Notifications are, at the most basic level, a method of alerting people to some piece of information, often with some element of urgency. In a pre-internet world they existed as flags on mailboxes or blinking lights on answering machines. Then, in the 1990s and early 2000s, notifications like pulsing BlackBerry LEDs and “You’ve got mail!” were shoved into the forefront of our collective consciousness. Eventually, those became the icons, banners, and badges that litter our smartphones today.
Notifications have grown to become a problem. According to one study from Synapse, the maker of a notification management app called Daywise, modern smartphone users receive more than double the number of notifications per day than they think they’re getting—as many as 73 per day. (Anecdotally, Screen Time dashboard on my own iPhone tells me I’m averaging around 91 notifications per day.)
App makers are trying every which way to grab a sliver of our attention. Psychological researcher Larry Rosen, who cowrote The Distracted Mind, says he has spoken to app designers about their approaches and has concluded that their efforts to suck us into their apps is “really a business. The bottom line is, it’s a business. And the problem is they’re using behavioral scientists to help them design this.” More notably, Rosen’s research has consistently shown that notifications stress us out—and that constant notifications, beeps, buzzes, and vibrations from our smartphones and computers all contribute to ongoing chemical stress.
But it wasn’t always this way. Some of the earliest architects of smartphone notifications were simply trying to come up with ways to bring popular desktop communication apps to emerging mobile platforms. One of those people is Matías Duarte. His current role is head of material design at Google. But from 2000 to 2005, Duarte was the director of design at Danger, the predecessor to Android. (Remember the Hiptop, also known as the Sidekick? That was Danger.)
Duarte spoke with WIRED for the video above, digging up smartphone notification designs buried in boxes from nearly 20 years ago, and explained some of the early thinking behind smartphone notifications. An edited version of the conversation follows.
Lauren Goode: You were on the forefront of notifications before they were even called that. Talk a little bit about your history in designing what we now know as notifications.
Matías Duarte: I first started working in consumer electronics and mobile with the Danger Sidekick. This was just at the time when cell phones all looked like this, a nine-keypad at the bottom and a little tiny screen, and all you could basically do is text and [make and receive] phone calls. That's it. There were no apps, no web browsers, nothing like that.
The first notifications were those little red voicemail lights on desktop phones. Mobile phones had these displays, which weren't usually even colored. They were black and white ... But you could use an icon to indicate when your phone was trying to get your attention because it would also have a little blinking light, right? About a missed call, or a voicemail, or about a text message. So you'd have two different little icons that were baked into that. So we knew that there was this problem of getting people's attention and connecting people when we were working on the Sidekick.
LG: And this is well before Android, iOS, everything we know now.
MD: Yeah, absolutely. This was around 2000 when we were doing a lot of this design work. I think the very first one of these launched between 2001 and 2002. So this was all way before Android, although we have a connective lineage to these things.
LG: So you were designing just for the Sidekick's little screen?
MD: For that tiny screen … Actually we started designing for this guy here. [Duarte holds up a small mobile device.] This is what we affectionately called the Peanut. It looks like one of those peanut cookies. This was basically a pager. That's how you can think of it, except that it had a screen where we could show graphics and icons on it. This was the original product that we were going to make, although eventually we ended up making the Sidekick, which allowed you to communicate two ways just like you do today. And it had a keyboard.
The keyboard was the main appeal, and this meant that not only could you do emails like you would on a BlackBerry and type in your web pages faster, but you could text message. Not just SMS, but on what at the time was the hotness, which was AOL Instant Messenger. There was also MSN, ICQ. We had all of these on this guy here. In fact, we had the first mobile app store on the Sidekick.
LG: And this is a time before social media is really anything close to what it is now.
MD: Oh, there was no social media at the time ... There were blogs.
LG: This was even before MySpace.
MD: This was the beginning of MySpace, the beginning of LiveJournal, that kind of thing, which is where this wonderful chart comes in [pulls out a paper chart]. Because part of the process of design is always understanding the problem space before you come up with a solution. And back then we did this analysis around what we called “content frequency.” We didn't even have a name of notifications or interruptions. Maybe, if we talked about them, we would talk about “alerts.” Although later you'll notice here in the instructions for what we actually published, we ended up calling them new message notifications, communication services, and notifications.
LG: Would you say that your team created the term "notifications"?
