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Last update: September 2020

8 mins to read - 2020/09/04

How to Design Notifications Without Sacrificing User Experience

We at OpenBack have explored in the past the double-edged nature of push notifications. They’re are the most direct, effective way of communicating with app users. But if you over do it, or have a poorly thought-out push campaign, users will disallow you to send them. They are endlessly customizable, to the point that they can deliver at the exact moment most beneficial for the user. But if you take advantage of this too frequently, users will get frustrated with the disruptions. In the worst-case scenario, poor or intrusive notification design can even have adverse effects on your app’s UX. This can result in users turning off notifications, or even deleting your app.

In short, notifications are marketing gold. But they’re a design nightmare. So how can you find that happy medium of effective, personalized marketing but with a positive design that doesn’t impede – and even complements – user experience?

a woman having excellent user experience thanks to optimal notification design

What Are Notifications?

The two types of notifications you will encounter in your mobile interface are:

First, a standard push notification is a bite-sized message from a mobile app that pops up on your device. If the user isn’t currently using their device, the notification will appear on their lockscreen and stay there until engaged with. (That is, until the user clicks on it, or swipes it away.) Sometimes a notification will include an action the user needs to perform, and sometimes it just includes information for the user to take note of.

An in-app message has the same content but a slightly different design, as it appears when the user is inside an app rather than on the main interface of their device. The way they do this differs between devices. On iOS devices, they drop down from the top of the screen and can be swiped upwards to make them disappear.

What Different Categories of Notification Are There?

Notification design can also be affected by the purpose of the notification, whether it’s a smart notification or standard, how it was generated, and so on. There are a few different categories to keep in mind when designing your notification campaign.

User-generated notifications

This refers to notifications that are prompted by an action completed by another user. For example, WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger messages, or alerts from similar apps.

It also refers to actions on social media – such as likes, shares, comments from other people – that show up as notifications.

Context-Generated Notifications

These are notifications generated by an app, normally based on your schedule or location. For example, when your Google Calendar app pings you a reminder of an appointment you have. Or when you, an avid fan of Subway who have the app downloaded on your phone, walk past a Subway restaurant and receive a notification offering you a discount on their sandwich of the day.

System-Generated Notifications

These are automatic notifications sent to inform you of changes in the app itself. For example, if the app needs an update, it will sent you a notification that you will then take action on.

What Makes a Well-Designed Notification?

Both push notifications and in-app messages are disruptive with regards to user experience. In-app messages in particular, because they occur when the user is actively doing something on their device. Thus, there are a lot of factors you need to take into account to ensure that the design of your notifications fits in smoothly with the rest of your app experience.

A good starting point is to ask yourself: will this be helpful to my user? Will it make using my app easier and more enjoyable? If the answers to these questions are no, then you need to rethink your design strategy. Let’s look at a few specific areas of design that can affect UX of your notifications.

Timing

It goes without saying that notifications should deliver to users’ devices at appropriate times. There’s nothing worse than getting pinged by your phone at a bad moment. Nobody needs a notification waking them up at 2 in the morning, or ruining their presentation at work. Luckily, by accessing the data on a user’s phone, you can easily block out “no-send” time periods, such as:

  • sleeping (a good rule of thumb is 10 pm through 9 am)
  • commuting (depending on their work schedule, it’s safe to say 8 am through 9 am, and 5 pm through 6:30 pm)
  • working (people’s work schedules differ, but to be safe aim for notifications to deliver during the 1-2 pm lunch break window)

It’s important to segment your users with regard to time zone as well. 8 pm on a Wednesday evening is an appropriate time to send a notification to a user in Los Angeles. However, to a user in Boston, that notification will arrive at 11 pm, at which time they will likely be getting ready for bed or already asleep.

Scheduling your push notifications around the time of day a particular user will be most likely to pay attention to them boosts open rate an average of 23.3%. And with OpenBack’s use of edge computing in our hybrid platform eliminates notification lag time, allowing your notifications to deliver at precisely the moment they are meant to.

