Context Aware Apps: Taming the notification tsunami. By Mike Grant, Caru Ventures

I have roughly 200 apps on my phone spread across five pages and ten folders. By default, I enable notifications on the basis that if I have downloaded the app, its because it is doing something useful or interesting for me. Same thing on my mac.

1396021953However, with this number apps it seems that every minute of the day my iOS devices notify me of new emails, new SMS’s, tweets, Facebook posts, new “friends” who have joined Tango, news stories from the BBC and  Bloomberg (what possessed the BBC to add audio to their notifications!?), offers on games (my son insisted I download Avengers Assemble!), Pizza Hut offers, even the GSMA … the list is endless.

Of course I have a choice –switch off all notifications app by app. But this reduces the utility of the app, and how many of us have the time to go through our list of apps and work out which apps I want to interrupt me and which I want silenced? 

So what’s the answer? 

The mobile user experience conference, MEX14, provided a fascinating insight into how we respond to the stimuli presented to us by our digital devices. Giles Colborne of CX Partners quotes three timing principles UX designers need to consider when designing apps: 

  • 0.1 seconds – the minimum length of time we can discriminate. If an app responds to an action within 0.1 seconds, we perceive it as instantaneous.
  • 1 second – the comfortable length of pause in a dialogue that we still consider to be natural speech
  • 10 seconds – the amount of time to take to switch from one task to another.

This last figure explains why we find notification so irritating.  If it takes me10 seconds to focus my attention on a Facebook notification then 10 seconds to re focus back onto writing this blog, I have just lost 20 seconds of productive activity. If I get one notification every three minutes, I am losing over 10% of my time to just switching between tasks. 

That’s not just a problem for me. Its also a problem for the advertising industry. In particular, it’s a problem for TV advertisers in this age of the second who account for around $100bn of the $240bn spent on advertisting in the US and Europe.  If an advertiser loses the attention of the user to a tweet during an ad break, it takes at least 20 seconds or two thirds of the 30 second slot, before you get that user’s attention back again. That is a direct loss of value for your advert. As the number of apps and amount of app traffic grows, so the more notifications increase, and with it the probability of any one ad being interrupted. 

Apps need to get smart. They need some form of context awareness through which they can adjust what is notified to the user and when. The notification systems devised by Google and Apple are crying out for a fundamental re-think.  

At MEX we identified five major contexts or “modes” that we as individuals operate in (There are many more.): 

  • Entertainment, (e.g. I’m watching TV)
  • Inspiration, (I’m deep in thought)
  • Operational (I’m at work standard working tasks),
  • Social (I’m out and about and want to chat)
  • Travel (e.g. I’m commuting)

We identified key characteristics defining each mode, and started to design principles describing what is appropriate to notify a user in each mode and when. Evolving this approach further, cognitive learning algorithms can be defined around the sensors on our devices to enable the system to detect the mode we are in and change our response to individual situations. Google Now is an excellent start down this route. 

The ultimate goal must be to enable users to engage more effectively with the digital ecosystem in what is currently a noisy and distracting environment. 

Engagement times user base is the key value metric for todays internet stocks. Facebook paid $40 per user for Whatsapp based on 450m people using the app more often than any other app on their phone. Line, a close competitor to Whatsapp, generates $12 per user per annum in revenue from its app in Japan. That compares to $7 per user Facebook generates per annum. Facebook is clearly paying for premium engagement. 

Right now our appreciation of how notifications from multiple apps diminishes engagement on our phones, tablets, laptops, and TVs is incredibly basic. Our understanding of how that translates into lost value for the brands that fund large chunks of the internet is even poorer. 

This is a massive issue that is fertile ground for research and innovation … and value creation. 


This post originally appeared on the Caru Ventures Blog:


About The Author

Mike GrantMike Grant is Founder and CEO of Caru Ventures, a corporate and product strategy advisor in mobile, TV, and digital media. Over a 25 year career, Mike has held a number of Executive and Board posts in both public and private companies, generating shareholder value through the design and execution of several product-led company transformations. He has brought to market a number of world firsts including: the introduction of 3D graphics into the mobile industry; the deployment of successful 3G mobile networks in Europe and Asia; and the development of the largest chat community in Latin America. He has also advised financial institutions and policy makers on major transactions and market structure in both the TV and mobile industries.

Mike’s success has been based on bridging the divide between customer need and technology development, underpinning a passion for product innovation with rigorous market and economic analysis and robust product management processes.

Mike holds a 1st class Honours Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering, a PhD in Coherent Fibre Optic Communications, and is a Cranfield MBA. He is a regular presenter at conferences, is a member of the IBC organising committee (, and is widely cited online and in the traditional press.

Get in touch with Mike:





Keep the conversation going on Twitter: @CambWireless

Want to find out more about Cambridge Wireless? Visit