The Apple Watch’s Notification Problem

It’s happened. After months of hype and sky-high financial forecasting, consumers have been introduced to the Apple Watch. Online pre-ordering began last Friday; within minutes, some models had sold out. The verdict from tech reviewers is almost unanimous: the watch is impressive in many respects. But it’s not a game-changer, at least not yet. This impression is probably related to the newness of the product, which makes it seem more like a novelty than a necessity. However, some problems and general annoyances have been observed.

First, there’s the battery. Some reviewers have reported that their watches barely made it through the day before the batteries had to be recharged. Then there’s the supposed technological learning curve – a surprise given Apple’s user-friendly reputation. But there’s another, more general critique, a critique that is sure to resonate with many readers, including some who haven’t even tested the phone. “I’m more aware of people I’m ignoring than ever before”, says Nilay Patel of the Verge. “It’s unclear if progress can be measured in inches,” says Network World’s Steven Max Paterson (he’s referring to the migration of Smartphone technology from the hand to the wrist). Such comments hint at a growing uneasiness with our dependence on technology, a theme that has been reflected in a slew of recent blockbusters and editorials.


Information Overload in the Age of Wearables

y interest in the Apple Watch – and the larger discussion about technology that surrounds it – is mostly professional. I work for a startup that produces automated media and government-monitoring software. The company – Gnowit – is involved in a growing category of innovation: technology that helps its users deal with problems caused by technology (primarily information overload). For many, the appeal of the Apple Watch stems from its potential to reduce the distractions caused by Smartphones. Anyone who’s ever sat through dinner with an email-obsessed workaholic or twitter addict is sure to see the appeal. But while the watch may, in many instances, curtail the action of reaching for and staring at a phone, it also gives rise to new challenges.

One such challenge relates to the watch’s reliance on the Smartphone. The two devices are meant to complement one another, and in fact, the watch needs to be close to its counterpart to perform optimally. In his Bloomberg Business review, Joshua Topolsky describes how this system can lead to situations where users “not only have to take action, [but] have to decide where to take action.” If you receive a lot of notifications, consider the cumulative time it might take to assess which device to view them on. In addition, there’s the sheer volume of notifications many users will receive. Topolsky notes that, if you’re a busy person, the alert system can get “overwhelming fast”. He describes the frustration of being bombarded by low-priority messages (such as suggestions for people to follow on twitter) during his business meetings. Geoffrey A. Fowler echos this sentiment in the Wall Street Journal. “[T]here’s a fine line between being in the know and having your wrist jiggle all day”, writes Fowler. And in Network World, Steven Max Paterson provides a straightforward diagnosis of problem, stating that the Apple Watch “doesn’t apply intelligence to filtering notifications.”

Sophisticated filtering solutions – for notifications and many other aspects of data monitoring and management – are now absolutely essential in most organizations. It’s not just individual knowledge workers who suffer when information is mismanaged – it’s the bottom line of entire companies. Spam filters, data-processing software, monitoring automation – these are just a few of the technologies that have been developed to help us adapt. There is, of course, a certain irony in using technology to deal with technology-driven overload. Patterson comments on this irony as it relates to the Apple Watch, asking whether it makes sense to solve the problem of too many notifications with even more notifications.

Such questions are becoming more pressing as interest in wearable technology (or “wearables”) grows. The digital world already permeates most, if not all, of our waking hours. The boundaries between these technologies and our bodies are becoming less and less defined. What happens when these boundaries all but disappear? Unlike cell phones, which are generally not physically attached to users, products like the Apple Watch and Google Glass were made to be worn on the body. Though the choice to wear these devices is made freely, users (and those they spend time with) will likely find them disruptive at times. It doesn’t make sense to remove wearable technology every time it causes a minor annoyance, even when the effort required to do so is minimal. Turning them off and on throughout the day doesn’t seem like an optimal solution, either. And so, users must deal with interruptions that are usually more difficult for them to ignore than those caused by cell phones (though, mercifully, they’re usually less obvious to others).

Effective Notification and Filtering Features

Geoffrey A. Fowler points to the watch’s ability to “assign VIP status to individual contacts and specify which apps can trigger alerts” as a feature that help with managing notifications. Even so, he acknowledges that setup is an “ongoing chore”. Similarly, Topolsky describes the notification system as “a little maddening at first.” Though he, too, acknowledges that these issues can be dealt with through settings, he notes that simplifying this process “requires work”. Despite these issues, both writers give the watch a positive review. I don’t see where they’re coming from. It would take some very helpful features (I’m talking bring-me-breakfast-in-bed helpful) to make me adopt a product that requires this kind of attention. I can’t help but wonder why Tim Cook et el didn’t make this particular aspect of the user experience simpler. My quick proficiency in setting up alerts with automated-monitoring software suggests it can be done (and, for context, I have yet to figure out which of my two remotes activates Netflix).

The answer, I’m sure, has to do with the watch’s complexity. Creating a product that is small, sleek, and capable of carrying out the scope of functions the Apple Watch is capable of carrying out is no small feat. Still, it seems to me there must be a better way. And by better, I mean simpler. When it comes to notifications, simplifying the setup process is essential. Offering a variety of frequency preferences for each source – including the option of choosing a custom frequency, such as everyday at 12 and 5 pm – can be immensely useful. For users, being able to cap the number of messages received from a particular source or limit the times at which certain types of messages can be received can greatly cut down on frustration. Developers should focus on features that facilitate quick and easy modifications – easily-accessible menus are a must.

There was a time when filtering out spam was enough to combat information overload. But in an age where so much of our lives are lived online, even digital newsletters, promos, and social updates we’ve signed up for can be frustrating if we receive them at the wrong time. So, too, can work emails sent to us during our off hours, and vice versa. Increasingly, making an effort to compartmentalize our lives will mean quick prioritization and even quicker implementation. We’ll need solutions that can keep up with us, that can learn from changes in our behaviour before we even think about consulting the owner’s manual. How can this be achieved? Two words: artificial intelligence.

Though it’s often associated with images of humanoid robots, artificial intelligence (AI) is already at work in many everyday applications. These include the recommendation engines at Netflix and Amazon and the spam filters used by some email service providers. In automated-monitoring systems (I’m thinking of Gnowit, as I’m most familiar with its platforms), AI can summarize written content and determine the sentiment behind it. While software was traditionally programmed to perform one user-defined action or set of actions until it was “told” to do otherwise, programs with artificial intelligence and machine-learning capabilities evolve to meet individual user needs on an ongoing basis. For busy people – and those who have very active digital lives – the benefits are clear. Simplifying your interactions with the many digital devices, platforms, and tools in your life can help you chip away at the distractions that drain your productivity.

Technology as the Solution

Some will tell you that the best way to deal with information overload is to unplug. Turn off your cell phone when you’re at home. Delete your social media accounts if you don’t need them for work. Don’t check you email in the morning, and avoid all screens for as long as possible before you go to bed. This advice seems simple, but it’s not. Digital technologies have become an integral part of our social and work lives. Our addiction to them have so far proven difficult to break. But do we even want to break it? The internet has provided us with access to stores of knowledge we never dreamed of a few short decades ago. Cell phones have connected us across oceans and continents, ensuring we can always reach the people we care about. We have been enriched, connected, and entertained by digital technologies. And now, finally, we are beginning to find the tools to deal effectively with the information they provide us with.

The Apple Watch is, by all accounts, an impressive piece of architecture. However, certain product elements – most notably the notification system – could be improved to provide a simpler, less time-consuming user experience. There’s not doubt the company’s designers can achieve this. They work for Apple.

Feature Image Courtesy of Shinya Suzuki