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The wave of conversation about Internet-connected things, particularly wearables, continued at this month’s South by Southwest Interactive. We saw Fitbits and Fuels, Mothers and Sproutlings, Rings and Whistles.

As these devices proliferate in our environment, we user experience people will need to get more judicious when designing how they call attention to themselves, lest our connected homes become a cacophony of beeps, flashes and buzzes.

Alfred Lui of Seer Labs made this point in his thoughtful presentation, Reorienting UX Design for the Internet of Things. He proposed a categorical framework based on the attention demanded by the messages we design into products:
Push messages are the ones sent to gain the user’s attention, e.g., a blaring alert from your phone when a tornado warning is issued in your area.

Pull messages come on user demand, e.g., the forecast displayed when you launch the phone’s weather app.
Ambient messages are the ones that hide in plain sight, ignorable until the moment you want them, e.g., the phone’s wallpaper that changes according to the current weather. (In 2006, Ross Howard noted an even more subtle type of message that he called an ambient signifier.)

It’s an interesting way to think of messaging. The edges of the categories are blurry — is a notification email a push or a pull? — and the categories don’t correspond directly to obtrusiveness as some signals could be ambient but still in your face. But for designers, this framework could make for a handy check-in point before finalizing their messaging systems.
So what justifies a pushy message? Here are some factors to consider:
Urgency. Messages that are time sensitive might warrant the intrusiveness of a push, since they require the user to take notice and act quickly.

Importance. Remember that things can be urgent without being important. When you have just five minutes to jump in the cellar to avoid a tornado, that’s urgent and important. But when you have just five minutes to retweet a message for your chance to win tickets to Supertramp, that’s urgent but of questionable importance. The tornado definitely gets a push message. A classic rock reunion tour may only warrant an ambient or pull message.
Frequency. More frequent messages might necessitate less intrusion. I long ago turned off all “You have new mail” notifications on my computer and phone. I always have new mail. I don’t need an alert to tell me so. An icon on my phone menu (ambient) is more than enough.

Channel. By taking advantage of communication channels our users already subscribe to, we can save them the effort of learning a new one. For instance, when the smoke detector battery is almost dead, a push notice is in order. But rather than being emitted directly from the device (as a flashing light or intermittent beep), the message could come through a channel already in use, like SMS or email.

Configurability. Its effectiveness is limited because most people never change their settings, but offering users the ability to configure the types of notification messages they receive could improve satisfaction, particularly among expert users.
One note about importance: when we consider how important a notification message is, we should think mostly about how important it is to the user, rather than to the publisher. Of course our newest product or latest press release is important to us, but our users may disagree, and they might let us know it by deleting our app or opting out of future notifications. And those actions send us a message we’d rather not receive.

First published March 25, 2014 on APCO Forums.