would signal the importance of the message. The ability to communicate was still mostly one-sided. With Apple Watch, the notification can become a two-way communication medium, serving both as an indicator of an incoming message as well as the message itself.  While much of this sounds similar to Morse code, one key difference is that Apple Watch users will be able to personalize the messaging, coming up with their own patterns and codes to communicate with a select group of family and friends. 

Given my expectations on where notifications are headed, I have some doubts over wearable devices, such as smart rings and bracelets, that position notifications as simply an alert. If these devices are unable to provide ways to interact and respond directly to the notification, I have trouble seeing where value is created. Since most wearables require a phone, the primary reason someone would buy and wear a wearable is to remove the need to check their phone, not to serve as a reminder to check their phone.

Notifications play a vital role in our daily lives. While the smartphone may have taken the notification and run a little too far with it in the wrong direction, the Apple Watch will likely position the notification as a tool to utilize technology in a more personalized way.  

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