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Apple finally has the right attitude about notifications in iOS 12

Apple finally has the right attitude about notifications in iOS 12


You can’t keep notifications simple anymore

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There were a lot of great features announced last week at Apple’s WWDC, but the one that’s going to have the biggest effect on my day-to-day life is the overhaul to how notifications are managed in iOS 12.

Back in April, I detailed four things that Android does better than the iPhone when it comes to notifications. With iOS 12, Apple has taken care of three of them. Notifications can be grouped, it’s easier to make them silently appear, and, most importantly, you can directly manage settings from the notification itself. Android P still claims to do a better job of prioritizing notifications, but three out of four isn’t bad.

I suspect that the features Apple added to iOS 12 will go a very long way toward helping people get control over their notifications. Dealing with notifications was one of the iPhone’s most glaring UI deficiencies compared to Android, and I am glad to see something a little closer to parity coming.

You can get a rundown of how the new features work in the video above. But I should note that this is an early developer preview, so don’t install it on your main phone. Things might change between now and the public beta later this month as well as between the public betas and the official release. So I’m not going to say definitively whether these changes are actually enough.

There’s been a change in attitude about notifications inside Apple

More important than a bulleted list of features is what I think is a change in attitude about notifications inside Apple. In years past when I’d complain about them, I would basically hear a message that trying to manage your entire phone experience through a notification center was a recipe for a bad experience. That’s perhaps true, but it also missed the point: the increasing influx of notifications was real, and we need a better way to handle them.

With iOS 12, I see Apple actually contending with that bare fact. Along with the basic changes to managing the notifications, it also added the Screen Time feature to help you manage how much time you spend on your phone. (Google announced a similar thing for Android P, but the likelihood that a majority of Android users will get P in the next six months is tiny.) Apple also added more nuanced controls for Do Not Disturb.

Taken together, I see a shift away from treating notifications as a feed of information you just dip in and out of. It’s a recognition that notifications are like email: some are very important, most are not, and we need ways to differentiate between them.

Some of the iPhone’s new notification features are deeper and more interesting than I first realized. You can set time limits and location limits for when DND should end, but Apple is also using on-device analysis to suggest it. When a meeting pops up, Siri might send a notification saying your meeting “looks important! Turn on Do Not Disturb until the end of this event.” Check out the screenshot below:

Siri recognized Movie Pass in my Apple Wallet and prompted me to turn on DND until I left the movie theater. Clever.

What’s important about this attitude shift is that Apple is adding quite a bit of complexity to iOS. It’s a recognition that hard problems like notifications sometimes require complicated solutions. Whether or not Apple has struck the right balance of simplicity and complexity is a matter for the review, but for right now, I think I can speak to the philosophy of it.

Keep it simple, but not too simple — Notification management has been too simple

Apple is leaving the default behavior pretty simple but giving us slightly faster ways to dive into its complex underpinnings. For example, tapping “Deliver Quietly” doesn’t do anything magical. It just sets up some already-existing settings for how a notification should arrive. Preventing notifications from buzzing your phone in one step is a great, helpful thing that tons of people will use. If you want more complexity, you can go in and mess with more discrete settings like Temporary vs. Persistent banners yourself. But you don’t have to.

Another example of contending with complexity is that Apple is finally recognizing that a ton of apps have their own in-app notification settings in addition to the global settings. For example, a news app has different categories of news, and a sports app has notifications for your team. Apple has made it easy for developers to deep-link into their in-app settings and put those links at the bottom of the global settings. It also put them in the pop-up for when you want to turn off notifications, giving developers one last chance to stay on your lock screen.

There’s another change that didn’t get mentioned on the main keynote stage but inside one of the developer sessions instead: Designing Notifications. Until now, developers only had a blunt instrument for sending you notifications: a pop-up asking if you want them. With iOS 12, developers can send their first notification directly to the Notification Center without asking your permission. That sounds awful, but the first time one appears, it will do so along with a prompt asking if you really want them or not.

I haven’t decided whether I think this is a good idea or not, but I will say that it feels like it’s come out of some actual hard thought about how to balance the desires of developers and the desires of users. (The portion where this new feature is described is around 6:45 to 12:00 in this presentation.)

You have to do more mental work to manage notifications than you might realize

If you’re sort of trying to wrap your head around how all this works, welcome to the club. What Apple has done here is conceptually complicated. There are a bunch of abstractions to figure out when it comes to managing notifications in iOS, all with the goal of making your phone a little quieter and simpler. Luckily, human beings are very good at understanding new abstract concepts, and I’m heartened to see that Apple is willing to give us enough credit to do just that.

Top among those abstractions is that the Notification Center and the Lock Screen are now completely different spaces with different behaviors, but they are nevertheless subtly linked in certain ways. The Lock Screen only shows notifications that have come in since you last put your phone to sleep, whereas the Notification Center acts as a history of all the notifications you missed. Except now its also a place where notifications can silently appear, bypassing your lock screen.

I don’t mean to say that new abstractions are a detraction from the iOS notification experience, only that they’re necessary. A flat, unsorted list doesn’t cut it with email or to-do lists or even your agenda for the day. Notifications on your phone are a much more vital (or vampiric, depending on your mode) feature than ever, and so they demand more complicated tools to manage them.