Тhe Sordid State of Apple’s Notifications

You used to be able to quit an application on a Mac and that would silence notifications from that application.

This led to effortless customization. If I wanted to work on something, I’d only have the applications open that I needed, closing anything that sends distracting notifications.

The mental model is simple enough to master in seconds. While I’m casually browsing the web, keep apps open that I wouldn’t mind getting notifications from. Close stuff when I need to focus.

iPhones and iPads complicated matters because applications don’t fully close, and in many cases, the primary entry point to apps is via notifications.

Mobile devices used to have a hard on/off switch for notifications. You’d flip it on and there would be no incoming notifications. Period.

But then it starting getting more complicated. Apple added focus modes, which seemed like a great idea, at first. As a “smart” version of the original Do Not Disturb setting, I could set a filter to get important notifications and look at the rest later. Instead this destroyed the entire concept of Do Not Disturb.

Now when I look at my phone or iPad this is what I see:

A supposedly silenced notification is just as noticeable as a regular one

At least I don’t see a preview of this flash across my screen, but I still see this each time I pick up my phone, even if it’s just to check the time. This is really the worst way to handle this. Now I know I have a notification, but can’t see it. If I ignore it, it’s still gnawing at the back of my mind and distracting me even more than if I had just seen the actual notification.

If you get really good at manipulating your device just right, you won’t trigger the notification center when unlocking your phone. But that’s not really the point. It’s become harder to control your own device.

As far as I can tell, there’s no way to turn these off or go back to the old way of having Do Not Disturb mode literally turning off notifications until you turned them back on.

Things are getting worse on the Mac. Quitting the Messages app no longer turns off notifications. Before if I wanted to focus on work or knew I’d be working together with someone, I’d simply quit my messaging apps. Now I’ll still get notifications from Messages regardless.

Despite a lot of cosmetic customization features, we’re losing control over the devices we own. Today it’s harder to have my device display what I want it to display to than it was a few years ago.

There are workarounds, but they are all complex. You can schedule notifications, create automatically shifting focus modes, set up filters and endless fiddling. And then you realize you still didn’t set it up right. That’s all a far cry from it just works.

The fundamental design flaw

Apple went wrong by abandoning progressive enhancement. Had Apple kept the original Do Not Disturb intact and then added additional focus modes, there would be no issue. Those who wanted a blunt yet simple tool would turn on Do Not Disturb as needed and not have bothered with the rest. The power users would have have geeked out with all the custom filters and automations.

Likewise, there should have been a way to opt in to “show me notifications even when this application isn’t open”. Some people would find this genuinely useful. Others not so much

Apple use to excel at progressive enhancement — with dedicated power users and casual non-techies equally enjoying their Apple devices. Now I see power users and those who sort of go with the flow of devices they tolerate.

How we got here

Discerning motives is a questionable enterprise, but it’s worth at least discussing general trends that may have caused the current state of affairs. It could ultimately be nothing as well. When Apple dives in on something new, they tend to either nail it or belly flop.

  1. As much as Apple doesn’t monetize engagement like Facebook and Google, making phones more addictive does help Apple’s bottom line. Apple doesn’t really care whether you want a new iPhone so you can post pictures to Instagram or share them via iCloud.
  2. The tech-bro culture can’t fathom that regular people don’t time block every second of the day in a way that fits nicely into Apple’s focus modes. The fact that the focus modes are inherently leaky is because tech-bros want them to. Having a focus mode turned on and visible to the world is more important than actually silencing notifications.
  3. Grueling release schedules force design teams to work too quickly, thereby churning out half baked ideas.
  4. Over-designing and over-engineering are rewarded within the corporate culture. A subtle progressive enhancement doesn’t make a splash in a marketing key note as much as a brand new™ widget, even if the subtle design is actually superior.

Why it matters to me

This goes beyond how Apple typically releases beta products. I’ve grown increasingly convinced that the constant notifications from our devices are affecting us in unforeseen and profound ways.

An alarming blog post about attention span has been making the rounds. It’s a long slog but worth the read.

I’m not so sure the answer entirely lies in abandoning our devices altogether or switching on airplane mode for much of the day. My iPad’s a useful tool. I do a lot of reading on it, plus plenty of note taking. I often write, or at least sketch out ideas, with just a pen and paper, but I often need my phone to look something up or reference a note. I should be able to have connectivity without a barrage of notifications.

After the first day or two of silencing most notifications, you kind of forget that they exist. Instead there’s a feeling of “ah yeah, time to check what’s going on” a few times a day. And I find that friends don’t really notice whether you respond a few hours later to a random text instead.

That’s why I don’t think this is an unrealistic pipe dream to have our devices working for us, under our control. And once that happens, we’ll all be just a little bit happier.