Push(y) Notifications

As an early adopter of smartphones, and product manager at a company with an iPhone app, I. Love. Push Notifications. They provide relevant information at appropriate times and locations, and a quick entry point for the user to exactly where they want to go within an app. However, companies are (rightly) approaching this new direct-communication method cautiously. There are several reasons why, one of which will be familiar to anyone who has studied the Tragedy of the Commons.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term or the product itself, “push notifications” refer to the pop-up banners that show up on your smartphone lock screen when certain conditions are met. The most common ones are email or text message notifications (phone calls generally trigger a full-screen UI change, so those don’t really count – voicemail notifications might though).

Since smartphones are, well, smart, they include a lot of useful features that can make your life better – in this case, most notably, GPS. Some apps request access to your location (via GPS) when you install them, or try to activate a certain feature. In some cases, the reason is obvious – Google Maps isn’t much good to you if it doesn’t know where your starting location is or where you are mid-journey. Others are more nuanced – like Facebook wanting to know so that it can attach the location information to your posts.

But apps like Facebook, where the primary use isn’t providing GPS directions, can take advantage of this in other ways. The American Express app, for example, tracks your location and, if it detects you are within a certain distance of a restaurant or business offering a discount to American Express Members, will send you a little push notification alerting you to the deal.

Hold on, tracks your location? That’s right – in order to provide this feature occasionally, American Express has to track your GPS coordinates constantly. It’s a tradeoff users are willing to make in certain circumstances – namely, if the benefit of the notification outweighs the “invasion of privacy”. American Express was able to capitalize on this technology relatively early, likely in part because of their reputation as a secure, trustworthy company. They already have all your financial information anyways, what’s a few GPS data points on top of that?

Other companies have been slower to integrate push notifications. Not everyone benefits from the type of reputation American Express has, or offers notifications with sufficient value to convince users to activate/allow tracking. This “creepy” factor means that a company that attempts push notifications too early, or in the wrong context gets location tracking turned off or worse, the app uninstalled entirely. Imagine the McDonalds app pinging you furiously if it detected you were at a Burger King? Not only would this hurt the app installation rate, it might damage the company’s brand as a whole.

Eventually though, companies are starting to test the waters. One widely used technique is to display a false sense of inaccuracy to the notification, or present the prompt as a question. “Did you visit Boston recently?” or “How was your trip?” seem less invasive than “Tell us how your lunch was at Flour Bakery on 131 Clarendon St”.

Which will eventually lead to a digital tragedy of the commons on your smartphones lock screen. As more apps begin pushing notifications, although each one individually provides value, and even if each app is careful not to overwhelm the user with notifications by themselves, users will eventually become flooded with constant pinging and notifications popping up from all of their collective apps. There’s a good chance this leads users to disable push notifications entirely, since it’s less effort than disabling individual apps.

At this point, having users who agree to receiving too many push notifications may seem like a good problem for companies to have. And it is likely a little ways off in the future. However, companies will have to be careful that once they’ve staked their claim on the lock screen, they don’t overwhelm the user. They don’t own that screen real estate after all – they’re just grazing on it.


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Mathew is an Economics major from Brown University with a penchant for puns and analogies (as if you couldn't tell by reading this blog). He lives in Boston with his wife, Kate, and two dogs, Teddy and Luna.

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