Notification phobia is a real thing

Did you know that there is a legitimate phobia of having those little notification badges that pop up on your smart phone show without being able to get rid of them? It's called nomophobia, short for no-mobile-phobia, and is surprisingly a very real, chemical problem. I know this because I have it.

Each time you see a notification from your phone, you get a little upsurge in dopamine, whether it be a text message, a spam email, or notification on Facebook. This then compels you to keep checking your phone, hoping each time that you get another one of those little bubbles, hoping that it's something good and not something, well, crumby. As Business Insider writes: "it's like the world's smallest slot machine." 

Chemically, you are being compelled to continue the behavior of checking your phone, just like a rat pushing a button for a treat. Your brain says "Yes, you have to do this to feel good," and so you do it. The only issue with this is that you can then start to feel overstimulated or, if the response to the impulse is negative (a spam email, a negative text message), your brain starts to feel agitated, and even anxious with each new stimulus. Crazy, right? So, if you (like me) start to feel crazy when you see that little red bubble with a "35" in it next to your email client on your phone in the morning, it's because you want to get rid of that potential stimulus. You want to get all of that gratification at once instead of your brain waiting to find out whether it's good or bad. You want to ease the tension in your mind.

From someone who works on application experience teams, this is fascinating to me. Each additional, redundant notification that we send via push notification could potentially be making or breaking our customers' days—we are chemically affecting them. Here are a few things that I've seen applications do that could be done another way to potentially avoid the over-stimulus that is leading our customers to uninstall, turn notifications off, or feel a heightened sense of tension and anxiety.

Birthday Notifications

I'm looking at you, Facebook. Every day I wake up to an extra bubble attached to my Facebook app on my iPhone telling me that it's my best friend from second grade's cousin's birthday. Is this a necessary use of screen space and dopamine? I think not. We should not be sending inane notifications for things that people did not ask to be notified about; whether it be birthdays, holidays, events I didn't RSVP to or any other item that I have not specifically indicated interest in. This is a false positive signal to dopamine, and can leave your customers and users feeling chemically borked.

In-app Update Notifications

Are you sending an email to your customers about updates to your mobile offering? Probably. If you are, you shouldn't be doubling up on notifications by also pushing an update badge to their smart phone. When they wake up, they will look and think that something notable has happened (someone has liked or interacted with their contact, they have a new personal message, etc), and will instead be greeted by stale news that they might have even already overlooked (or deleted) in their inbox. Keep your in-app notifications for truly important things, such as broken features or functionalities.

Random person did random thing Notifications

Did Biff Jonsington like my newest post on Google+? No? Have I indicated that I wanted to receive updates about what he's doing? Probably not. Then why are you notifying me that he posted a two-year old article about saving killer whales? Companies should not be sending badges or notifications to their users about anything unless they have indicated express interest and concern in the things that they are being notified about. What you are doing is essentially a more invasive method of spam emailing. This is like coming into someone's house during breakfast and shouting at them to read the newspaper just to have them discover that there's nothing in there that they care about anyway.

Notifications can provide real value, especially if they are telling someone that there has been a meaningful interaction with their content, or they are being notified about something that they genuinely care about. However, if your app is perpetually the cause of a negative dopamine response with false positive notifications, people may turn them off, move your app to another screen to avoid it taking prime real estate, or even uninstall it all together. Strategizing your notifications is a much better way to move your app up in priority, encourage user interactivity, and avoid being banished to the third screen in. It also helps to show that you care about your customers, their personal sanity, and don't want them to spend the next thirty minute just deleting inane red bubbles from their homescreen.