too loud

Knowledge workers are swimming in notifications. Notifications come in from mobile and desktop productivity applications, task management, calendars and email. We hear the tell-tale 'ping' when we get an email, when someone wants to chat, when a co-worker completes a task or when it’s time for the twice weekly meeting. 

The Bells, The Bells

Business applications generate even more notifications. They notify end-users when something changes in a sales account, when something has arrived or shipped from a warehouse, and when there is something in a workflow that needs our attention. 

Now, as Internet of Things style devices come online we can expect even more notifications. Lights are on? Send a notification. Lights are off? Another notice. And so on, until end-users are completely overwhelmed with devices and applications that need attention.

End users who mostly use mobile devices will see many of those notifications pop up in the Android or iOS notification space. Let’s face it though — knowledge workers spend most of their time at desktop or laptop computers where notification is meted out on an app by app basis. Often notifications from one type of platform don’t show up on others, so some pop up on phones and others on desktops, but not on both.

Even if notifications are directed to a central space, they are presented according to when they arrive, not in order of importance. Not only are end-users overloaded with notifications, but they're left without an easy mechanism to sift out important notices from unimportant ones.

In Search of a Solution

To deal with this onslaught of pinging, chiming and dinging, most people shut notifications off. This is just as bad as being swallowed up in a flood of them. Just as too many unprioritized alerts makes us ignore important information, so does intentionally shutting them off.

The solution is to centralize notifications and then rank them according to importance. The first part is easily achievable. Integration platforms such as IFTTT make it easy to funnel notices into a central location such as an activity stream in an enterprise social network workgroup. Interestingly, our research into enterprise chat applications such as Slack and HipChat revealed that many organizations were directing their notifications to these applications to create an activity stream of alerts. 

As more integrations grow between enterprise and consumer applications, this should get to be easier. IFTTT is a great product but unlikely to be used extensively in a large enterprise. More likely, the same companies that provide data integration and IoT messaging services will take this up.

The second problem — that of ranking — poses a bigger challenge. Rules-based prioritization is rarely flexible enough to manage many little bits of information efficiently. Analytics, especially cognitive computing, shows promise for managing notices generated from applications in much the same way as with Internet of Things devices. IBM’s use of Watson with its new email client, IBM Verse, points in this direction.

The proliferation of notifications is part of the growing application space. As knowledge workers use more applications on their desktops, laptops and mobile devices, the problem of being constantly harassed by software that wants our attention will only get worse. The solution is to centralize these notifications and then sift and sort them intelligently so that end-users are guided toward taking appropriate action.

In the meantime, we will probably just turn off our notifications, either physically or mentally, and continue to miss important information.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  lorenkerns