Founder Diary

July 26, 2022

A (critically) endangered species: apps without notifications

A (critically) endangered species: apps without notifications

Apps that don’t beg for attention: still a reality or already history?

A hamster being shouted at from a megaphone. Notifications are flying out instead of sounds
A hamster being shouted at from a megaphone. Notifications are flying out instead of sounds
A hamster being shouted at from a megaphone. Notifications are flying out instead of sounds
Nikita Kazhin's headshot

Nikita Kazhin

Co-founder at Brick

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My recent notification deep dive got me thinking: is it just me, or is this necessary evil getting more evil than necessary?

Appalled by the unfolding attention span genocide, I can’t help but wonder: are there any apps that just don’t come knocking on my door at all? Are there many left? And if so, who are they?

Surprisingly, I failed to find reliable statistics online. I guess we’ve embraced notifications so much that we don’t really expect apps to not do them anymore. No data is a bummer, but nobody’s stopping me from coming up with my own numbers. So, I set out to look into how apps on my phone communicate with me.

A makeshift experiment

After much fooling around research, a dozen lost counts, and a few days with ALL notifications reenabled (which was straight-out miserable), here’s what I found:

  • Of 157 apps on my phone (most sources online put the average number at about 40, though I find that hard to believe), only 22 don’t send notifications. That’s 14%.

Clearly, all the others are after my attention day and night.

But that’s not the whole story.

11 of the 22 are default, pre-installed apps that come with every smartphone, like Contacts or Calculator. While it’d be hard to imagine those sending any alerts, I’m still grateful Magnifier doesn’t smash a don’t-miss-out all over my face every now and then.

Next, of the remaining 11 seemingly “shy” apps, three send emails instead of alerts — two without explicit consent on my end. These felons shamelessly took my email when I set up an account. It’s likely that they buried my passive agreement with this kind of treatment somewhere deep in their terms of service, but never mentioned emails to my face.

Finally, I’m down to just eight third-party apps that don’t actually send notifications of any kind. These modest knights kill the dragon without bragging about it on every corner.

So, it’s actually just 5% of my apps that don’t do alerts, not the 14% I initially arrived at.

I think the best thing about them is that they could find a perfect excuse to use alerts, but apparently they chose not to do so. For example, two of the eight are dictionaries. Why not send me something like “the word of the day” like some similar apps do? Two more are utilities that could remind me how important it is to, say, occasionally measure my connection speed (and, coincidentally, see their ads while I’m at it). Three are productivity apps. These could come up with perhaps the biggest list of reasons to remind me of their existence. Gotta stay efficient, right?

So, what’s the point?

My point is that apps with no notifications are rapidly going extinct in the wild. Not because it’s hard to make them, no one wants them, or because marketers don’t have other ways of doing their jobs well. But, mostly, it’s because of the false premise that once the app is downloaded, the users’ attention is up for grabs.

It’s not.

I believe that for most things, notifications are just not needed. Period.

Stop inventing pretexts to remind me of your existence. And, no, you don’t have permission to interrupt me at will.

Let’s face it, an overwhelming majority of notifications are nothing but ads. In my experience, most apps rarely come up with little better than, “Have you forgotten about me? Well, here’s a reminder I can do this and that. Oh, and that you haven’t spent money here for a while, too. Just saying.”

I’m sure many app developers will disagree, but I think that if your app doesn’t provide enough of a benefit for me to remember to use it on my own, alerts aren’t only going to help much.

I’m not against notifications, and ads are fine by me as long as the relationship is consensual. There’s a lot of folks who do alerts gracefully in a non-intrusive, respectful, and value-added manner. These are apps who give me real choices when it comes to what info they toss my way, and don’t make me struggle through endless layers of settings tabs with no guarantee of ever finding the right toggle at all (I’m looking at you, Facebook!). They’re apps who put the users’ attention as high on their priority lists as, say, password security or a crash-free experience. They treasure the benefit of the doubt users give them.

But as long as the present attention-as-a-resource-to-be-exploited mindset is here with no strings attached, it’s on us to stop the onslaught.

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