Notifications on Apple Watch: How the Onus of Relevancy Will Shift From Consumer to Apps

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Apple Inc. Reveals Bigger-Screen iPhones Alongside Wearables

I have been wearing an Apple Watch since the day it came out, which is now almost three weeks. I won’t bore you with yet another review, because frankly, everything that can be said about the Apple Watch has already been written. However, what I think is interesting and not fully explored are the implications for app developers and their push notification strategy.

There are essentially three interaction points that Apps need to consider when developing for Apple Watch; the app itself, the glance view, and push notifications.

Apps On The Apple Watch
From my experience, the apps themselves are meaningless. They are hard to access, limited in functionality, and generally more trouble than they are worth. I am sure this will change as developers find more compelling use cases for these apps and as Apple opens up more functionality to them, but even then accessing the apps is painful and the screen too small for anything but quick consumption of small chunks of data. From my limited experience, I don’t believe the app paradigm translates well to a watch.

The Glance View
The glance view, however, is much more interesting. With a quick swipe you get access to tiny chunks of dynamic data that you care about. Want to know the score of your favorite team? Want to pull up your gate information? Just swipe and glance. These glance views have almost no functionality, but they present just the data you need quickly and effortlessly. Apps should absolutely build glance views if they have data that is dynamic and important to users.

Push Notifications
Notifications is where things get very interesting. On smartphones, notifications have become a tangled mess of annoyance with almost zero utility. In other words, getting a notification on a phone is a little annoying and not very helpful; so it is easy for consumers to just turn them off outright. The data bears this out, where depending on whom you ask between 50% and 70% of consumers turn off all notifications.

However on an Apple Watch the utility of a notification is way higher. The killer feature of the Apple Watch is getting notifications on your wrist — the promise of being alerted about the information you need, right when you need it, without needing to take your phone out of your pocket. This is seriously compelling and when it works, it feels like magic. I think this is the primary reason why anyone would buy a smartwatch.

The flipside of this utopian Apple Watch future is that the annoyance of a bad notification is also multiplied on our wrist. It is one thing for our phone to interrupt you to let you know that you haven’t played a crappy game in a week, but quite another for your wrist to start buzzing in the middle of a meeting forcing you to look down only to realize the interruption is for a 3% sale going on for a product you have no interest in. Notifications on your wrist are so invasive and so personal that a bad notification is an order of magnitude more annoying. Multiply this for notifications coming at you every few minutes and the Watch becomes almost unbearable if it is pounded by spam notifications.

The Onus for Push Is on the Consumer
This tension between the utility and annoyance of push notifications puts consumers in a serious bind. Consumers want good notifications on their watch (otherwise, what’s the point of a smartwatch?), but are also incredibly nervous about the constant barrage of bad ones that they will inevitably receive. From a few informal surveys we have done, we are hearing that most Apple Watch users are spending a lot of time manually adjusting the notification permissions they give every app. This time-consuming, tedious, and very un-Apple like experience is putting the onus of figuring out notifications on the consumer. I highly doubt this is what Apple wants or where the future is heading.

Spam Filter for Notifications
If history is any guide to the future, then it is pretty clear that Apple will force developers to create better experiences. What easier way than by building in a push notification spam filter for the watch? Apple is already using context to suggest auto-responses to text messages, why can’t Apple use context to figure out which push notifications are timely and relevant and worthy of making it on the Watch?

I think in the very near future we will see Apple create a black-box algorithm that will take all of the effort out of figuring out which notifications should make it to our wrists. They already alluded to this possibility in their developer docs where they say: “When one of your app’s local or remote notifications arrives on the user’s iPhone, iOS decides whether to display that notification on the iPhone or on the Apple Watch.” Currently, all notifications are being shown on the Watch. But it is clear that in the near future that won’t be the case.

What Does This Mean for Developers?
If Apple does release a spam filter for notification on the Watch, then the onus of sending relevant, timely, and contextual notifications will fall directly on the shoulders of app developers. For so long apps have been operating in a world where every notification they send gets to consumers with almost zero penalty, that they have spent very little time thinking about how to best target them, when to send them, or how to make them contextually relevant. This has been to the detriment of consumers who are sick of getting crappy and spammy notifications.

However, the release of the Apple Watch puts greater emphasis on the need for contextual and helpful notifications, and if apps don’t answer this need with a more thoughtful approach to notifications, then Apple will very likely force their hand via the introduction of a filter for notifications.

Eli PortnoyEli Portnoy is the CEO and co-founder of Sense360, which helps developers build smarter apps through sensor-intelligence. He was previously CEO and co-founder of location-based ad network Thinknear, which he sold to Telenav in 2012. You can follow him on twitter @eportnoy.