Notification overload

How many sounds or notifications do you have to deal with every day? Now let’s see. Every time a new email or text message lands on your mobile phone. Every time you start the car and turn on the headlights. When you don’t fasten your seatbelt. When you forget to switch off the headlights. When you leave the door unlocked. When the microwave finishes heating up the food. When the washing machine wraps up a load. When the download is done. When the alarm rings. When the ‘low on fuel’ light flashes. When your mobile battery beeps for recharging.

Imagine the people who have to design all these notifications. Do you make it a single beep or a series of short ones? How does a warning differ from a completion sound? How do you make it easy for people to comply? Digital cameras don’t need the sound of the shutter. But unless the sound is heard, people are not sure that the picture has been clicked. Turn off the ‘click’ sound on your camera and see how uncomfortable it feels. It’s also one of the issues that designers of electric bikes and cars have to tackle. The ‘engine’ is silent – there’s only a battery. The accelerator does not rev up when you travel faster. So people riding the car or the bike feel a sense of loss without the feedback.

When exactly do you need a notification sound? Everytime you press the keypad on your mobile to send a message? Or is it enough to replace the old familiar sounds? It’s a toss-up really. Like the blinking ads on websites, there is only a thin line separating the useful from the irritating. Facebook does it with a small series of red blurbs on the top bar. Not intruding, but enough to get your attention. There’s even jargon for it. User Experience Design.