Sign up

Fighting Back Against Alert Overload

Hana Mohan

Last updated on

Quick summary: It’s not just teens on TikTok that are overwhelmed by technology. Professionals are also struggling to focus, buried under an avalanche of alerts. These workers can’t just “digital detox” – they need to use online tools to get work done. Instead, app creators must seek to do a better job of avoiding alert overload by focusing on sending the right messages at the right time.

We’re online and we’re overwhelmed.

The pandemic forced us to spend even more time glued to our phones and laptops, so we listened to Clubhouse, watched Reels and TikToks, and chatted with coworkers on Slack.

It’s no wonder social media use increased by over 60% during the pandemic. And while technology provided a lifeline during this period, negative side effects abounded too.

From “Zoom fatigue” to social media addiction to increased tic severity, adopting an “always on” mentality overwhelmed our minds.

In response, many experts have focused on the ills of social media. In “Our Brains Are No Match for Our Technology,” Tristan Harris, executive director of the Center for Humane Technology, paints a picture of an alarming future if nothing shifts:

Our addiction to social validation and bursts of “likes” would continue to destroy our attention spans. Our brains would still be drawn to outrage and angry tweets, replacing democratic debate with childlike he-said, she-said. Teenagers would remain vulnerable to online social pressure and cyberbullying, harming their mental health.

Harris’ critiques form a key part of The Social Dilemma, a film using expert testimony from tech whistle-blowers to expose how Big Tech is poisoning us. And while the film provides a valuable perspective society needs to hear, it also has flaws.

Tech reporter Casey Newton points out some of them:

...The film is ridiculous? The dramatized segments include a fictional trio of sociopaths working inside an unnamed social network to design bespoke push notifications to distract their users. They show an anguished family struggling to get the children to put their phones away during dinner. And the ominous piano score that pervades every scene, rather than ratcheting up the tension, gives it all the feeling of camp.

The focus of the film is too narrow.

Overwhelmingly, it puts its spotlight on teens who spend too much time on social media platforms. The underlying premise that’s implied: if we can just fix the algorithms, the kids will be alright.

While there’s truth there, it’s worth noting that kids aren’t only feeling the negative impact of technology; adults are also suffering. And it’s not just regular folks amusing themselves and wasting time on social media.

Remote workers who depend on tech platforms for their careers are also in pain. They’re trying to be productive but feel overwhelmed. “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention,” explains Nobel Laureate Herbert A. Simon.

For this career-oriented demographic, social media platforms aren’t the biggest problem. For them, the very same apps and platforms where work (supposedly) gets done are bombarding them with alerts which prevent the workflow.

In a sad twist, our communication apps are confounding us and our productivity platforms are making us less productive. The call is coming from inside the house.

The Social Dilemma is certainly bringing up important points but the audience/problem is broader. Our technology is also having a negative impact on career-oriented adults who are finding it tougher and tougher to get things done because their devices won’t leave them alone.

Solving this conundrum requires a nuanced view. It’s not just a binary problem of “technology bad, going offline good.” When you depend on an app, you can’t just silence notifications all the time. What we really need are mindful notifications from these platforms we depend on for work.

Alert overload

The first step is to clearly define the problem of ALERT OVERLOAD.

Currently, too many of us are buried under an avalanche of alerts. Our inboxes are polluted and our messages are a mess. It’s not because of some algorithm, it’s because of the apps we use everyday for work.

We finally figured out how to handle SPAM in our email inboxes (thanks to software like Superhuman), yet a similar problem has now infiltrated the rest of our devices. We’re forced to endure a neverending stream of notifications from tools we are unable to turn off.

“Notifications often resemble email marketing in the mid-90s. Impersonal, irrelevant and poorly timed, they’re treated as a badly executed marketing strategy, and not as a publishing channel in and of itself,” writes technology author Geoffrey Keating. “How do we best design smart interruptions that engage rather than annoy customers?”

It’s also worth reiterating who is having this problem. Those suffering the most from alert overload are professionals. These aren’t people seeking distractions. They aim to be productive and focused.

An important point here: This is not the fault of the end-user.

The issue is not that users lack discipline or make poor decisions. The real responsibility lies with the apps which are sending all these notifications. When using work-related tools, the onus shouldn’t be on the end-user to constantly navigate a thicket of notifications.

Software products that ping customers constantly need to do better. With great bandwidth comes great responsibility.

Others are sounding the alarm on alert overload too. UX designer Nupur Patel writes about this intrusion in building meaningful notification systems:

We all have experienced that annoying feeling when we get too many notifications asking us to take actions regarding aspects that are not particularly important at that moment. Timely notifications are integral to the overall proposition of a platform, but they are fast becoming intrusive in nature.

