Fully 40% of information workers surveyed in the Forrester Analytics Business Technographics® Workforce Survey, 2020, said their coworkers frequently interrupt them via instant messages, emails, or other types of digital communication. This scenario resonates with all of us, even in day-to-day life — think about your group chat that blew up last night with party planning logistics while you were trying to cook dinner and ensure that your kids had done their homework.

The challenge: There are simply too many notifications — and most of them sound the same. Our phones vibrate or ping, and we don’t know if the Supreme Court has reached a landmark decision or if our bank account balance has changed.

Google’s latest experiment, Little Signals, looks to solve this problem by building on “calm technology” to deliver notifications through soft signals (such as puffs of air and shadows) that move from the background to the foreground as needed. In conjunction with Map Project Office, Google’s latest project from its Seed Studio, Little Signals consists of a series of six objects: air, button, movement, rhythm, shadow, and tap.

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Notifications Aren’t New, But Their Ubiquity Is

Alerts and notifications are as old as gadgets themselves. They’re everywhere: They exist on most electronic, mechanical, or connected devices with moving parts, from doorbells, elevators, and alarm clocks to the car alert for an unbuckled passenger — not to mention things like prescription reminders or news alerts on smartphones.

As consumers, we rely on them — I certainly do. Over one-third of US online adults in Forrester’s March 2022 Consumer Energy Index And Retail Pulse Survey said they often depend on mobile messages to remember to do things such as pay bills or show up for appointments.

Brands: Build A Thoughtful Notification Strategy

Google may be on to something with its new products that promote moments of calm while introducing new types of less intrusive alerts. To build their notification strategies, brands should:

  1. Find a balance between too many and too few notifications. Notifications should sit at the intersection of immediacy and simplicity. To find the right balance, ask yourself questions like “Is the content short and clear with complete information?” to pass the simplicity test, as well as “Does the user need to act on the information in the next 5 to 10 minutes?”
  2. Audit your mobile messages. Inventory your mobile messages — and ask yourself which messages truly pass the simplicity and immediacy tests. Analyze the notifications you get in your own life and decide if they gave you peace of mind, reminded you to take an important action, or simply interrupted your day.
  3. Create notifications that encapsulate full information. The best notifications should let customers know exactly what they need to know just from the sound/light/quick glance. When a sale starts, Wines ‘Til Sold Out (WTSO.com) notifies (opt-in) customers’ mobile phones with the sound of two glasses clinking together. This recognizable sound creates a sense of urgency within the context of offering a great deal.
  4. Anticipate your customers’ needs and act on their behalf. Ultimately, brands should do more to anticipate the needs of their customers and evolve from assistants that make smart suggestions to agents that take action. Today’s self-service-oriented digital experiences place too much cognitive load on consumers. Ten years from now, employees who are responsible for customers’ needs will identify their customers’ most important moments and then build context maps that isolate just the context they need in real time to suggest an action that the customer should take — or act on the customer’s behalf.
  5. Evaluate how new sounds, lights, or even puffs of air could enhance your notifications. Would a light puff of air really alert me to turn off the oven? I don’t know — yet. But maybe it is time for consumers to learn a new notifications language — at least for less urgent tasks, such as a reminder that their pizza delivery is 10 minutes away. Softer notifications introduce greater “moments of calm,” let brands make notifications that are more useful to consumers, and convey varying levels of urgency.

Consumer adoption takes time and requires changing behavior and growing comfort with “something new.” Little Signals will be an interesting use case to watch as more companies build the future of experiences and think about what role notifications play in our day-to-day lives. If you are curious to learn more about our “future of experiences” research, please schedule a call with me — I would love to hear from you!

(This blog was coauthored by Kara Wilson, senior research associate, Forrester.)