Choosing an Appropriate Notification Framework

Under what context are you sending notifications? How frequently, and what type of content will they be conveying?

It can be helpful in this case to consider what level urgency your notifications fall into. Users may be more well inclined to receive high-urgency notifications, such as alerts, confirmations, and error notices. These should be sent as soon as there is a need for them. Meanwhile, lower-urgency information, such as affirmative messages, status statements, and so on, can wait until a more appropriate time before sending.

If a user feels that you are bombarding them with useless information, or sending notifications for the sake of notifications, this will ruin your rapport with them. For example, take this long string of faux-affirmative nonsense Poshmark sent to Twitter user @ckivy_:

design notification fail
Image source: Twitter user @ckivy_

Not only are you wasting your user’s time, but in the future when you do have important information to send them in a notification, they will likely swipe away without reading it.

So how can you work urgency of your message into your notification design? UX Planet suggests color-coding notifications as a shorthand way of tipping users off as to what type of content a notification will have.

design notification color coding content
Image Source: https://uxplanet.org/how-to-design-notifications-for-better-ux-6fb0711be54d

Content Design for Notifications

Content is where designing notifications becomes less of a science and more of an art. In addition to the tech features mentioned above, you need to know your product and – more importantly – know your user. Based on their demographic, what type of tone or language will they respond best to? How many emoticons can you use before they feel like you’re not taking them seriously?

This is something your marketing team will have to assess through research, trial and error, and extensive A/B Testing of push notification campaigns. A few rules of thumb to keep in mind:

  • Small size: Design your notifications so they only take up a small fraction of a device’s screen. Notifications that barge in front of whatever else your user is doing on their device are obtrusive. Keep them as small as possible, while still allowing your user to clearly read them. If you have more information to share, include a deep link that carries your user to a page in your app.
  • Quick, concise content: Users will typically have a split-second of attention to spare for your notification. So make sure you get your message across in as few words as possible. iOS devices have a character limit of 178, whereas Android’s limit is 49 characters. Keep in mind that emoticons count as characters.
  • Placement: Notifications should appear at either the top or bottom of the device, so as not to disrupt the user as little as possible.
  • Localization: When designing notifications, keep in mind different platforms they may appear on in the future. For example, how will your notification framework appear on a Chinese platform?

design notification rich content

When to Use Rich Content in Notifications

Rich content refers to any multimedia – such as images, GIFs, audio, or video content. It can vastly improve the notification experience, and particularly with such apps as streaming apps or mobile games it can even help your notification work as an extension of the app experience. For example, you can send your user a video teaser of some new content on your streaming app. Or you can send upload an 8-bit image of the boss of the level your mobile game’s player has nearly defeated, with the words “Come back and fight me, coward!”

Rich content can be a great way to give your notifications some sparkle, and when done correctly it can boost app open rate. However, rich content must act as a support to the text content – not the other way around. Not all devices support rich content, so never design a notification to be completely dependent on an image or video. It’s also worth considering that they can use up data or drain a user’s battery, so use them more as a garnish and less as a mainstay of your push campaign.

For more advice on how to use rich content, read our blog post: What Are Rich Push Notifications? A Primer

Best Practices for Designing Notifications

Overall, you should be designing notifications to bring value to the user. If they perceive notifications as a nuisance, or if they are clunky or ruin their app experience, they will have a bad impression of the app. So make sure notifications are always a) interesting/relevant to the user, and b) conveniently timed.

Make sure the placement of the notification isn’t distracting or obtrusive to the overall device interface. It can be helpful to color-code your notifications by category, and segment users based on demographics. And always track and analyze open-rates and other metrics of sent notifications to figure out how to improve your campaigns.

Get in touch with an expert at OpenBack to learn more about how our unique hybrid platform can help you optimize your push notification campaign and maximize app opens.

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