MD: I don't think so. It must've been in use by the cell phone operators. This might've been a term that came up when we were working with T-Mobile.
LG: How did you decide what was higher priority? Why did people need to be urgently notified of something?
"People are using more technology in different ways, much more intimately throughout all aspects of their lives. And we just need to invent new technologies and invent new social conventions to deal with that."
MD: At the time, the only kind of message you would get would be SMS, or a missed call, or a voicemail. For this, we wanted to receive all sorts of different types of notifications because we wanted you to download apps. And so we had to come up with a system for notifying you about them and telling you about them and managing them because we couldn't just have a whole bunch of individual indicator lights. You'd run out of room.
We started with this analysis here, which is why I brought up this table, and we talked about how frequently folks would want to learn about something, and what type of information it was. See, we didn't even call it social media, we called it “web diaries.” “News” here is something we thought people might want to hear about on a six-hourly basis.
LG: That would be lovely.
MD: Yeah. Email was once an hour. And there was some stuff we were certain folks would never want a notification of. Like games.
Duarte continues to show early smartphone notification types that include “Greeting Cards,” “Personal Organizer,” “Coupons,” “Stock Tracking,” and “Messaging,” with a large emphasis on messaging notifications. At some point, the Danger team decided to open up the platform to outside app markers, so that they could “define their own custom icon and offer a little preview payload” of a message.
LG: As the platform creators, did you still control the notifications or did you just give the developers free rein?
MD: Well, we didn't control the payload of the notification at all. We gave the creators that free rein ... We were so excited about being helpful to people and helping connect them and helping them choose whichever type of application they wanted, whether an MSN user or an ICQ user. You get the messages, you know exactly who they're from, you can see what the message is going to be before you jump in there to respond to it.
I mean, this is what we thought was the best way to help people stay connected and have enough visibility about what was happening because we didn't want this problem of, Oh, it's just that flashing red light. And Oh, that's a message I don't care about.
LG: What kind of data set or research did you use to inform how frequently you thought people wanted to see these things?
MD: I think this was polling folks inside the office. We did a lot of user research once we had designs in place. I have some of those documents here. I don't think I can actually share these results, but we would do a lot of user research. And it's funny because at the time I was going through some of these old papers, and we were very focused on phone calls. It was still the majority of what people would use even though people became fanatical about these products because of the texting. All the feedback was, How do we make phone calling easier? How do we make phone calling more discoverable?
The other thing I wanted to share here is the notification and interruption concerns people had at the time was all about the sounds. Everything would always make a bing. This was even before vibrations. People were starting to say, "Hey, maybe it's rude if your device is constantly making these chirps or chimes. Shouldn't you do something a little more subtle?”
Duarte says the idea of banner notifications on mobile handsets quickly became the de facto standard, largely driven by “asynchronous chatting, simultaneous chatting.” After that, he says, “the idea that developers should have the ability to push those messages, create their own icon, create as many notifications as they wanted very quickly became a standard.” The team at Danger also created a notification center, a place for people to go to check all of their unchecked notifications.
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LG: What was the tipping point at which you'd say that notifications became a little bit of the mess that they are today?
MD: It's hard to tell if there's a tipping point. I think it's not just notifications. I think it's generally sometime over the last five to 10 years, we have gone from a world where all of our software was designed to be used as one piece of software at a time for a few hours. You'd go into the office and you just fire up that one spreadsheet and that was your job. Or you'd run on that one spreadsheet for two hours, have your coffee break, whatever, but your computer did one thing. And then we had multitasking, which is like, OK, now you have multiple windows because you have to do email and your calendar at the same time as you do your spreadsheet. And so we created all these things to manage this multitasking. You have messages coming in, you have notifications coming in.
That's the world we've lived in for the last 10, 15 years. But over the last five years, what's happened is we're now doing software all day, every day. From the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep.
LG: It's in our pockets.
MD: Yeah. And it's software, not just the work software and not just the family software, it's everything from planning your retirement, which is a multiyear process, to planning your next vacation, which is a multimonth process, to just chatting about a game or something with your friends for a couple hours or coordinating dinner. Just the total number of things that you're doing, and the total number of things that you're juggling has exploded over those last five years.
And everything about how we built things, to be helpful, in the past—whether they're windows or tabs or notifications or alerts or whatever—we're just now having to build new things because those old systems are breaking under the weight of their history. In the same way that the single icon that we had on the phone just wouldn't cut it anymore when we had these kinds of devices.
