Notification Center, simplified. An Analysis.

As I am new to The Verge's Forums I want to start off by saying "Hi!" and telling you a little bit about me. I come from Austria and I hopefully will be studying Interaction Design in Germany starting this fall. As part of my application for university I did some Interface studies and concepts for Apple's iOS. As Apple's keynote is just 35 days ahead I wanted to share my take on iOS with the community. So, I hope you enjoy checking out the stuff I made, and please share your thoughts! Aaron (@jaAbentheuer)

Notification Center, simplified. An Analysis.

A big definition of who you are as a designer… it's the way you look at the world. And I guess it's one of the curses of what you do is that you're constantly looking at something and thinking "Why is it like that and not like this?" So in that sense you're constantly designing. Jony Ive

Ever since Notification Center was introduced in 2011 I was quite surprised about the choices Apple made in it's implementation. There are a number of problems coinciding with the current solution…

  1. One of the most important things a Notification Center should tell the user is: "Do I have any new notifications?" iOS' current answer isn't immediately available. As a user of iOS 6, one still has to scroll down at least 50% of the screen's real estate to get the answer: "No New Notifications" — Even worse… If the user let's the tray loose at that point, once he or she realized that there aren't any new messages, the tray doesn't go back, instead it goes down the Y-axis to take up 100% of the screen real estate.
  2. Let's get a level further. What happens if you happen to have one single message? Well…It's not that easy and even less beautiful. If you have one single message you actually have to scroll down 100% (or somewhat above 90%) of the screen, because the message is at the top, but you start pulling at the bottom. So 100% of the screen is wallpapered with empty grey linen canvas, just to get to one message.
  3. Let's take this up a notch again. What happens if you received several unread notifications? Which one of those notifications are you likely going to be interested in the most? Apple seems to assume that users are interested in the oldest notification the most, because again, to get to the newest message you have to scroll down 100% of the screen.

Those are the main concerns I have with iOS Notification Center. And then I asked myself: "Why did Apple do it like that? Isn't there a better way?" I thought quite some time about that problem and I think that there actually is one.
My solution is one, that I consider quite elegant, as it's adding value by reducing complexity. My solution is based on the idea of getting rid of one of iOS's levels of interaction. Currently there are 3 levels of iOS from a design point of view:

  • Level 0 is the one everyone is familiar with. It's the layer where Springboard and all the Apps do their magic.
  • Then there is Level -1. It sits underneath the Apps and Springboard. Here's the App Switcher (if you double press "Home") and Siri (if you press and hold "Home"). This Level reveals always exactly as much of itself as is demanded by the content, and it achieves that by pushing Level 0 up on the y-axis. You can always get back to Level 0 just by pressing "Home" or just tapping on it (duh!), as it's always still there, just a bit off-center.
  • And then there's the black sheep… Level +1: Notification Center. Layer +1 is some kind of cloth that you pull over the whole screen to reveal your incoming notifications. Most of the time (if you pull it down by more than about 35%), if you let loose it takes up the whole screen. To get back you can press "Home" (like you're used to), or you have to look for the tiny, low contrast handle to put it back up where it was.

So why don't we just get rid of Level+1 and put Notification Center into Layer -1? Actually… that's the solution that solves all the problems I've elaborated above, by reducing complexity (reducing abstraction layers) and getting the interactions in-line with the one's customers are used to from all the other major experiences like Siri and App Switcher.

So what could this look like? Well I thought of this for a while and this is what I came up with… (Sorry for the German in the images, but I didn't want to translate everything. I think you get the idea) + to try it on your iPhone 5, just download the picture here and take a look at it in your photos app.

Notificationcenterverge_medium

Here's a video I put together of a prototype I built using Quartz Composer. You can see the iPad- (without notifications) and the iPhone version. Check it out! (enjoy in HD)

So now that you know my concept quite a bit, let's discuss how the changes affect the problems we discussed earlier.

