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

Hana Mohan

Last updated on

This article is a part of our content series "Thoughtful Notifications", you can check out the first part "Fighting Back Against Alert Overload" here.

Smart app creators need to make notifications meaningful for customers by adopting a curator mentality. In the same way an art gallery/museum doesn't put just any piece of work on its walls, apps should carefully consider which messages are worth sending to users.

Of course to do that, you first need to understand their needs and goals.

A mindful notification gets users closer to accomplishing their goals; it does not distract them with irrelevant or unimportant information. Find out what your customers want to accomplish and keep asking yourself, "Is this notification helping users achieve their goals?" If not, you're probably better off holding back.

Learning from the wrong way

Sometimes the best way to illuminate the correct path is to look at the wrong way to do it. So let's examine the elements of ineffective messaging…

Annoying app notifications: It's not immediately clear why the notification is being sent. The tone is confusing or, even worse, comes off as rude/insensitive. It's sent at a random time distracting a user from the task at hand. Or it's sent in the middle of the night while the user is asleep – or when the user is away from a destination/device required to take action on it. And it's sent multiple times "just to be sure."

The end result: Wasteful, inefficient messaging that results in negative emotions for customers.

On the other hand…

Mindful messaging: A mindful notification is crystal clear in its purpose. The tone is concise, clear, and polite. It's sent just in time for users to take the needed action(s). It doesn't distract from essential tasks and it's not sent while the user is asleep. It arrives when they are in the right location (and right mindset) to do something about it. And it's only sent once unless the user requests otherwise.

The result of this sort of approach: Clear, effective communication that leads to positive vibes for customers.

Stick to the essentials

Why is the curator mentality so important? Because users are already overwhelmed. We're living in an age of alert overload and it's not just because of social media – it's also because of the apps we're required to use for work.

These tools force us to endure a neverending stream of annoying and unwanted notifications. "Log off!" people argue. But we can't just abandon the tools we need to do our jobs.

It's easy to blame the end-user, but alert overload isn't their fault; mindful messaging is the responsibility of app creators.

Customers want a small number of thoughtful messages and less notification pollution. Apps that ignore this do so at their own peril.

And let's be clear about the top problem most apps have with messaging: They send too many notifications. "We, as users, have learned to identify and avoid notifications, just as we have learned to identify and avoid ads," explains UX designer Nupur Patel.

The key is to find the right balance in how frequently you contact customers. The folks at SilverBlaze Solutions offer this advice:

For truly effective push notifications, strike a balance between the right information and the right frequency of communication. Going overboard with push alerts and sending information that your customers do not care about will only lead to your alerts being ignored or muted.

So rule number one: Don't flood your users with alerts they don't need.

Tone, emotion, and timing

When you do send a message, it needs to strike the right tone. There's no one-size-fits-all approach for that; the key is to be appropriate for your app's purpose.

You want to use the correct language for your users and their respective situations. You'll want to use a serious/instructive tone to make your users feel secure if you're a banking app. If you're a gaming app, you can probably be more playful.

Always consider the emotions you generate. Your notifications should result in customers feeling the feelings you want to be associated with your platform.

Below, Patel explains how an app's messaging tone can vary:

Based on the situation, the tone of voice of the message could be serious, authoritative, or even instructive in nature. Take, for example, any banking or finance-related applications. Their users' sense of security is primary to the brand, so they have to take extra care with their instructions and build the copy/content to reflect this sense of security…

Users also welcome a break from the mundane and enjoy the experience when brands go for a playful and lighter tone of voice. I ordered one of my meals from Box 8, and they added a playful touch to the notification regarding my delivery by using the word "sooperman."

Timing is integral too.

You want to provide customers with the right message at the right time. You should deliver information at the precise moment a customer is likely to take action on it.

For example: If you're a lunch delivery service, you might want to roll out a deal notification around noon for your customers since that's when people think about ordering lunch. And remember that's noon local time for each customer.

Location, location, location

If your app involves geolocation, you should consider the user's location when sending notifications. Marketer Sarah Hein explains how travel apps can take advantage of a user's location to deliver impactful information:

What can travel destinations do with this information? Instead of treating the journey as a means to an end, destinations can use this time to give visitors information about the environment around them.

