One way an Android application can become more tightly integrated into the user's experience is to use Android notifications to make the user aware of important events associated with the application. Android notifications can include a lot of information to help the user decide on the fly if they need to react immediately. (See Figure 1 for a screenshot of a new Android notification.)
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Figure 1. Android Device with a New Notification
However, Android notifications are often misused or overused, resulting in users uninstalling the application from the device. In this article we discuss the do's and don'ts of working with Android notifications.
What Android Notifications Typically Are Used For?
Android applications can inform the user of important events by posting messages to the notification bar. Some of the most common notification types that users see frequently are:
- A new email or text message has arrived
- A reminder for a calendar entry.
- Social network activity directed at the user has occurred (if the user has configured their device to tell them about it).
- A new application has been installed and is ready to use.
- A file download is in progress and has completed.
- A call was missed and there's a new voicemail.
Notifications can be an incredibly helpful mechanism for keeping the user informed when they are not actively using your Android application, but it is easy to misuse them. Let's start by talking about when it's a good idea to use notifications.
When to Use Android Notifications in Your App
Android notifications are most effective when they include important, time-sensitive information. This sort of information is usually event-driven, involves other people, and may require a prompt action or response from the user. For example, an exec might need to be prompted about the start time of her next meeting, or an IT admin might want to know that the server farm is on fire.
So, how does this apply to your Android apps? For some types of applications, notifications will not be appropriate; they will just nag. For other applications, notifications may be essential. Review your application and determine if there are key events or social exchanges that would be important to tell the user, even if they are not actively using your application. If you are unsure, err on the side of not using notifications, and by all means, make notifications a configurable feature of your application so users can turn them off if they get annoyed!
When Not to Use Android Notifications in Your App
The flavor of your Android notifications (by which we mean the reason, frequency, and tone of the notifications produced by your app) contributes to how the application is perceived by the user -- is the app friendly and helpful or annoying and nagging? We all have friends on social networking sites who report every single little thing going on in their lives from "Awake. Need coffee." to "Going to bed." Don't bore your user with notifications about everyday minutiae. If your app has won the lottery, is having a baby, or just got a new job, then notify the user if you think they will care.
If your app just synced up with the app server or the user hasn't launched the app in a while, don't just notify the user to prompt them to launch the app -- this is bad form and never makes the user like your app more. In fact, you're likely to see a negative response in terms of app ratings. You'll just remind the user that they don't use your app anymore and they will uninstall it. We've even seen cases where apps have used notifications to advertise specials in different apps. This is just simply not acceptable if the notifications can't be turned off.