Mobile Only: Week 25
Benjamin Robbins, an EMF member, is spending the next year working solely from a single mobile device. Each week he shares his thoughts and experience with us on what it means to be mobile-only.
Years ago, Microsoft Outlook introduced a feature that forever disrupted the flow of productivity on a computer – email alerts. This pioneering feature foreshadowed the onslaught of push notifications that we experience on mobile devices today. Email alerts provided the ability to interrupt whatever current task one was focused on by a visual cue that proved almost impossible to ignore. Email notifications alone came to be seen as overwhelming. Mobility has taken this concept to a whole new level. The more apps I put on my phone, the more notifications I receive. The longer I work mobile-only the more pronounced this issue becomes. I believe there are valid use cases for which push notifications make sense. However, mobile platform capabilities don’t offer the ability to manage them appropriately.
Phone notifications execute a two pronged attack upon embedding themselves into the mobile experience. First, app vendors want you to remember their app exists. They have to rise above the fray of the millions of other apps available in your local app store; retention is key. What better way to remain front and center than by pushing some seemingly important piece of information under your nose every once and a while. As a single app it might not be so bad, but the combination of all my apps proves to be overload.
Second, we have an evolutionary inability to avoid distraction. This characteristic served us well in the very distant past. Turning our attention to a rustle of grass and responding appropriately made the difference between getting home in time to eat dinner and becoming some other creature’s dinner. It paid to be distracted. These days, however, no one will perish if that email isn’t responded to within the next 30 seconds. We have become over-distracted, over-stimulated and need to be able to filter between the relevant and unimportant bits of information.
There are times when it is important to get a notification right away. There are many scenarios where time is of the essence and we should be provided immediate awareness of a communication. Push notifications would make sense on a context basis. Some examples would be contract negotiations, a frustrated client, sick loved one, etc. These scenarios are context sensitive, meaning the information in the communication should be the driving factor as to whether we get notified or not.
However, most apps these days have only a simple binary switch of setting notifications as on or off. To make matters worse, the ability to enable or disable notifications (if even possible) is buried on a settings page somewhere. It is rare that notification control is in an easy or obvious location. As well, each app handles notifications a little differently with no ability to centrally manage them across apps. The ability to centrally turn app notifications on and off from a single point would at least offer a ‘poor-mans’ solution to controlling context. If we knew we were waiting for something important we could quickly turn a notification on. There is a disconnect between the ability to enable the notification and the dynamic nature of context.
I have tried several approaches to managing notification on my mobile device. From turning them completely off to allowing them to be going off constantly with both an audio and visual cue. Both extremes offer an inadequate answer to the problem.
As much as we want to be fantastic multitaskers, we humans have demonstrated time and time again that we are terrible multitaskers.
We are much better off when we focus on a single task while minimizing other distractions. We would like to believe that this doesn’t apply to us, but it does. So here is the challenge, finding the balance between appropriate notification and avoiding living in sidetrack city. Just to make sure the challenge isn’t too easy we get to throw in the added bonus that many of us are too lazy to find the checkbox on the settings screen to turn notifications off.
While notifications on our mobile devices offer the ability to have the most important information percolate to the top of our stack, they unfortunately only seem to make our stack seem higher. I have found that, for now, the best solution is disabling all notifications save those that are the most important in terms of business context. I am still interrupted more than I would like, but it could be worse. How do you approach notifications on your mobile device? What works and doesn’t work for you? Post a comment and let me know.
Benjamin Robbins is co-founder and Principal at Palador, a firm that focuses on providing strategic guidance to enterprises in the areas of mobility, apps, and data. You can follow him on Twitter. Mr. Robbins resides in Seattle and blogs regularly at http://remotelymobileblog.com