The difference between iOS and Android notifications: discoverability

June 14th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

iOS 5 Notification

iOS 5 Notification

If you were to read a description of the new iOS notification system it would be very hard to distinguish it from what Android has offered for quite some time. I’m sure many people will be reveling in “start your photo copier” jokes1. While many will be quick to point out all the similarities, and there are many, the small changes and additions that Apple have made make a huge difference. For even the most clever feature is, in my book, all but useless if your average user can’t easily find it. The main difference between iOS and Android on this is simply one of discoverability.

While many Android users have been crowing about their superior notification system for some time I find it a fundamentally flawed system. The Android notification bar is basically a dressed up version of what I had on my Nokia in 2001. While I paid close attention to which icons were being displayed I certainly found myself in a very small minority. The vast majority of people I knew at the time were perfectly content to ignore them. And for good reason. Icons without text, especially tiny ones, require the user to learn what they mean either by guesswork or reading a manual. Someone who hasn’t seen a missed call icon before is not going to have any idea of what it means. This is made evident by the complete lack of a standard missed call icon. I’m willing to bet that the majority of “normal” Android users, you know the ones who don’t even really know what “Android” is, only pay attention to the signal strength and battery icons. The rest are all but ignored.

Ok, so people ignore the stupid icons, who cares? For one this is a primary method that users are notified of events in the Android OS. Secondly the user is somehow supposed to know that they can now manipulate this bar. They can drag it down to show an entire list of notifications. This bar that has been around for 15 years and has never been something the user interacts with is now a launching point for what is arguably one of the most important features of the phone; keeping it’s user informed about what they missed. While I agree that this is a great way to give the user access to this critical feature from anywhere in the OS while not using up valuable screen real-estate, the completely opaque discoverability of this feature actually makes the old iOS pop-ups look good.

As I wrote back in March I didn’t expect the difference between what android had and what Apple would announce to be much. The small differences, what I called the last 10%, make a huge difference when it comes to usability however. As I pointed out before it’s all but impossible for even the newest iPhone user to miss an alert like a text message. Android, on the other hand, requires the user to learn the idiosyncrasies of their notification system before they will be able to keep up with it. The non-intrusive, yet obvious, notification at the top not only draws the user’s attention to what’s happening but also, by rolling away, gives them a subtle cue that they can interact with it. While the notification tray is hidden just like it is in Android I would argue that this is not what makes it ingenious. Showing the user how to use the notification tray without any sort of training (“how to” video, document, son-in-law) but by using the notification system itself is what makes this a brilliant feature.

  1. Ironic since the original android prototypes looked exactly like Blackberries until the iPhone was announced []
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iOS Notifications & the last 10%

March 1st, 2011 § 1 comment § permalink

iOS Notifications

iOS Notifications

There is a great post on the cocoia blog contrasting the various notification systems on iOS, Android and WebOS1. Much like the dark days before Copy/Paste I have full confidence that Apple is not holding back a new system out of laziness or greed but because of their top down ethos of perfectionism. A friend of mine put it very well when he said “they don’t like things that sometimes work, it either works or you can’t have it.”2 The mistake that Apple often makes is that they spend so much time getting the UI right that it seems obvious that it should have been that way all along. I’m sure they have implemented many notification alternatives that were at most 90% acceptable but instead of suffering through half a dozen iterations that slowly approach decent UI they go through one. They are holding out for that last 10%.


If you looked at the mobile OS copy/paste solutions before Apple implemented one it was laughable. Often involving a scroll ball and/or many button clicks they were not only opaque to the average user but inconsistent to the point where it was anyone’s guess whether some bit of text could be copied or not. While many people rolled their eyes and said “about f-ing time” when Apple released their version of this seemingly simple UI element I had quite a different reaction. I had suspected they would do something with a tap+hold but their selection implementation was so brilliant that it seemed obvious and simple. It instantly made every other mobile OS look antiquated and, well, stupid.

Everyone loves to say that Android has a superior notification system to iOS and while I have always agreed that I would appreciate it I have also suspected it was unsuitable for the average user. This was cemented for me when my stepmother upgraded from a blackberry to a Droid X. Having been a savvy texter since her Nokia feature phone I often communicate with her this way because she is hard to get a hold of on the phone. Which is why I didn’t think too much when I inquired about her birthday plans and didn’t hear back. I just assumed that she hadn’t figured it out yet. As it turns out she didn’t get my message for 3 days because it was lost in the sea of notifications. I can’t imagine this happening to even the most inexperienced iPhone user.3

Not until she casually opened her messages app did she happen to notice my unread message. I then showed her how you could swipe down from the top to reveal notifications and she was stunned despite having had the phone for 3 weeks. I couldn’t blame her either because the only reason I knew about the feature was because I had read about it online. There is absolutely no visual indication that shows the user how to access this vital area. The modal window may be annoying but you sure as hell aren’t going to miss a message.

I’m assuming that sometime in June or July Apple will announce a new phone, a new version of iOS and probably a new notification system. It will be simple, easy to use and impossible to ignore. It will seem so obvious that people will roll their eyes and wonder why it took them so long to implement it. While it will borrow much from Android and WebOS it will be both subtly and vitally superior. It won’t take much for them to catch up but that last 10% of UI design is arguably the most important and the most difficult.

  1. Via Daring Fireball []
  2. Alfred Morgan []
  3. I would be curious to see what the SMS adoption rates are for iPhone users compared to Android. In my anecdotal experience even people who didn’t know what text messages were have started using them when they switched to the iPhone. Being easy to ignore on a feature phone the modal windows on an iPhone force the user to at least dismiss them. []
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