Why Apple’s Notification Design Is Stressful

Plus, small changes that can make a big difference

Every week, columnist Angela Lashbrook strives to improve your relationship with technology. Today she delves into the little things that define your online life.

I hate red.

Not in all contexts, of course. The bright red wool sweater is beautiful and even festive. It’s hard to find something more glamorous than red silk clothing. And the red dahlia is perhaps one of the most beautiful flowers, as its petals turn dark towards the center.

Also, there are things colored red for more practical reasons. For example, a stop sign is red so you can see it and avoid accidents, and a red bar on the floor indicates that you must not cross it. I don’t like these particular red things – their crimson hues often lack depth or character, a flat shade that indicates “danger”, but I’m glad they are meant to get my attention. The stop sign is too important to be created just for beauty.

And there is also red on my phone.

I have 130 unread messages that my phone constantly reminds me of in the form of an aggressive red badge (sticker) on the iMessage app icon. I have 15 missed calls, 99 percent of which are spam. I imagine a robot voice scolding me for my nonexistent car loan every time I see a red badge on an app icon. You don’t want to know the number that I see every time I look at the Mail app icon.

My phone attacks me every time I unlock it.

These ugly red stickers are a reminder that I am either a failure or someone else’s target (as in the case of the auto loan spamming robot). And because of the red color it is difficult for me to ignore them. My phone attacks me every time I unlock it. And I’m not alone.

“They drive me crazy,” Paul Sherman, assistant professor and coordinator of the UX Design Master’s program at Kent State University, tells me. Red, he says, “causes more stress and tension.”

This awful sense of anxiety I get when I open my phone is what is known as cognitive overload, which can be roughly defined as how our brains react to being bombarded regularly with information from every corner of our lives, from social media to news and ads. …

There is a simple way that Apple and any other phone makers using red circles can solve the problem: change the color of the notification stickers or let users choose the color of their choice.

The most obvious result of these notifications is that they help us interact with our devices. Many neuroscientists and psychologists are worried about the negative effects of this technology, from how smartphones affect our ability to concentrate to a potential correlation with rising rates of mental illness and suicide among adolescents. There is also a large body of research that details how notifications themselves distract users or even cause stress, as I wrote earlier.

Even some Apple shareholders are worried about the intrusiveness of the iPhone. In January 2018, investment firm Jana Partners, in partnership with other shareholders in the California Teachers’ Pension System, issued an open letter expressing concern about the “unintended negative impact” of the ubiquity of telephones among children and teens.

Apple seems to be taking into account many of these concerns. As a consequence, we see the release of the Screen Time feature in June 2018. This feature informs users about weekly iPhone usage, broken down by application and compared to the previous week. Of course, this information is provided on a regular basis with automatic notification, which you must manually disable. I have done my own research on this issue (Twitter poll, which was attended by 79 people), which found that only 27 percent of respondents believe that Screen Time encourages them to use their phone less, and 30 percent voted that Screen Time does not help at all. Another 43 percent believe Screen Time is not only not helping, but it makes them feel worse. (I look forward to the evidence on this issue, whatever the cost.)

In John Herrman’s Wonderful Story of Red Magazine Notification Stickers New York Times both Apple and Google are said to have tried to dissuade app developers from overusing badges to varying degrees. But the fact remains that the main communication apps on our phones – iMessage, email, and social media – will continue to use the red icons that Apple has relied on for years unless we turn them off completely.

Maxim Leizerovich, UX manager at Capital One, explains in his letter that Apple used a red notification badge in its macOS Mail app, even before the iPhone was invented.

“It made sense to use red to stand out from the pastel (and then light blue) interface of the system,” he says. “Red, which is both the brightest and the least used color, greatly enhances the feedback loop that pushes us to do so. [вызывающему привычку] behavior “.

Screenshot from Compétence Mac

All this stress may not be a deliberate result of notification design, but not entirely unexpected.

“Long before the iPhone and UX design notifications, we culturally embraced red as the color that stands for urgency and importance,” Michael Wagner, an information architect at Markon Brands, a design consulting firm, wrote to me in an email. “Using red as a notification icon makes sense because we’re already used to looking at red signals as items that need our attention.”

Context is everything, but we tend to think of a stop sign rather than a red dress when we see a red notification badge. Plenty of research shows that red is arousing (no, not sexual). A 1974 study found that viewing red caused a greater galvanic response in the skin, or changes in sweat gland activity, usually caused by some form of stress other than blue or yellow. A 2004 Hong Kong study found that when web pages have background colors that are relaxing, such as blue, users feel that load times are faster than when the background is red, the color that is more troubling.

“It’s much more aggressive than other notifications,” Sherman says. “I am absolutely convinced that in their efforts to make the notice visible, they have contributed to increased stress. Undoubtedly. Now I look at the notification stickers and say, “Oh my God!”

Currently, the only way to change the appearance of red badges on your iPhone is by jailbreaking, which is not a good solution for most of us. CJ Yeh, professor of communication design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, notes that the badge design in the Android Oreo operating system is a potential source of inspiration for Apple.

In Oreo, the stickers are slightly smaller than on the iPhone, and instead of having a uniform color set by the operating system, they have a lighter shade of the dominant color of the app icon. For example, the Phone app badge will be small and light green, while the Mail app badge will be small and pale blue.

“It’s enough to get your attention, but it doesn’t scream at you,” Yeh tells me. “Overall, I think this is a pretty elegant solution.”

Why Apple's Notification Design Is Stressful
Image Mobile Industry Review

The Android system also allows external launchers that users can download to change the look of their entire operating system. It is unlikely that Apple, the proponents of the “walled garden”, will ever allow third-party developers to create completely new images for their OS. But they can allow users to choose between different badge styles. This option is quite possible. More recently, Apple has loosened control over notification styles with the release of iOS 11, which allows users to hide the contents of notifications on the lock screen.

I personally use this feature. I just wish Apple could add other label designs. With the release of Screen Time, increased parental controls and more notification options, and encouraging third-party apps to use badges sparingly, Apple is clearly aware that its design is harmful to consumers in many ways. By using calmer colors (like purple or blue) or shades (like less saturated red) for notification stickers, or by letting users choose, Apple can make its product less stressful. It won’t erase all my unread messages or unheard voicemails, but that’s already something.

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