The difference between iOS and Android notifications: discoverability

June 14th, 2011 § 0 comments

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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