We Live in a Mobile Device Notification Hell

Notification Hell
Notification Hell

On a hot Sunday afternoon I found myself walking around Menlo Park Mall in central NJ with my wife and kids. My phone vibrated because someone’s automatic spambot just faved a dozen of my photos on Flickr1. Bitstrips app wanted to let me know that I have new Bitstrips waiting for me. 10App demanded my attention reminding me to make a YouTube video of what my kids did today.

As we walked past Verizon store, my phone got all excited telling me about all the things I can buy there. Apple Store wanted to remind me I have my order waiting for pick-up, even though I picked it up a week ago.

Flipboard decided to notify me that a barely dressed coffee aficionado interior decorator started following me. I have hundreds of messages unread in my personal email account and dozens of LinkedIn notifications of recruiters telling me about “Urgent Java openings” that have nothing to do with my career goals.

When I got back home my iPad’s screen was filled with the same exact notifications that my iPhone told me about, as if iPad is unaware it is owned by the same person and that I already acknowledged them. To make the matters worse my MacBook’s notification screen was repeating them as well.

We live in a notification hell world of smartphones, and every year it is getting worse. Our presumably smart devices are incapable of differentiating between what is important and what is not. The social sharing apps like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram want our constant attention. Flickr is now a spam-bot haven — any time I post a picture, any hour of the day, it is immediately favorited by the same 3 people who have millions of favorites in their photostreams.

No wonder I have no desire to buy a smart-watch2 and I keep my iPhone permanently in a “Do Not Disturb” mode. Why would I want to add a yet another device that I have on me that will constantly demand my attention ?

Buried in their smartphones

While I miss the days of simple flip-phones, I can’t deny the convenience of smart mobile devices. They allow us to work where and when we want. They allow us to get the best price for products we shop for. Yet, I would love nothing more than to stop all the meaningless blinking, beeping and flashing.

We need intelligence built into mobile push notifications. While it is possible to selectively enable or disable notifications by the app, it is simply not enough. When I see a notification I want to swipe it and say “It’s not important” and have my device learn over time and stop alerting me of it3. This learning is then propagated to all of my devices.

Once I acknowledged a notification there is no need for my other devices to tell me about it again. There is nothing stopping my MacBook, iPhone and iPad from knowing that I already read my brother’s Facebook update. They can decrement the notification counters and remove that notification from their respective screens.

There used to be a joke in the software engineering circles that a software platform reaches the end of its natural lifecycle when it becomes capable of browsing the web. In 2015 it seems that any app loses its usefulness the moment it allows social sharing and public APIs. Once social sharing is enabled and public APIs are published the app becomes a medium for spam. Consider all the outfits that let you “buy” Twitter, Instagram, Flickr or Facebook followers.

Social Media
Social Media

I used to love Flipboard and used it daily to read the news. Then one day Flipboard allowed “likes” and “follows”. Within days I went from zero followers to a few dozen followers, all of which are skinny women calling themselves “internet mavens”, “social media aficionados” and “interior decorators.” Somehow they were all interested in Big Data, international politics, and stock market investments. I uninstalled Flipboard until I read somewhere that they started allowing private profiles that one has to opt-in.

It is not complicated for social media platforms to tell who is a bot and who is not. On Flickr, for example, an account with a million favorites but only a couple hundred photos that haven’t been updated in a couple of years is a spam bot4. These platforms can impose API limits — it is simply not humanly possible for someone to have a million favorite photos on Flickr, for instance.

Vast majority of us are not doctors5, military, police or firefighters — we have no real work emergencies. Most of us do not deal with life and death situations as part of our jobs. In software engineering what we typically call emergencies are self-inflicted manufactured crises. And yet, with proliferation of smart mobile devices we are expected to be constantly in contact with our work.

We need enterprise apps on our devices to know what’s important and to learn what is not. Enterprise apps should not be constantly notifying us of “work” we would rather not be doing on our spare time. Instead, they should be reminding us of our goals and helping us succeed.


  1. https://www.flickr.com/photos/olegdulin 
  2. Why I am not getting an Apple Watch 
  3. I am thinking something along the lines of a Bayesian-network based spam filter. 
  4. It is disappointing to see some well-known photographers utilize the services of spammers. 
  5. Software Engineers Are Not Doctors 

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