3 Types of Notifications

Photo credit: Post Memes via Flickr

Talking with founders is one of my favorite parts of being an early stage investor. Recently a founder casually mentioned there were three types of push notifications. I pounced on the comment as I had thought the same thing independently and was I excited to hear someone else’s definitions. Turns out we were in completely different places: the founder was thinking about notification technology while I was thinking notification use cases.

The three technical types she outlined were push, local, and in-app. In reviewing the iOS dev docs, one could also frame three as badge, message, and sound. The reality is that on either dominant mobile platform, notifications have a lot of unexplored potential in terms of tech and UX.  And as the sophistication of notifications design grows in support of user engagement (not new user growth as is commonly discussed) the need for specific language to analyze the different types of notifications grows since not all of them are made equal!

With that in mind I’m going to enumerate the key notification use cases given their importance to mobile application design, engagement, and growth. Personally, I’ve come to believe there are three common types of use cases for notifications*: (1) user-generated, (2) context generated, and  (3) system generated. Diving into each a bit more:

  1. User-generated notifications: These notifications contain content created by a human using the app to other humans. Generally, these are the most engaging but especially so when the content they contain is private and directed to specific people. Mobile messaging is the highest volume example of this type of notification but other examples include comments / likes / favorites on posted content or @ mentions. My current favorite example of this notification is getting a new photo of my son from my wife.
  2. Context-generated notifications. These notifications are generated by an application based on the permission of its users. This is the fast growing category of notifications because the amount of machine readable data mobile devices create: location, contacts, calendars, and much much more. The norms around context-generated notifications are still be worked out between developers and users. Location-based notifications currently dominate this category but other examples include information about your next meeting (time relevance) or updates about your favorite sports teams (interest relevance). My current favorite example of this notification is when I get notified there is a designer nearby via Highlight (disclosure: I’m an investor there).
  3. System-generated notifications. These notifications are generated by an app based on the needs of the app. This type of notification can usually be called re-engagement at best or spam at worst.  Sometimes these can create value for the end user like letting you know a friend has started using the app or that there is a sale on in app purchases.  Actually I can’t say that with a straight face as I don’t think they’ve ever created any value for me. Wait, I got one: security alert that someone has requested to reset my password. Well, until those started coming every few days anyhow. 🙁

I’d like to pause here to solicit feedback on this classification and specifically to find examples that break it. After digesting feedback I’ll follow up with some more ideas on notification design.

*While I’m framing this in the context of mobile push notifications I think these categories work fine to classify notifications delivered via other channels including SMS, email and soon to arrive widely web browsers notifications.