This Weird Push Notification Keeps Me Up at Night

You should avoid frustrating experiences, intrusive interruptions, and friction by balancing the importance of the message with the severity of the interruption.

Written by Olivia Belitsky
Published on Jun. 14, 2023
This Weird Push Notification Keeps Me Up at Night
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I wake up and it’s still pitch black in my room. I try to fall back asleep, but no luck. I don’t want to check the time, but curiosity gets the best of me and I lazily lift my head and turn to the clock on my nightstand. 2:28 a.m. My phone lights up with a notification. I don’t have to check it, I already know what it is. Every month, on the first Tuesday, around 2:30 in the morning, I receive the same push notification from my credit card app:

“Your credit score has not changed this month.”

As a product manager, I seek to learn best practices from other digital platforms. When I don’t understand why a company would do something, I ask around or research until I find an answer. This push notification, though? It’s the stuff of nightmares. It represents a total failure of a user communication strategy. And this giant multinational financial firm should know better. Here’s why this one weird push notification keeps me up at night.


Why This Annoying Notification Matters

Excellent product experiences are built on three core principles: necessary, intuitive, and delightful. Simply put, your product should provide a solution to a pertinent problem, be frictionless and easy to use, and spark joy. User communications are part of making your product more intuitive. There are two main categories:

  • External communications happen outside of your platform, like emails, text messages, and push notifications. They’re used to deliver important and timely information or to encourage the user to visit the platform again.
  • Internal communications happen within your platform, like a notification center, modals, toasts, tooltips, tutorials, and banners. They’re used to help guide the user through the tasks they’re trying to accomplish at the moment.

A well-designed product will use both internal and external communication methods to help the user gracefully accomplish their goals.

Read More About Product Management With Olivia Belitsky on Built In’s Expert Contributors NetworkProduct Engagement Is a Useless Success Metric. Track This Instead.


The Most Important Rule of User Communications

You must balance the importance of the message with the severity of its interruption.

Sometimes, products will under-communicate important information. For example, I once worked on a product that required the user to fill out a form by a specific date to be eligible for benefits. We displayed this information on a banner at the top of the screen, but many users still missed out on their benefits. Through feedback from our call center, we learned that these users didn’t notice the banner at all and completely missed the deadline. We should have used a modal that grabbed the attention of our users and required them to acknowledge the deadline before proceeding.

What Is a Modal Dialog?

A modal dialog is a dialog that appears on top of the main content and moves the system into a special mode requiring user interaction. This dialog disables the main content until the user explicitly interacts with the modal dialog. (Source: Nielson Norman Group)

More often, however, I see products overuse intrusive interruptions, like modals and push notifications, to give unnecessary information. For example, I used to work with an office manager who had a business account with a retailer for ordering office supplies and furniture. She would receive three push notifications from the retailer every day advertising that bed frames, area rugs, and throw pillows were on sale too. As another example, I recently logged into my health insurance website to file a claim, but was interrupted by a modal telling me that Internet Explorer was no longer supported. I was using Chrome. In both examples, the interruptions pull the user out of the task that they’re focusing on and demand their attention for something unnecessary, which creates friction.


The Problem With This Weird Push Notification

The push notification that I receive from my credit card app every month misses the mark on multiple fronts:

  • It doesn’t communicate important information: Why would I need to know that my credit score hasn’t changed this month? 
  • It doesn’t give me an action item for next steps: Okay, if it’s important that I know that my credit score hasn’t changed this month, what should I do about it? When I click on the notification, it takes me to the app’s homepage. What am I supposed to do here?
  • It alerts me in the middle of the night, when I’m asleep: If a message is so important that it needs to be pushed to my phone, then why send it in the middle of the night? When I wake up the next day, my groggy brain will gloss right over it and miss the message.


3 Ways This Notification Could Be Improved

If I managed the credit card app, here’s how I would change this notification.


Only Notifying Parties With Demonstrated Interest

I would first identify the users who are interested in learning more about their credit score. This could be done by tracking who clicks on articles about credit scores in-app, or by allowing users to opt-in based on their goals. For example, someone saving up to buy a house may be interested in tracking their credit score.


Use Email Instead

I would send out a monthly email updating users on their credit score. Emails are far less intrusive than push notifications.


Restrict Notifications to Dramatic Changes Only

I would only set a push notification to go out if the user’s credit score changed by, say, 30 points in a month. A change of 30 points is significant enough to indicate a problem if it goes down, or celebrate it if it goes up. I would also set this push to be sent around lunchtime on a weekday, when the average person is most receptive to notifications.

The Takeaway

Product management is all about delivering value to your users by solving their problems. Many product teams spend so much time focused on delivering on big, new features that they don’t even consider a communication strategy. In my experience, this is where teams without a dedicated product marketing manager or general marketing partner struggle the most. As a PM, it’s definitely one of my blind spots!

A well-crafted communications strategy is crucial for building a necessary, intuitive, and delightful product. You can avoid frustrating experiences, intrusive interruptions, and friction by balancing the importance of the message with the severity of the interruption.

Read More About Olivia Belitsky’s Product Management Career Here on Built In’s Expert Contributors NetworkThe Unlikely Origin of My Product Management Career: Jazz Band

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