User-friendly push notifications

April 1, 2016

Push notifications are amazing. With iOS and also Android, developers are able to send a notification to the user’s device. A notification of breaking news if you built a news app, a bid on the user’s for sale time or a message from a potential date. Push notifications are great to engage and re-engage a user. However, push notifications done wrong can be annoying and even lead to uninstalls. So let’s look how you can do push notifications in a user-friendly way.

Ask for permissions when relevant

Android recently changed its permission model with Android 6.0 (API level 23) and is now on par with iOS. Both platforms allow you to ask for the required permissions after installation at any moment. Notifications can be invasive, so you have to explain to a user why he/she should allow you to push notifications to the app. The best way is to ask at a relevant time: the user puts a product up for sale, ask how he/she wants to be notified and offer push notifications. Asking for permissions immediately at installation is crude and premature. Does the user trust your brand? What added value does your app offer? The user hasn’t had a chance yet to answer those questions, so will be inclined to decline permissions for your push notifications. And reversing that decision via System settings is very hard, so you lost forever the possibility to sent notifications to that user.

Lately it has become a trend to first show a pre-permission modal dialog explaining why your app needs push notifications. After the OK the OS then shows the standard permissions dialog. I find that a bit cumbersome. If it is clear why you want to send notifications, there is no need to have an extra modal.

Send only relevant notifications

By definition your users are doing something. You are interrupting them and are asking for their attention. Yes a push notification is not as invasive as a phone call. Still a user will have to grab their phone, pull the phone out of their bag or pocket. Then he/she needs to unlock the screen maybe and process your message. In short, there is a cost involved for the user and your notification should be worth it. So send relevant information that offers value to the user.

Time it right and limit number of notifications

Push notifications are by definition disruptive, but how much depends on the user’s situation A user might be asleep. At work in meetings, having dinner with the family. Or waiting on the elevator or be on the bus. You should try to minimize disruption and find the best time to send notifications. Also, don’t send too many notifications. Make sure to send user-friendly notifications that don’t irritate the user. For some notifications it is clear, like when you receive a message from another user. But some notifications like news item of the day allow you to choose your time.

Make notifications configurable

Let the user decide what events should send a push notification and what not. Giving users granular control over their notifications will make them feel empowered and less likely to completely turn off notifications or delete your app.

Integrate well with your app

User-friendly push notifications will take the user to the relevant view in your app. Ready to read that content, or reply to that message. Embed urls in your push notification that your app can parse to find out what view you should show. Or for iOS, use interactive notifications.

Sync across devices

Users have multiple devices. iPhones and iPads. Personal computers. Pushing the same notification to all devices will create a barriage of beeps. If possible, invest the time to detect what is the best device to send the notification to. Slack is a great example of a service that neatly manages notifications across devices. When you run the Slack desktop app and receive a notification, no notification is sent to your iPhone app. When you close your desktop app, suddenly user-friendly push notifications arrive on your phone.

Monitor and tune

It is very important that you monitor what effect your notifications have. Don’t just fire and forget, that will mean you will lose users. With a few lines of code you can detect on iOS and Android if an app is openend after a notification. Track those event. In particular re-engagement notifications are important to monitor. They have the power to turn a dormant user in an active user. Or make the user realize he/she doesn’t need your app after too many irrelevant and therefore annoying notifications and to uninstall it.

What apps do you know handle their notifications well and send only user-friendly push notifications?


Dirk de Kok