Today’s apps and websites often send notifications regarding things that often don’t really require our immediate attention, and they send them repeatedly. These frequent and thoughtless notifications don’t mean anything to the user after a point.

A better path

The better path is for app creators to adopt a curator mentality and use a more thoughtful approach to notifications.

They should consider how their software communicates with users and impacts their lives daily. Just as Exxon must be careful about oil spills, app creators must be conscious of the messaging pollution it can create in a user’s ecosystem.

How best to do this? To echo JFK’s famous line: Ask not what you want from your customers but what your customers want from you.

Don’t define success by the volume of interactions you have with customers.

“Number of messages sent” and “user time spent on the app” are the wrong metrics of success. It’s not about frequency or quantity of engagement, it’s about communicating effectively.

It’s about sending only necessary messages and then leaving customers alone. You want users to look forward to your notifications instead of feeling like they’re being spammed with promotional clickbait.

It’s also about timing.

Apps should send notifications so users see them when they need them. Don’t act thirsty and bombard users mindlessly. Avoid interrupting them unless you’re helping. Nupur Patel discusses how timing can make or break your notification strategy:

In order to deliver a successful notification strategy, it’s necessary to provide customers with the right message at the right time. But timing means much more than simply segmenting your users by time zones or customizing messages according to the seasonal calendar. It means delivering information at the precise moment a customer is likely to take action.

Always remember the core value your app delivers.

Then, make sure your notification system acts as an accelerant for it. If your notifications aren’t providing value, they’re part of the problem. If you send so many messages that users wind up becoming desensitized to them, you’ve lost the plot. Give them the right messages at the right time.

It’s not just considerate, it’s also better for your business. According to a survey, 64% of users will delete an app if they receive five or more notifications a week. However, 61% of users will continue to use an app if notifications follow their preference settings.

Take a step back to stand out

It may seem counterintuitive, but stepping back from pinging users can be a great way to stand out from your competitors.

Remember: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Generate less noise and you’ll liberate users from the firehose of alerts they receive each day.

Users should feel like they are in control. When you do contact someone, make sure your messages are relevant to that specific user and are being sent according to their individual preferences.

This can be more challenging than it seems. For example, Vsimple points out how often construction-related projects lead to users getting irrelevant notifications:

Because the manufacturing, sale, and delivery pipelines of large items like construction equipment required extensive documentation, employees faced a major challenge: the search to find the emails they needed in the pile was painful and time-consuming. That was mostly because employees were often cc:d in communications that weren’t relevant to them (the sales guy doesn’t need to know what’s in the queue for the finance department, for example).

This is a common issue. A communications mess resulting from everyone being copied on everything leads to a scenario where no one knows who needs to take the next step.

Apps need to go beyond a one-size-fits-all mentality. In “Creating Meaningful Energy Alerts,” Agentis, a digital energy management portal, explains the various preferences energy customers have for notifications:

Nearly every user we surveyed expressed an interest in at least one type of energy alert, but different users expressed interest in different energy alerts depending on their role, business type, and size.

Small business owners don’t have a lot of time to devote to energy efficiency projects, so they want to hear about simple, easy actions they can take to see energy cost savings (e.g. adjusting thermostat settings for a holiday weekend).

In contrast, facilities managers at larger companies may have other sophisticated energy monitoring tools and are looking for near real-time notifications to help avoid utility fees for high “spikes” in demand.

Smart apps recognize that different users want different messages. And they want them at different times too, as Geoffrey Keating explains:

In order to deliver a successful notification strategy, it’s necessary to provide customers with the right message at the right time. But timing means much more than simply segmenting your users by time zones, or customizing messages according to the seasonal calendar. It means delivering information at the precise moment a customer is likely to take action.

Questions to ask

The path to mindful messaging involves asking the right questions.

  1. What is the user’s role?
  2. How do they prefer to receive alerts?
  3. Does someone in Sales need to see a notification for Developers?
  4. Do they need to see every update or just ones that are immediately relevant?
  5. Should notifications be sent in-app and then (and only then) via email if the customer fails to see it there?
  6. Can we segment users effectively?
  7. Do users want support, motivation, or recognition?
  8. Can users customize their notification preferences and mediums (web push, in the app, or email) without going through a maze of menus?
  9. Are announcements being used in a way that’s beneficial to the customer or solely to the app creator?
  10. Are there ways to use segmenting, personalization, and thoughtful timelines to improve notifications?

By asking questions like this (and considering the answers carefully), you’re likely to avoid alert overdose.

And that means happier, more productive customers.

Read next: Mindful notifications. How to make an app-to-user communication more meaningful.