The Future of Notifications Could Be Less Annoying

Google is trying to make alerts less intrusive

  • Google is working on a new notification system that substitutes pings and chimes for methods like moving shadows, physical taps, or even puffs of air.
  • With an increasing number of devices and apps sending alerts, many users find it hard to concentrate.
  • BeReal is a new photo-sharing app that reminds users to share a snapshot only once a day.
Someone at a bathroom sink in their home with a smartphone nearby lit up by a notification.

Willie B. Thomas / Getty Images

If you can’t stand to hear the sound of another device notification, you’re not alone, and manufacturers hear your pain. 

Google is working on a new type of notification system for smart home devices called Little Signals. The concept substitutes pings and chimes for methods like moving shadows, physical taps, or even puffs of air. Many users apparently can’t wait to stop all the ringing sounds and flashing alerts.

"Notifications fatigue is a real thing," Mike Welsh, the chief creative officer of the digital consulting company Mobiquity told Lifewire in an email interview. "Brands on all platforms need to understand you aren’t dealing with nameless, faceless users on the other end of a transaction. You’re dealing with an entire person with an entire life outside of the interactions you initiate. When it comes to notifications, less is more."

Quieter Alerts

A Google website shows off the new Little Signals concept as part of an overall effort to create ambient computing. The company wants to merge all users' notifications from different devices and convert them into less intrusive signals.

Google researchers say that people receive notifications in many ways, ranging from the movement of hands on a clock to the ringing of a phone. The Google team suggests that such a wide array of signaling could be stressing us out. 

To address the problem, the researchers propose six devices designed to deliver notification signals in different and gentle ways. "The six objects in this design study make use of different sensorial cues to subtly signal for attention," Google writes on its explanation page. "They keep us in the loop, but softly, moving from the background to the foreground as needed."

One Little Signals device called Air sends notifications via puffs of air, similar, Google says, to the slight movement of leaves on a plant as they rustle in response to a slight breeze. Another device named Button grows as it fills with information, such as messages piling up in an email folder. Twisting it one way reveals more details, while turning the other reveals fewer details. A device called Movement has seven pegs lined up, which rise and fall to suggest timer or calendar notifications.

There’s also Shadow, a device that communicates via shadows by stretching its long top. Google says this alert is meant to respond to a user's presence. Google also proposes Tap, a device that creates sounds by physically tapping nearby items and surfaces. The intensity of a tap is meant to correspond to the urgency level of the notification.

Finding Calm

With an increasing number of devices and apps sending alerts, many users find it hard to concentrate. Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, has conducted research that finds that the average office worker focuses on a single task for just three minutes. 

To regain some of this lost time, software developers are also increasingly keeping things on the down-low. BeReal, for example, is a new photo-sharing app that lets users share a daily snapshot of their day. Once a day—at a random time—users receive a notification from the app that it’s time to post their BeReal of the day. 

The Tap notification device that's part of the Google Signals project.

Google

Users have two minutes to take a photo of whatever they’re doing, and just as the back-facing camera on their phone snaps their activity, the front-facing camera takes a photo of the user. The idea behind the app seems to be to keep people from posting pictures online too often. 

"We’ve noticed companies more and more leaning towards building systems that don’t utilize a lot of notifications," David Galownia, the CEO of the software design company Slingshot told Lifewire via email. "Think a day’s or week’s review as opposed to sending a *bling* every time there’s something going on. You could also let customers choose how often and how they get notified."

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