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Android Notification Best Practices: Don't Annoy Your Users


June 22, 2012

One way an Android application can become more tightly integrated into the user's experience is to use Android notifications to make the user aware of important events associated with the application. Android notifications can include a lot of information to help the user decide on the fly if they need to react immediately. (See Figure 1 for a screenshot of a new Android notification.)


Android Device with a New Notification
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Figure 1. Android Device with a New Notification

However, Android notifications are often misused or overused, resulting in users uninstalling the application from the device. In this article we discuss the do's and don'ts of working with Android notifications.

What Android Notifications Typically Are Used For?

Android applications can inform the user of important events by posting messages to the notification bar. Some of the most common notification types that users see frequently are:

  • A new email or text message has arrived
  • A reminder for a calendar entry.
  • Social network activity directed at the user has occurred (if the user has configured their device to tell them about it).
  • A new application has been installed and is ready to use.
  • A file download is in progress and has completed.
  • A call was missed and there's a new voicemail.

Notifications can be an incredibly helpful mechanism for keeping the user informed when they are not actively using your Android application, but it is easy to misuse them. Let's start by talking about when it's a good idea to use notifications.

When to Use Android Notifications in Your App

Android notifications are most effective when they include important, time-sensitive information. This sort of information is usually event-driven, involves other people, and may require a prompt action or response from the user. For example, an exec might need to be prompted about the start time of her next meeting, or an IT admin might want to know that the server farm is on fire.

So, how does this apply to your Android apps? For some types of applications, notifications will not be appropriate; they will just nag. For other applications, notifications may be essential. Review your application and determine if there are key events or social exchanges that would be important to tell the user, even if they are not actively using your application. If you are unsure, err on the side of not using notifications, and by all means, make notifications a configurable feature of your application so users can turn them off if they get annoyed!

When Not to Use Android Notifications in Your App

The flavor of your Android notifications (by which we mean the reason, frequency, and tone of the notifications produced by your app) contributes to how the application is perceived by the user -- is the app friendly and helpful or annoying and nagging? We all have friends on social networking sites who report every single little thing going on in their lives from "Awake. Need coffee." to "Going to bed." Don't bore your user with notifications about everyday minutiae. If your app has won the lottery, is having a baby, or just got a new job, then notify the user if you think they will care.

If your app just synced up with the app server or the user hasn't launched the app in a while, don't just notify the user to prompt them to launch the app -- this is bad form and never makes the user like your app more. In fact, you're likely to see a negative response in terms of app ratings. You'll just remind the user that they don't use your app anymore and they will uninstall it. We've even seen cases where apps have used notifications to advertise specials in different apps. This is just simply not acceptable if the notifications can't be turned off.

Making Each Android Notification Count

Notifications should be feature-rich. If at all possible, the notification should include all the information needed for the user to decide instantly whether or not to react now or later. This information should be as personal as possible. Take an email client notification for a new message. The app could just post a notification saying "You've got mail!", but this forces the user to launch the email app to find out more -- not a very personal message. The email application becomes much more useful when it includes some information in the notification, such as the message subject. This improved app creates a different notification that immediately gets the user's attention: "New email: Your house is on fire!"

Android notifications can be made personal and interesting in a number of ways, including by adding such things as identifying icons, titles, messages, and timestamps. Notifications can also include sound alerts, flash the LED light in certain colors and patterns, and vibrate the device. (See Figure 2 for a screenshot of a feature-rich Android notification.) When the user clicks on a notification, the underlying application launches to a screen where the use can find out more information related to the event that caused the notification.


A Feature-Rich Android Notification
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Figure 2. A Feature-Rich Android Notification

With all these options, it's easy to get carried away. Make your application notifications use these features for good, and not for evil. You're not trying to turn the device into a disco ball and you don't want your app to embarrass the user in a quiet meeting room.

Android Notifications for a Series of Events

Some of the notification examples previously listed require multiple steps. For example, a user might initiate a download on an Android app and when it's complete, the content will be available. It doesn't make sense to create separate notifications for each step of this process; this will just clutter the notification bar. Instead, the application can update an existing notification with the latest information as the previous information becomes outdated.

In other circumstances, you may want to keep all the history visible to the user. In that case, you should simply create a new notification with completely different data so the user knows more than one thing happened and that they aren't related. An email application may simply start to show the count of new messages in the same notification, however.

When to "Un-Notify" a User

Have you ever gone on vacation and returned to hundreds of emails, most of which no longer require your input because other coworkers dealt with them in your absence? Notifications are similar to those accumulated emails. Because they are time sensitive, many notifications have a rather short shelf life.

Luckily, your application can clear notifications as necessary, so consider doing so automatically when the usefulness of the notification has passed.

Conclusion

Notifications are most effective when they are used sparingly, for time sensitive events that the user needs to act on immediately. Know when to notify the user and when to have your application remain silent. Follow the best practices for Android notifications in this article, pack each notification with rich content that makes it worth reading and responding to, and if a notification's window of usefulness has closed, clear it to avoid cluttering the user's notification bar.

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