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Desktop Notifications and User Interface Design Best Practices

Inspired by This is my next blog post.

Ever since the explosion of smartphones and tablets the state of notifications (in terms of execution and user interface design) has come under review. The user interface design of iOS notifications was much maligned as each notification would bring up a pop-up overlay window. The disadvantage of pop-ups was that users could not do anything until they reacted to it and a lot of apps would have to be re-opened due to a lack of true multi-tasking. The latest iteration of iOS (version 5) addresses these problems with a revamped notifications system. The new user interface design is now less intrusive as notifications appear from the top and don’t interrupt any running apps. Furthermore they disappear after being ignored for a short moment. Arguably the best example of a great notifications system on mobile devices is WebOS. The user interface design of webOS notifications was spot on by having them appear from the bottom of the screen. This is closer to where a user’s thumbs would be when holding a smartphone and is the part of a user interface design where most users expect a dock or a taskbar to be located.

What is the state of the user interface design of desktop notifications?

When it comes to the desktop, notifications do not perform with the distinction of their mobile counterparts. On the desktop users are much more likely to be switching between apps and tab windows just to check if anything new has cropped up. This is even more so since the advent of Web 2.0 tools, which users have signed up to in droves. Some third-party apps, like Growl for the Macintosh, have been used to display notifications for some years now, e.g. for displaying what song just started playing. The only caveat is that the app has to be Growl enabled and this caveat is representative of desktop notifications as a whole. There is no truly unified, native, and universal notifications system on desktop operating systems. Many power users are simply not satisfied with the notifications options they apply to their system. Most beginners simply stick to the default settings and user interface design and so do not even bother to muddle through menus, apply filters or other notification apps. Michael Lopp had the following to say in his “The Anatomy of a Notification” earlier this year:

“We need a notification system that accounts for the fact we’re constantly signing up for new information, but don’t have the time or the tools to pay attention to it. We need a tool that allows us to adjust the level of detail of the data we receive to align with the level of attention we have to give it”.

A possible solution to improve the functionality and user interface design of desktop notifications is to pull inspiration from mobile devices. Windows 8’s smartphone-like “Metro” user interface design is doing precisely this with desktop and lockscreen alerts, such as by displaying the number of unread emails and instant messages. This can, however, be improved upon and integrated at system level. Suggestions from Thisismynext include the ability for users to use the notifications system to also feed into services such as Twitter and Facebook. Alerts could be sorted by app or type and be hidden or collapsed, for example, in an accordion type user interface design element. Users could also further prioritize the different types of notifications and be able to access a searchable and browsable history, which could be housed in an expanded user interface design. Thankfully all the talk of merged operating systems across desktops and mobile devices seems to bring such a notifications system closer. – Interface Design, Wireframe, Wireframes, Wireframe Software, Online Wireframe Tool, Wireframe Tool, Interface Prototyping, Clickable Wireframes, Usability Testing and Digital Paper Prototyping. User centered design for improved User Interface Design.