Essays on Technology and Culture

Needy Apps, and How to Deal With Them

I’m not proud of it, but I have an Instagram account. I had one before Facebook bought them, rage-deleted the account after the acquisition, and came crawling back when I realized none of my friends were seeing the cool pictures I posted on competing services. I’m not proud, but I want to be loved.

Lately, Instagram has been bugging me to turn on notifications, so that I’ll know if someone likes, comments, tags, or sends me an Instagram Direct message. It’s bugged me when I launch the app, and it’s bugger me on the activity screen. The latter was particularly egregious, as it had a teeny-tiny dismissal button, 1/4th the size of any reasonable tap target on an iPhone. It took me ten tries to make it go away, and I came very close to hitting the large, green, Fitts’s Law compliant button to turn notifications on.

There’s a frustrating trend among too many apps to let them have access to me at all times. Push notifications are a useful way to get people to open your app and do things, but too many apps abuse the privilege. As we move towards a context-based model of computing, and possibly to getting notifications on our wrists, control over what demands our limited attention is only going to become more important. I think about Google Now, and its model of the “right notification” at the “right time” makes sense, even though it’s failed to work for me as advertised. Google Now isn’t perfect, and the out-of-the box setup has too many irrelevant options that benefit their advertisers, instead of me, but they’re still light years ahead of anyone else in this space.

But, Instagram notifications aren’t contextually relevant. Facebook just wants my eyeballs to see more content, more ads, get more info about what I like, and sell that info to advertisers. That they need to be so aggressive and needy with their push notification… push… tells me that they’re having trouble getting the numbers they want. If they want to suck up more of my time, they should fix their broken content feed, get better at dealing with spambots, and stop forcing workarounds for sharing URLs in comments. Make the platform better, not more needy, and the eyeballs will come… though perhaps they ran the numbers and think push notifications are more effective. In which case, I’ll grumble and deal with it.

I get enough out of Instagram to suck it up and fight to use the app in peace. I don’t get enough out of most other apps that needfully beg for the opportunity to interrupt. I’m sure I’m not the only frustrated one. It’s easier to turn notifications off on a per-app basis in iOS 8, but I’ve long maintained that changing settings is a power user move. Instead, an overwhelmed and frustrated user is going to delete your needy app… and once you’ve lost them, they’re not coming back.