The Three Push Notification Taxes

Push notifications are awesome, right? I think so, and have for a while. Yet, recently, they’ve been on my end ever since iOS 8 reveals which apps take up battery power. And, then, a funny thing happened — my love for push notifications was called into question. As I’ve been mulling it over, I have found there are three big problems with notifications (as they are construed today). I call these “The Three Push Notification Taxes:”

[1] User Interface & Control Tax: The whole way Apple has dealt with user permissions and how the average person controls their notifications just doesn’t make sense to me. I find it tiring to manage all the various options (pop up vs banner, badge vs sound, etc.), so I can’t imagine what the average consumer does other than just throw up their hands and move on. The result is that we all get more notifications, usually, because competition for attention and distribution is so intense on mobile, developers live by the push notification to get users back into their app, which helps foster two more taxes…

[2] Cognitive Load Tax: Interruptions, galore. We all know this. Yes, “Do Not Disturb” is a great meta-OS level settings options to suppress any notification outside of a phone call from a contact marked “favorite,” but in the absence of that, notification buzzes, sounds, vibrations, and “pings” ring through the rooms and our minds, splitting our focus for even a split-millisecond. (I’ve been reading “Organized Mind” and have been lately obsessed with the author’s simple yet powerful framing — that we as humans evolved in a simple hunter-gatherer setting and had to make a normal set of simple decisions a day, but today, we have to make so many more. Given how much we look at our phones to begin with, push notifications add an extra cognitive tax on our brains.)

[3] Battery Tax: Yeah, but we’re not going to stop looking at notifications, right? I thought so too, until iOS 8 created a setting under “usage” to determine which apps were hogging battery power. I have been following mine over the weeks. The highest one is TweetBot, because I live inside that app. It makes sense. But, consistently, “Homescreen” has been either #2 or #3 ranked battery hog offender. Turns out, notifications sent by the device when “Do Not Disturb” is not activated essentially “wake up” the screen of the phone, which requires battery — significant battery. Even with tightly groomed controls for push rules, I may get over 100 push notifications per day, and that means my phone needs to wake up for each one and then stay lit for a while after the push, soaking up battery rays in the process. (Open this Twitter thread and see screenshots of battery usage from other people.)

Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of push notifications and all the new interactive features that will roll out moving forward. And, most people won’t likely care about the points I’ve made above, but I found myself questioning enabling push outside of some key apps, and now a few days in (with “Do Not Disturb” on most of the times), I’ve noticed things feel calmer as I’ve minimized these taxes. I still get push, but I control which apps (about 10, most infrequent) can notify me, and I have to physically wake up the phone (which impacts battery) in order to see them. Since, I’ve experience better battery performance, better app experiences, and less of a cognitive burden to shoulder. What’s concerning for iOS, however, is the Apple Watch. Notifications become more important as people may begin to “glance” at their phones more.

Haystack is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2018 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus