David Taylor's phone came with a potentially useful feature: It rang hourly to remind him he had voice mail. But when one interruption too many piled on top of an overstuffed to-do list, he destroyed his phone in a late-night rage.
"It's OK when there's one message, but if you get five messages in a meeting, the phone just starts ringing -- 20 rings over the next four hours," says Taylor, an attorney in Paris. "I went to bed at quarter to midnight, put down the phone, and it rang again. It sent me over the edge. I picked it up, threw it against the wall and smashed it."
His reaction illustrates a downside to the smartphone revolution: too damn many notifications.
We love the way our smartphones give us always-on connections to family and friends, allow us to be productive employees anywhere and deliver an endless supply of entertainment and information. But too many notifications from our apps, calendars and email can lead to two seemingly contradictory reactions -- either we reject the technology altogether, or we become addicted to it. One result has a direct impact on our mental health, while the other may affect the health of the mobile software industry.
The solution, say experts in psychology and software design, is to make smartphone notifications useful but not overwhelming.
"We get notifications our message has been read, our tweet has been retweeted, our recent post on Facebook has been liked," says Hector Postigo, an associate professor at Temple University's School of Media and Communication.
"All of these are important psychologically for a species that wants to communicate and wants affirmation that we were heard. The problem is that there are limits to what we can accommodate in our attention spans."
World's smallest slot machines
It's easy to blame app developers for being pushy, or Apple, Google and Microsoft for mobile operating systems that fail to shield us from notification madness. And they do bear some responsibility. Unfortunately, so do we.
That's because we get a buzz in more ways than one when our phone vibrates.
"The smartphone is the world's smallest slot machine," says Dr. David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at University of Connecticut's medical school.
"Every time you go on to that smartphone and check something, there is an unpredictability about what you're going to find, when you're going to find it and how good it's going to be for you."
That feeling of surprise and reward becomes irresistible and keeps you coming back for more. When you get it, your brain produces a bit of dopamine, a chemical that signals the brain to feel pleasure. Dopamine causes us to seek out food, sex and drugs -- and leads to addictive behavior. The chemical is at its most stimulating when the rewards come on an unpredictable schedule, just like phone alerts.
That's why app developers have a huge incentive to use notifications. People will launch an app 88 percent more often if it has notifications enabled than if it doesn't, according to Localytics, a company that offers notification-related marketing services and uses analytics to monitor effectiveness. Notifications also make us twice as likely to continue using an app.
Rein them in
"They work really well until it turns to just noise," says Jeff Francis, chief operating officer of Copper Mobile, which has helped clients write more than 400 mobile apps.
That can have serious consequences when notifications are used for critical communications. A case in point: a project that Copper Mobile did for Westinghouse Electric to replace paper-based procedures on nuclear power facility maintenance with a tablet app. In this case, circumstance and usage dictated that the app ping people only for urgent items.
Other app developers, who now err on the side of notification overload, could be forced into greater restraint as users uninstall their apps, says Anindya Ghose, a professor of information sciences and marketing at New York University's Stern School of Business.
"I've talked a lot about this issue to retailers and mobile app developers," says Ghose. "There is an increasing consensus that abusing this system can come back to bite them."
Enough is enough
For their part, makers of mobile operating systems are also thinking about ways to limit notification overload. Apple's iOS, for example, won't let an app send notifications to your iPhone or iPad unless you permit it at installation.
Google doesn't like that approach for its Android operating system, though, says Tom Karlo, product manager for the Android user interface. "I think it would be asking the user to make a decision at an earlier point than they need to, when they have less information to make that decision properly."
That's why the new Lollipop version of Android gives users a way to manage notifications -- treating high-priority and ordinary notifications differently. A long press on a notification will take you directly to a control panel to fine-tune settings.
"Eventually your device can be more intelligent about how aggressive it is getting your attention," Karlo says.
Microsoft also revamped notifications in Windows Phone 8.1 with a new Action Center, a centralized place to check and manage notifications. As with iOS and Android, the big focus is giving users control.
In the future, the phones themselves could filter notifications by deducing when they're appropriate. A phone can tell by movement patterns that it's in a car, for example, and geographic cues can tell a phone when it's in a theater, says J. Kim Fennell, chief executive officer of deCarta, which adds navigation, maps and other location services to mobile apps.
"I think your phone should work differently if you're sitting inside a coffee shop as opposed to driving to a coffee shop," says Fennell.
Taylor, who bashed his phone after one too many alerts, admits he enjoyed being without a smartphone.
"It's been quite wonderful," he says. "I feel like I'm back in the physical world and not the virtual."
He now prefers using his primitive 2005 Nokia phone, which only handles calling and texting, although he sometimes pulls out his Nokia smartphone when he needs its more-sophisticated features.
Taylor's reaction wouldn't surprise Temple University's Postigo. "Once the machine is doing exactly what you want, it's an amazing feeling," Postigo says. "It's a hell of a thing to command."
The trick is being the one in control.
This story appeared earlier in CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, go here.
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