Finding the right time and place for wearable notifications


This is the first in a series of blog posts on subjects related to user interaction with wearables. I hope to examine various forms of user interaction including notifications, gestures, visual, sound, and touch, exploring the issues, challenges, and opportunities in user interfaces for wearables.

Copycat Notifications

Smart watches, fitness bands, or even smart glasses like Google Glass are designed to filter smartphone notifications such as emails, text messages, phone calls, social media alerts, and mobile app alerts.

On our smartphones, we can control which apps notify us and which don’t, when these notifications come in, and decide on the types of notifications we want to see. These controls in turn can be used to manage notifications on a wearable device like a smart watch.

However, if these notifications simply get copied and passed on from the smartphone to the wearable, it doesn’t solve much. We essentially get copycat notifications on the smartphone and the wearable device, which means we are likely to check both when the notification arrives. Most first generation wearables suffer from this copycat notification issue, which in my view undermines the appeal of wearables in the first place.

The wearable should ideally be the primary notification device when in use, and the phone should turn its notifications off when in the pocket or even on the desk.

Context of Usage and Location

Smart watches are likely to display notifications regardless of whether you are on a commute, at work, in a meeting, in a library, or at home. These notifications are also likely to continue even if the watch is not on your wrist, perhaps lying on a table or in a drawer somewhere.

Wearables should only turn on and notify when in use and in certain contexts. Ideally a smart watch should know when it is on the wrist and if the user is at work, in a meeting, or is taking a nap.

Specialized wearables like smart fitness socks or heart rate monitors don’t really suffer with this issue as they are only worn or used in specific contexts at certain times of the day. However, more generic wearables that are worn for longer periods need to carefully take into account the context of usage and location when making notifications.

Managing Notifications

As we start using wearable devices, managing notifications for each and every device, along with the existing smartphone notifications, could become a chore in itself. Ideally, there should be one interface on the smartphone that does everything, with the wearable companion app on the smartphone syncing up with the device. Rather than manually selecting notification options for each app, the app should automatically determine its “eligibility” to be on the approved notification board.

We could also have notification bundles with the phone filtering notifications from app bundles such as travel, messaging, finance, etc. Users should spend less time managing notifications across the range of wearables that they own, and rather have the devices seamlessly manage it for the user.

App as a Notification

There has been a recent discussion about the value of smartphone apps, how we interact with them, and death of crowded app screens. With notifications replacing the full app experience, the discussion about wearable notifications becomes more important as we have more of them popping up in different places.

Wearables are an extension of this “app as a notification” trend. There is much to discuss and debate here with apps becoming the service, notification chains, and when objects start to send notifications. I hope to pick these up in future blog posts. We are definitely at the cusp of a massive change in UI for the web and mobile, and notifications are at the heart of it.

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