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Fixing notifications requires working backward from the right place
The demise of Clubhouse* will someday become a business school case study in the power of notifications to sink a high-flying startup. While I host regular shows about startups on the app, the insane number of notifications the app would send forced me and many others to stop notifications entirely. Of course, this also meant fewer people returning to the app.
Notifications have become a staple of our modern existence. Everything seeks to get our attention for their very urgent thing. We tend to focus on the email inbox, but we are getting more pop ups and dings from Slack and other messaging apps that are connected to several other apps, all with the intention to inform us of their very urgent thing.
I am an inbox zero person myself. My approach is to use email as a work queue and anything that requires more follow up gets stashed in a dedicated folder, otherwise the rest get answered and archived. Slack however is a nightmare for me. I have caved on a number of occasions and did the Shift+Esc command to mark all messages read. Yes, I might miss important messages, but if it is really important, they will get back.
The other thing about notifications is that they now follow us around. We carry around the office on our mobile phones, getting pinged from a device that is literally on our bodies. Do I need to even mention all the other alerts we get from texts with friends, hot TikTok videos, replies to Instagram posts, and trending Twitter topics?
If you go back thirty years ago, none of this was the case. Pagers were a thing for some people, especially in the 90’s. But mostly we lived in blissful ignorance of the urgency swarming around us, waiting to ensnare us in useless meetings, pointless discussions, and nonsensical memos. The close thing to a ping was our desk phones, and at the end of the day, it couldn’t follow us back to our homes or sneak into our vacations.
Today we are awash in an overflow of notifications. They are the dopamine fix of the business professional, drawing us away from real work and carving up our attention spans. If we ignore them, the messages just pile up when we open the floodgates again to accepting alerts.
Notifications are just a manifestation with our brokenness of communication in organizations. I shared where the root of our communication problems lie in an earlier post:
“The problem is not one of a lack of technology however, it is a people and culture challenge which requires addressing the hurdles in information, control and silo failures.”
Another way to think about information, control, and silos from a notification perspective is to ask about context, contribution, and consent:
Context – Does it provide enough useful information to take action and do we trust the information or source we are receiving the information from?
Contribution – Is the notification a top-down directive or does it comes form a place of collaborative and value generating work?
Consent – Who authorized this notification and was this a subscribed to or subscribed by notification?
Rarely do we ever ask these questions when we roll out new systems and processes. We just assume everyone wants notifications and move on to other matters of functionality that we deem more important. But what is more important than the experience of your customers, users, and / or audiences of receiving your most persistent and direct communication with them?
In the B2C consumer space, not getting the balance of context, contribution, and consent kills apps. We see this with Clubhouse, where notifications provided more noise than reason to engage. From a user perspective, you could not tell the context of good rooms from spam, the contribution was mostly directives, and consent was impossible to calibrate.
In the B2B world and internal systems world, we just suffer along with the noise and develop coping mechanisms. This is not communication; it is avoidance mechanisms. To that point, one of my favorite quotes is from George Bernard Shaw.
‘”The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Of course, the solution everyone settled on was to fix the problem with a tool. Before it was “everything is an email”, which flooded our inboxes with various workflow notifications. Then it was social collaboration tools, which felt like corporate ghost towns. Now the strategy is “everything is a message” in Slack or Teams or Discord. All I have to say to that is Shift+Esc.
At Amazon, we have this concept of working backwards. Whenever we encounter a problem or have an idea, we start with the customer first and see how best to build a solution based on what is best for the customer. In a similar way, we should be asking how to best enable the type of communication that would enhance value and flow of work.
We rarely take the time to deeply understand the flow of work. This is different than workflow which is a process imposed upon users and customers. Flow of work is creating an environment for enabling people to do their most optimal and rewarding work. When designing notifications and mechanisms of communication, this is where you work backward from.
For example, many tools that purport to enhance developer experience merely rely on more alerting. However, the constantly micro-interruptions from various notifications across tools create interrupts to developer flow, the deep work where the most creative solutions emerge. Sometimes this is necessary, but better approaches might include integrating alerts directly into the IDE, minimizing the number of alerts needed, or automating aspects of work that can be rolled up into a report or a batch of alerts.
None of these is inherently a tools or technology challenge. The point of reference is the user, and often technology does not even need to be deployed to make a material change in user and team productivity. This could entail changing team structures to be more self-sufficient and nimble or reducing the number of meetings (on my team we have “No Meeting Fridays”). These changes do not seem complex, but can have high impact on overall productivity and happiness.
What are the ways you are managing the flood of notifications and communications on your team? How could you improve the flow of work in your organization?
Mark Birch, Editor & Founder of DEV.BIZ.OPS
* While I cannot predict the future of Clubhouse, I do believe social audio will become as common a channel of our online social fabric as Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. And if you have not checked out my AWS Startups Show, we host founder and investor conversations every Tuesday and Thursday at 6 PM New York City time.
Are you in San Francisco this week? I arrived April 19th and stay for the week to attend the first in-person AWS Summit in the US in two years! It is free to join, with lots of talks and hands-on workshops to learn all things AWS from. I will also be hanging out at the AWS Startup Loft in San Francisco which reopens this week, if you are a startup founder, I definitely recommend you check it out for free workspace, events, and help from technical experts.
After San Francisco, I head to Singapore for an off-site and follow up meetings from my previous visit. If we did not get a chance to connect back in March, let’s make sure to find a time to meer!
I then leave Singapore on May 8 and make my way over to Berlin to present at their AWS Summit on May 11-12. I am going to host an awesome panel on scaling engineering teams with some top startup tech leaders in Europe!
For my web3 and blockchain readers, I will jump over to the Permissionless conference from May 17 to 19 in West Palm Beach. Give me a shout if you are also planning to attend.