August 22, 2017

Dark Patterns in Notifications

Recently, I’ve spent a good amount of time clearing notifications from my iOS lock screen and Notification Center. More email notifications and push alerts pour down every minute, covering everything from what Millennials are killing next’ to a selfie a friend-of-a-friend posted on Instagram.

Much of this rift raft can be seemingly blamed on veiled attempts for companies to boost engagement numbers. Let’s look at Facebook’s Yammer knock-off, known as Facebook Workplace.

My employer tried Facebook Workplace for roughly one week before quietly abandoning it. Facebook, seemingly feeling lonely at night, began to postmark periodic emails to me containing recent“ notifications. Again, perhaps this behavior would be acceptable if team mates were @mentioning me. One could indeed stretch the logic to include summary updates from groups I’m a member of. (Though drip notification campaigns to re-engage users seem dubious at best.)

No, no, no. The notifications Facebook emails to all our employees are their own platform’s inactivity notifications” that they themselves generate. Facebook is inventing notifications to have a reason to notify us that we haven’t made anything notification-worthy recently.

Facebook Workplace Invented NotificationsFacebook Workplace Invented Notifications

Clicking through left me with these notificationsClicking through left me with these notifications

Invented notifications are dark patterns. Inactivity reports and growth hacking type reminders that I didn’t specifically enable are dark patterns. Unless you’re a rare unicorn user, I doubt you like reminders to use a given app. I doubt any user regularly is thrilled that Tumblr, Twitter, or Instagram is reminding me about another cousin— twice removed — exciting day.

Tumblr's awesome notification spamTumblr's awesome notification spam

Apple even has a (loosely enforced) App Store guideline around such spammy notifications. Rumor has it that the reviews team threatened to pull Tumblr multiple times over their egregious push spam. I wish they had followed through with that threat.

Apple App Store Review Guidelines on notification spamApple App Store Review Guidelines on notification spam

At least we can look to wonderful companies like Duolingo who automatically disable notifications when they aren’t effective. Though, to be completely honest, their rhetoric could be less disheartening. (Perhaps the notifications could quietly vanish, disappearing into the early hours of the morning like tertiary party guests. Popping up again to check in once you re-open the app, and only then asking you to clarify your notification tolerance levels.)

Duolingo stops sending push notifications if you ignore themDuolingo stops sending push notifications if you ignore them

Designers and product managers working for these popular applications have the ability to interrupt millions of lives on a regular basis. Vibrate millions of pockets. Interrupt thousands of important conversations. Embarrass hundreds of users projecting their phones or laptops onto conference room screens. Escalate dozens of arguments between parents and teens when the latter becomes distracted by a notification during a particularly long lecture and breaks contact to check the alert— only to find their attempt to find a minor reprieve backfired, leaving weeks before their phone privileges are restored.

It’s a power that comes with a great responsibility. I hope you’ll take it seriously.


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