Notifications and digital ecosystems: an interview with John Saito, from Dropbox

How can we connect all the pieces of the digital puzzle together without disturbing the users with meaningless notifications?

State of UX 201 7, Illustration by Pablo Stanley
Following up our report on the State of UX in 2017, we are interviewing designers who are big thinkers for each one of these important themes for the design community in 2017. Let’s keep the conversation going!

We dream of a future with connected and ubiquitous experiences, but we still feel overwhelmed with the notifications across all our devices. In this last piece of our series, we interviewed John Saito about how we can keep users sane and avoid the (+99) notifications on their devices.

Stitching all the pieces together

Both the Apple Watch and Alexa let users request an Uber ride without having to touch their phone. While this may sound frivolous, it sets the tone for what people expect from technology: a fully connected and ubiquitous experience. As designers, how do we connect all the pieces of the puzzle together?

For UX designers, designing connected, ubiquitous experiences is a twofold challenge.

If you work at a hardware company that is building these connected devices (like Apple Watch and Alexa), the biggest challenge is to understand how people will interact with these objects — voice, gesture, location or display — and design the right interaction model around that behavior.

However, chances are you work for a service company (like Uber) who is designing experiences that run on those devices. In that case, your job is to think through how the service will work on an increasingly vast ecosystem of channels and touchpoints, that is only getting more fragmented every day. You won’t have as much control over your users’ experiences as you did when you were designing “just a mobile app” or “just a website”.

Can I request an Uber ride from Alexa, receive the ETA on my Apple Watch, split the fare with a friend on Messenger and rate the ride on my phone App?

As designers, how do we make sure such a fragmented experience still feels like it is coming from the same brand?

The challenge becomes to design the minimum possible interactions and to focus on people’s behavior — not just add noise to this already complex ecosystem. To help us on that, user journeys, ecosystem maps, and physical prototypes become important design tools this year.

“Technology should require the smallest possible amount of attention” — Amber Case, Calm Tech

We will need to keep in mind that users are more than metrics in a dashboard and, instead of talking about user retention, we will start talking about how relevant the interactions are.

In 2017 we won’t necessarily be designing the whole ecosystem, but the ways people transition from one touchpoint to the other.

John Saito designs words at Dropbox and previously worked at Youtube and Google. He shares his thoughts on design here on Medium.

Today’s ecosystems are built by multiple pieces and players. Who should manage the notifications: the service itself, like Uber and Spotify, or the hub, like Alexa and Google Home?

John: I think both the platform and the service should be responsible for serving people the right notifications at the right time. In my dream world, I’d love to go to a single screen on my phone, computer, or any other device, and then see all the notifications I’m currently getting. From there, I’d want a way to customize the content and frequency of each notification.

In my dream world, I’d love to go to a single screen and see all the notifications I’m currently getting.

But it’s up to the individual services to actually surface the right notification settings. For example, I’m a huge fan of Medium, and I find most of their notifications useful. But one notification that isn’t useful to me is the one that says “so-and-so highlighted your story.” On some days, I’ll get over a dozen of these email notifications, which I delete right away. Sadly, there isn’t a way to turn off these highlight notifications without turning off other notifications that I find useful. That’s a limitation of the service, not the platform.

How do ensure that users have a calm experience with our products and services and are not burnt out by notifications and alerts?

John: For most product experiences, you can do usability studies to see if you’re on the right track. But notifications can’t be studied in a research lab. Notifications happen in the real world, not in a lab. They happen when you’re out and about, when you’re not expecting them, when you’re in the middle of something important.

Notifications happen in the real world, not in a lab.

Because it’s difficult to study notifications in the real world, some companies might just look at engagement and opt-out metrics to measure the success of a notification. I think that’s dangerous. Engagement and opt-out metrics aren’t telling you the whole story. Engagement for notifications might be high because some users aren’t busy at that moment. Opt-out rates might be low because some users don’t know how to opt out.

Instead, it might be helpful to define principles for when to send out notifications and how often people should get them. For example, you might start out with some basic principles like this:

Only send push notifications if:

︎✔ They’re timely

✔ They’re relevant

✔ They’re useful

And then you can drill down into the details. Should similar notifications be grouped together? Should the notification be sent to all their devices? What time is the best time to send notifications to this user? Should users also receive an email about it?

There are so many details to designing notifications, and it requires a lot of thoughtful decisions.

You can’t just think about the words or the visual design of a notification. You have to understand how that notification fits into the user’s life.

What is the biggest challenge for UX designers and writers to design for these fragmented experiences?

John: I think the biggest challenge is just finding the right balance. Some users really hate notifications. Others find them really useful. I try to act on notifications as soon as they arrive, but I know some people have dozens of unread notifications just hanging out on their lock screen. That would drive me nuts!

Rather than guessing what each user wants, I’d love it if all services just made it easy for users to opt out or opt in to the notifications they want.

With so many notifications being sent, it’s also hard to understand how your product fits in with all the other products that people use. Your app might only be sending out 3 notifications per day, but if a user is already getting dozens of other notifications, that might be 3 notifications too many. You don’t know what other apps are sending, so it’s hard to paint a clear picture of what the user is experiencing. And that makes it hard to design for.

How do you see the role of UX designers changing with these new challenges? Is it a job for a new type of specialized designer?

John: As design teams grow and mature, roles tend to become more and more specialized. Larger teams often have specialized roles like Visual Designer, Motion Designer, Content Designer, Communication Designer, Interaction Designer, Systems Designer, You-Name-It Designer.

I’m not a fan of putting strict labels around roles. An experience is the end result of all those design components put together — the visuals, the words, the interactions, the system, and so on.

If we become too specialized, it’s easy for things like notifications to fall through the cracks and not get enough design love. If you’re involved in the design process, I think it’s your responsibility to think about the whole user experience.

No matter what your business card says, I think it’s every designer’s responsibility to make sure the product experience is great from start to finish.

Follow John Saito on Medium to learn more about the craft of designing words. And don't forget to check all the interviews about the State of UX.

Author: Caio Braga

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