Push it good: Notifications and their role in product UX

Every product team aspires to create a platform with delightful UX design and a slick UI that wows users – and they’d be fools (or at least very strange) not to.

Jakob Nielsen’s legendary ‘10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design’, which they’re very likely to be familiar with, puts ‘visibility of system status’ in the top spot. He specifies that:

The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within a reasonable time.

Jakob Nielsen

So it’s natural that UX/UI design teams put a great deal of planning and work into the in-app notifications that provide that feedback within their product.

Confirmations, alerts, status indicators, all the UI elements that happen within the platform to show it’s doing what users expect of it, are painstakingly mapped out from the very beginning.

But what about when users aren’t directly tapping buttons and pulling sliders within your UI?

The notifications people receive outside of your product are a massive part of its overall user experience, and their strategy deserves just the same amount of care and attention.

Get them right, and users needn’t ever directly open your application to be engaged, delighted and active.

I can’t remember the last time I typed “ebay.co.uk” into the browser, but my bank balance certainly shows that their timely offerings of things I might like hit the spot!

Types of notification

When we say ‘notifications’ in this article we’re going to mean the two obvious ways products communicate with users outside of their platform (so putting aside in-app notifications) – push notifications and emails.

That’s not to say there aren’t others though: As one example, it could be argued that a timely piece of social media remarketing is a form of notification.

We’ve all experienced a tempting discount code for the thing we were just talking about popping up on Facebook or Instagram, and the simultaneous feeling of creeped out but intrigued, right?

As the digital ecosystem gets ever smarter there are bound to be even more ways to remind, prompt, inform and ultimately retain users with great notification UX.

For now though, let’s overview those key two…

Push notifications

70% of people find push notifications useful

70%

Push notifications

Everyone’s pretty accustomed to the little banners, badges and alerts that slide and pop onto our lockscreens and desktop corners. From Amazon to Zoom, the products we use are all at it.

The most important features of this notification type is that content is displayed:

  • Regardless of whether or not the application is open
  • Irrespective of the device or browser being used.

Push notification messaging is necessarily brief (typically 30-40 characters for mobile devices, slightly more for desktop), so needs to get to the point quickly. They have immense potential and – done right – meet with high approval.

  • Email marketing platform e-goi’s research states that a whopping 70% of users find push notifications useful.
  • A/B testing giant VWO puts the click rate from browser-based push notifications at 4-8 times that of email – and these figures may be on the low side if anything.

Daily email use

99% of people check their inbox every day

99%

Email

99% of people with an email account check their inbox every day, according to HubSpot. Not even the best-loved product on earth can claim a fraction of that level of engagement, so meeting users where they already are – right there in their inbox – should be a no brainer.

You’d be surprised, too, at how much can be achieved with a smart, timely email.

From the utilitarian necessities like password changes and security alerts to segmented offers and deepening understanding, email is a powerful ally to a product team.

Blog post

Go with the flow - designing onboarding that works

We take a look at three common onboarding flows and how to ace them ⭐️

Read article

Notification UX risks

When a product gets their notification strategy wrong, users can feel like they’re being bombarded with irrelevant, impersonal interruptions.

At best they instantly dismiss and tune them out – leading to critical information being missed thanks to your product ‘crying wolf’- and at worst they delete the offending platform altogether.

Is something like this even worth looking at my phone for? Material Design rightly cautions against sending notifications which provide no direct value to users.

Notification best practice

We asked the Lighthouse team about their best and worst notification experiences over lunch last week.

The resulting session turned more into a ‘hall of shame’ than a feelgood sharing of best practices, with significantly more rants than raves.

This certainly serves to illustrate that when your notification strategy misses the mark, you can be sure users will talk about it!

There were some gems that came out of it though, and some common themes that cropped up across the board. Let’s take a look at our favourites…

A mobile screen which asks 'are you logging in?' and is labelled 'time sensitive'. The two answer options are 'yes, it's me' or 'no, it's not me'

Tom’s pick – Xero Verify

When it comes to the accounting software businesses use, we understandably want things to be super secure.