  1. "Do I have any new notifications?" Now you just have to scroll down less than 20 percent of the screen real estate to see if you got messages or not. If you let loose the App it doesn't go much further down. You can easily grab it, drag it back up, or just tap the App to resume whatever you've been doing. You could also just let it bounce back by stretching the App quite hard.
  2. One single message? Well…Not a problem any more. You will immediately see the newest message right on top and the order of the messages actually stayed the same as in Apple's own system.
  3. Several unread notifications? This problem also happens to be solved. The tray will open just as much, as much notifications you've got. If you've got more notifications than the amount that can fit on the screen, just scroll (duh!).

And you know what's really great? The Interactions for the user didn't change at all! Still, all you have to do is scroll down from the top of the screen… just like you would do on any other ordinary iOS device ever since.

I strongly believe a Notification Center should be about Notifications and should make dealing with Notifications as easy as possible. I don't think Apple lives up to its full potential. As you can see in my mockups, I'm not a fan of widgets, especially not in Notification Center. I've yet to see someone, who actually uses one of the widgets, except maybe the Weather-Widget, because, well… why not? So I got some other suggestions, which I think are essential to make Notification Center actually a better center for all our notifications. I didn't mock-up those, but will go over them quickly.

  • In my mockups I used the blue dots in front of every message, just like Apple. These are actually quite redundant as they are used to show that something is "unread", which is true for almost everything in Notification Center except Widgets, Calendar Events and Reminders. But don't get me wrong… I don't want to get rid of those blue dots, just make them a bit more useful. First of all, I like them, because not only do they help to differentiate between "messages" (in a sense of being able to read them) and other types of notifications, but they help to structure the layout of the list, just like bulletpoints. (well they are bulletpoints, actually) — But they could do so much more… As they are indicators of the "read-status" of something, why can't you tap a blue point in front of a message, to "mark as read". A lot of times someone texts you back "OK", and to get rid of this you actually have to open "Messages.app", or delete all your "Messages" in Notification Center…
  • …You could take this concept even further and implement something that I think is quite handy. A lot of times I can't deal with Notifications right away and would want to be reminded later about something. What if you could just press and hold the blue dot and up pops a few options to be reminded again "once you leave…", or "in an hour" and so on, just like when you receive a phone call. As Apple owns the infrastructure for all push notifications this could be implemented even without having the developer to write extra code.
  • Getting into Notification Center from an App in "Fullscreen" like a game or a movie is actually quite easy. Just flick down on top of the screen once and grab the little handle. Beautiful! But… why do we need a handle? The customers are used to getting to notification center by swiping down from the "menubar". So why change the user expierence? Why introduce an additional element? It would be just as easy to just show the whole menubar (transparent, to make it less intrusive), and don't confuse the user and actually adding additional value: If you want to check time out of a Fullscreen app you can either quit the app (and check it on Springboard), lock the Phone (and check it on the lockscreen) or (most commonly, probably) swipe down twice to fill up the whole screen with Notification Center (again 100% intrusiveness) to check your time. Not a very elegant solution…
  • The last thing I want to touch is the behavior of pausing audio or video or both when opening Notification Center. First, it's quite confusing when it does pause and when it doesn't. I'm sure there are switches for developers to determine how they want their App to behave, but I think there should be a simpler solution. I'm not quite sure about this, but in my opinion the best solution would be to never pause. This doesn't mean you shouldn't have a fast option to pause if you want to. Most of the time, people don't spend much time in their notification center, so why pause the audio of the TED presentation they're watching? I think it would be much more convenient if, when you are in Notification Center, on top of the App (that is always displayed on the bottom in my concept) you're currently running there would be a Play/Pause button in the middle which you could easily tab if you really want to stop the video because you have to direct as much attention as possible to the notification you just received.

Thanks to Teehan+Lax for providing excellent tools which enabled this concept.Iphonenotificationcente_medium