Our Mobile Notification World Is Upside-Down
When Android first launched on the HTC Dream/G1 in 2008, it incorporated among its features a new notification paradigm: users could drag down from the top of the screen to reveal a “window shade” containing all new notifications.
stole drew inspiration from Android for iOS5’s notification center, it did what Apple does best: took an existing idea and implemented it in a new way. Today’s iOS users access their notifications just like their Android cousins do: by dragging down from the top of the screen.
Windows Phone 7’s approach to notifications emphasizes glanceable information. Thus, it closely resembles Apple’s “badges” approach, with individual homescreen tiles showing missed events via large numerals. New notifications, though, pop up exactly where they do on the other platforms: at the top of the screen.
So the three dominant mobile platforms all display new messages and system/app events in the same place: the top of the display. That’s fine except it’s awful. We’re living in an upside-down world.
Wrong. All wrong!
The status/menu bar is a venerable institution in computing. My first modern PC was a Compaq Presario running Windows 3.1, which introduced me to the concept of a persistent strip of menus across the top of the screen. Whether I was writing a paper in Microsoft Works or playing a round of Spit Wad Willy, that menu bar was always just a press of the Alt key away.
When the first truly pocketable cellphones hit the market, the menu bar of computing was transmuted into the status bar of mobile telephony. Early LED and LCD panels incorporated a thin strip of dedicated icons up top, for persistent display of critical data like battery life, signal strength, and speaker volume.
Even though displays quickly matured into single panels of universal pixels capable of showing anything anywhere, we were already locked in to the status-bar mindset: the top 10-20 pixels of a display were reserved for notifications. That was where people expected them to be, so by and large, that’s where they went.
According to this, there’s a rocketship, a sniper, and a troubadour nearby. Excellent!
That’s not a bad thing; standardized UI elements sometimes make life easier. And top-mounted notifications made sense for dumbphones and even early smartphones, where input methods like keys and jog dials reigned supreme. But as those started to lose ground to touch screens, the status-bar concept started making less sense.
Let’s pan down to the other end of the device for a second to see another standard interface element, the home and navigation keys. Almost every manufacturer follows the same approach: a home button and/or some basic navigation keys are placed below the display.
That makes a lot of sense, given how we typically hold our devices. Frequently-used keys like the home, back, and menu buttons are placed below the display for maximum thumb-friendliness. This is especially true with one-handed operation, which continues to be a big priority when designing mobile devices; they go almost everywhere we do, and we don’t always have both hands free. And they go everywhere we go for one fundamental reason: to deliver notifications to us. Notification of an incoming call, or message, or nearby friend, or news story, or that it’s our turn in Words With Friends. Inbound alerts are at least 50% of a mobile device’s reason for existing.
Why, then, in one-handed use, am I continually forced to stretch my thumb to the top of a display to get to my new text message or email? In what world does it make sense to place notifications at the furthest possible point from the one digit that can efficiently access them?
A few years ago, when 3-4″ displays were the largest commonly available, this wasn’t as big a deal. Even those with smaller hands could stretch their thumb to the top of the G1’s screen to pull out the notification drawer. But this is 2012. Even though the iPhone is still stuck at 3.5,” the rest of the market sure isn’t. The flagship Android phone, the Galaxy Nexus, has a diagonal screen measurement over an inch bigger. The Galaxy Note, with its 5.3″ monster-truck of a screen, has shipped 5 million units since its launch. Big phones may not last forever, but they’ll be around for at least a few years – and until OEMs find a way to intelligently minimize bezel size, we’re going to be spraining a lot of thumbs trying to see what that latest ESPN update says.
That Samsung Continuum looks so sweet to my aching hands.
Let’s get the inevitable backlash out of the way: yes, this is a #firstworldproblem of the highest order. Yes, there are more pressing concerns in the current OS landscape. Yes, I know what they say about guys with big hands (they wear big gloves, right?).
Ultimately though, it’s a question of good user interface design. It sucks to be married to a model that’s no longer the best one for today’s larger displays. Not only is it uncomfortable, but when you’re reaching up to pull down the notifications drawer, you’re also covering up whatever’s being displayed on the screen. Is it a very minor inconvenience? Yes. More importantly, though: it’s just bad design.
There are a plethora of better approaches to the notifications issue. A side-swipable alerts drawer could be implemented near the bottom of the screen, invisible until brought into focus by a bezel-swipe. The notification area could be transformed into some analog of OSX’s “hot spot,” where a gesture or press on a certain user-definable screen region could trigger it. Or, notifications could simply be moved to the bottom of the display, residing in a scalable region when they’re present and disappearing when they’re not.
On second thought: Nah. That’d never work.
The implementation used in webOS wasn’t perfect, certainly, and there are wonderful bright points about the systems currently in use. I rather enjoy Android’s continuous message previews, for example, which often allow me to read an entire text without even opening the SMS app. And Apple’s inclusion of the weather and stock-ticker widgets in Notification Center portends some useful innovation in that space going forward.
It’s placement of these and future features that’s important. And if OS designers insist on staying wedded to the increasingly archaic status bar as an anchor for notifications, they at the very least owe users the option of moving it. As the line between tablets and phones gets fuzzier, the top of the screen will continue to make less and less sense as that anchor. It’s time to evolve.