Multi-factor authentication is a given, but getting a code to enter can feel clunky and cumbersome at times, even if we know it’s for the right reason.

Things are different with Xero Verify. For a start, it’s the only authenticator app that sends a push notification when you try to log in to Xero.

Without even unlocking his phone, let alone having to go to the millisecond of effort of opening the Xero app, our co-founder Tom is logged in.

Things couldn’t be easier – or clearer, with the fact this is a time-sensitive action front and centre, and unambiguous options to choose from.

An email that shows 'personal picks made for Elizabeth'

Liz’s pick – Skillshare

Designer Liz was quick to sing the praises of online learning community Skillshare’s recommendations.

She says this notification, designed to drive engagement with the platform by encouraging users to sign up for new courses, feels properly personalised, showing her exactly the type of thing she’d be interested in at the right moment.

‘Made for Elizabeth’ indeed!

a mobile screen with a notification from Monzo that reads 'your Virgin Media Direct Debit was £4.40 more than last time'

Russ’s pick – Monzo

Unsurprisingly, king of the challenger banks Monzo featured repeatedly in ‘notifications we love to see.’

Push notifications giving real-time insight into money leaving and entering an account were a total game changer when Head of DesignOps Russ first received that coral coloured card.

The ability to spot anything dodgy right away, as well as visibility into higher or lower regular bills still feels like we’ve got the bank on our side, with nothing going on in mysterious vaults anymore.

Common themes for good notification UX

The notifications – be they push notifications or emails – our team enjoyed had a few defining factors, which could be neatly summed up by SaaS platform CleverTap’s three tenets:

  • Relevant and timely: The user’s behaviour, location, or preference triggers the notification.
  • Personal: The content of the notification appeals to the user as an individual.
  • Actionable: The notification makes it clear what the user should do next.

Why do notifications matter to product designers?

You might reasonably think that notifications are the realm of marketing, and be wondering why product designers need to pay such attention to their strategy.

But what about if we talk about guiding users to an experience that better suits their needs? To making sure their interactions with your product help to solve the problem they intended when they created their account?

At their core, that’s what notifications all aim to do, and why notification UX should be planned as an extension of the product’s core UX. ‘Thinking like a marketer’ is a smart move for all members of a product team.

If product designers think beyond just what happens within the platform in the user journeys they create, they’re able to step back and identify the times along the way when a notification could keep their user on the right path, and what format it should take.

This is something that’s then taken forward into the detailed user flows that map routes through the product, with a smart notification strategy being baked in from the very earliest moments of design, rather than tacked on at the end.

The importance of notifications

There’s really no one-size-fits all here, and the moments of uncertainty and potential drop-off are bound to vary hugely across platforms and industries.

The level and type of engagement we’d expect from our car insurer varies wildly from that of Instagram, for example.

As a generalisation though we’d expect to use notifications to guide users through key setup steps in onboarding, reward a positive interaction, and encourage exploration, all crucial points in the user journey.

Blog post

Why you should care about form design

Forms aren’t many people’s idea of excitement, but they have a massive impact on product success. Find out how to get them right every time 🙌

Read article

Product teams should expect plenty of testing, measurement and tweaking as they validate assumptions about their notification strategy – just like any part of a product – and be prepared to learn and adapt at every stage.

Making a note during user testing of any times where notifications weren’t planned but seem helpful is definitely a good idea.

With sensible decisions and strategic thinking, the notifications that take place outside of your product can play a key role in enhancing user experience.

Remember, a user’s experience doesn’t stop when they close your application. An interruption that’s not only tolerated but positively welcomed might just be the key to your product’s lasting success.

Further reading:

Newsletter

Our four favourite UX, product and innovation stories sent to your inbox, every month. All killer, no filler.