Email has become one of the primary ways that web applications send us notifications, but email wasn’t built for this. Email was built for communication, not for sending people notifications about events.
Somewhere down the line we seem to have merged email and notifications together, but they don’t really belong that way. The whole context in which we receive, consume and act-on these things is different.
In my mind a communication is a message that is passed from one human being to another.
A notification is generated by a machine with a single, short-lived purpose.
When we receive an email from a friend we tend to think about them. We have context with that person, and that context affects the way we interpret the content of that email. Notifications are different. Notifications are cold. They are soulless clumps of bits that have the single purpose of delivering a message about an event. We don’t have the same context with notifications.
I have emails that go back years that I still read regularly. Just as people would keep letters in times gone by, I keep emails that have had an impact on me. But amongst all of these cherished emails you won’t find any notifications. Notifications provide the information we need in the moment, but once that moment has passed their value quickly depreciates.
A lot of people complain about email. I wonder if those people would still be complaining if their inbox only contained communications from warm blooded humans. The people they know and have context with (and possibly a few they don’t). What if the notifications went elsewhere?
Many companies have come along with products that promise to get you to inbox zero. Some of these products are great, but I think they are going after the wrong problem. We need to try and reduce the amount of email we’re receiving in the first place. Attack the problem at it’s cause rather than just coming up with a better way to deal with the effect.
I think it’s time that we separated communications and notifications. In all honesty we’re already half-way there. Every operating system – be it on desktop or mobile – has the ability to handle native notifications. The remainder of the problem lies mainly with web applications. Even with the new HTML5 desktop notifications API, if your web app isn’t open, you can’t send a notification.
I propose that we need to build a whole new platform that has the sole purpose of handling notifications.
We need to build an open platform that can run anywhere, regardless of device or operating system. A platform that includes an API that developers can use to send notifications to users from any program, be it native or web. We need a client application that can handle these notifications and that can display them at the time that’s right. An app that can take into account context, and that knows that a notification that someone favourited your tweet isn’t anywhere near as important as keeping your eyes on the road whilst you’re driving.
The system we have is broken. We need to rebuild.