For example, in today's mobile environment, a tourist hiking with a smartphone can simultaneously receive material about local landmarks, native vegetation, interesting wildlife, and historical tidbits.

Consider the specifics of your customers and how you can help them "fill in the blanks" with their surroundings. If you're targeting someone who hikes, you could send relevant notifications about local landmarks, interesting wildlife, and local history as they come upon them.

If you make an app for tourists, you could send notifications when users are near to (or arrive at) their destination. If it's a guided tour, you might want to send more notifications at the start, when people need guidance, and fewer once they get the hang of how the tour works.

Also, consider if they're on foot, bike, car, public transportation, etc. That will impact how frequently you contact them. And think about the particulars of where they're visiting; Italy might mean your messaging focuses more on places to eat, while the Rockies might mean you're alerting customers to a shift in ski conditions.

Remember your overarching goal: Enhance the user's experience without overwhelming them.

"But I'm not a travel app." That's okay. That's just one example of how timing and location can be useful considerations.

Perhaps you're building an app for a chain of gyms. Then, you might notify customers with a special deal when they're a few blocks away from their local gym or send a discount offer for personal training if you notice a customer hasn't checked in for a few weeks.

Power to the people

Another essential concept here is to continually give the notification power to your customers.

Important clarification: This isn't about burdening them; users should be able to turn optional alerts on/off, but they also shouldn't have to continually navigate a tricky gauntlet of preferences, in-app settings, etc.

Instead, you should be paying attention to what customers want and make wise choices on their behalf. It's always wise to remember that classic usability tenet: Don't make me think.

To do this, constantly collect feedback from users as frictionless as possible. Notice engagement rates on the messaging you send. Are they being read? Are they helping customers get more done? Do they have a way of easily giving you feedback about the helpfulness (or lack thereof) of these messages?

Notifications aren't a "set it and forget it" kind of thing. Mindful messaging is an ongoing process that requires consistent monitoring. What worked yesterday for one customer may not work tomorrow for another. Take the time to understand how users feel continually truly.

A good example of this approach: Uplight, which brings together energy providers and their customers, spent three months interviewing and surveying users about which notifications they wanted to receive, how often, and in what format. In" Creating Meaningful Business Customer Energy Alerts," Crystal Leaver of Uplight explained how the company uses this information to tailor messages to different customers:

Different users expressed interest in different energy alerts depending on their role, business type, and size.

Small business owners don't have much time to devote to energy efficiency projects, so they want to hear about simple, easy actions 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.

Finally, energy efficiency managers at established companies are keen on understanding the ROI and realizing cost savings after undergoing, for example, an HVAC retrofit project.

Leaver explains that the path to mindful messaging revolves around three simple questions:

  • Which energy alerts would interest our business users?
  • How would they like to receive those alerts?
  • How often do they want to receive updates?

In response to these questions, Uplight steers customers toward the appropriate messaging. It offers a "Preference Center" so users can easily choose which notifications are important to them and how they want to receive them. Leaver explains, "If users are offered a few simple choices, notifications can remain a useful tool rather than a distraction."

Don't blame the messages

Finally, it's also worth noting that even if you create best-of-breed notifications, you still might fail to keep some customers engaged.

We've all heard the phrase, "Don't blame the messenger." Well, it applies to notifications too, except it's more "Don't blame the messages."

If your app isn't delivering a crucial service or improving customers' lives, there will be a ceiling to how meaningful users find any notification you send. On the other hand, your messages will be appreciated if your app solves problems or makes things better for people.

There's no messaging "magic bullet" that will turn things around if the product itself is unhelpful.

And that brings us back to the original problem: Notification fatigue is driving many of us up the wall. The best way to avoid being part of the problem is to cull your app's notifications ruthlessly so only essential communication occurs.

Work hard to be part of the solution, and remember: Sometimes, the best notification you can send is none at all.

Read next: How to Use Attention Resistance to Fight Notification Fatigue.