LG: Some of the designers and researchers who we've spoken with say that this is a symptom of the attention economy that we're living in. Do you agree with that assessment?
MD: The thesis there would be that attention being valuable creates an incentive to game it. I could see that being maybe an accelerant to some of the things that people find stressful or some of the ways that people are dissatisfied with technology.
Fundamentally, people are using more technology in different ways, much more intimately throughout all aspects of their lives. And we just need to invent new technologies and invent new social conventions to deal with that. We as a society have to evolve to deal with it, and our technology needs to evolve. And that's just the natural cycle of technology. There's always economic forces in the deployment and distribution of technology and in society, so that's not going to go away.
We were watching Back to the Future with my kids the other night, and there was a scene where they go back in time to the ‘50s and the new hot technology is the television. And so they wheel the television to the dining table in a way that we'd now be horrified, like, no, you're not going to wheel the television up to the dining table. But at the time nobody knew. Nobody had a sense of, hey, maybe this is inappropriate. Maybe this is going to erode connections instead of enhancing connections.
LG: You've mentioned social conventions a couple of times now. And I'm really curious about that because I keep wondering whether the burden of responsibility at this point to make notifications a better experience rests on the tech companies and platforms and app makers, or whether it is our own human actions and reactions and expectations that are driving some of this.
I mean sometimes, you might get a text message from a family member saying it's really urgent and it's actually not urgent. And so that’s in some ways a false notification. Or you'd get into work on a Monday morning and your text message thread is blowing up with social things from the weekend and you need to go to meetings. Netflix sends me a notification on a Tuesday afternoon and it’s like, you should watch this. And I’m thinking, I can't, I'm at work. It's Tuesday afternoon. That's on the tech company. I wonder whether or not that's on us to be better about sending each other alerts, or whether they should put more controls in place.
MD: When I say social conventions, I'm not trying to put the responsibility on the individual. I'm talking about us as a society coming to consensus on what is good and what is healthy and what is the norm that we want to promote. And then enabling or requesting from the tech companies to provide those kinds of things.
Lauren Goode is a senior writer at WIRED who covers consumer technology.
It's very easy to oversimplify this problem, and if you try to push it all into being technological solutions, that's not going to work. And if you push it all to just saying, "Hey, it's all the responsibility of individuals," that's also not going to work. I bring up this social convention and the social aspect of it because I think that's so important. Without that, without a clear sense of what's appropriate and what's inappropriate, what we think as a society is healthy and what we think is unhealthy, you can throw technology at the problem all day long, but it's either not going to be adopted or it's not going to be sufficient or it's going to alienate.
Tech is there to solve problems. It is there to be helpful. Everything that we did back then, everything that we're doing today is trying to help people. Trying to help people communicate, trying to help people stay up to date, trying to make sure people don't miss important things. But unless we know how people want that, you're going to do the wrong thing. And what people want and what people think is appropriate changes over time.
LG: Do you personally ever feel overwhelmed by notifications?
MD: I don't, but I'm definitely in the power user space where I fully understand and I'm fully aware of all the tools that are available to me. I know how to turn off notifications. I know how to use the great Digital Wellbeing tools that Google is rolling out, like the shush mode for flipping the phone face down. And not just in notifications, in other aspects of being overwhelmed by technology. I'm very sensitized to the habits that I set in my life and what's healthy as well as the tech tools that I have.
LG: Would you consider yourself one of the creators of the modern notification system?
MD: I feel responsible in participating. Like I said, all technology is a double-edged sword. So I feel very happy that I was able to help, with many many other people, in solving some of the communication problems and making people more connected. And I also feel responsible about some of the challenges that we've created for some people in some of the unintended consequences.
So maybe mostly I feel guilty? I feel more bad than good? No, that's not true. I don't feel more bad than good. But it's a really interesting question. I certainly don't feel responsible, like a parent, or anything like that. But I feel like we were there at a time, and we were doing a lot of good things for good purpose. But we also need to be wide-eyed and acknowledge that there were consequences also, however unintended they were.
[At this point my phone rings. As if on cue.]
MD: And in so much as I can ... There you go.
LG: Oh, that's me.
MD: There's your interruption.
LG: I'm sorry. That's me. I need to get my notifications under control.