Tag Archives: mobile

My Rule of Thumb for Preventing Notification Overload

To keep myself from getting distracted by too many notifications on my phone, I ask myself the following questions whenever a new category pops up:

  • Will I need to act on it? (Likes/favorites are nice, but I don’t need to respond.)
  • How time-sensitive is it? (“Your ride is here” is more time sensitive than planning a get together for next weekend.)
  • How important? (“Server down” is more important than a project update. A conversation is more important than a newsletter.)
  • Is it actually for me, or is it an ad for the app service?

Then I turn off what I don’t need, turn off sound on the less urgent ones, and customize sounds for the most important ones.

So I hear when a text or instant message comes in, but not email or social media. When I pick up my phone I see emails, mentions & replies, but not favorites or boosts, etc.

It helps me a lot with alert overload. YMMV.

Mobile Firefox Frustrations

I’ve been using Firefox for Android as my main mobile browser for a few weeks now. There are a lot of things I like about it. It works well overall. Unlike Chrome, it supports extensions, so I can install (for instance) Privacy Badger and HTTPS Everywhere. The share menu option includes the two most recent apps instead of just one. Things like that.

But there are a few things that I find incredibly frustrating:

  • PWAs aren’t as stable as Chrome.
  • Auto-fill is inconsistent and interacts badly with scrolling.
  • It’s slower than Chrome, though I’ve found that turning off web fonts helps a lot.
  • Private mode UI differs only by the color of the search bar, so whenever I use it, I have to double-check whether I’m actually in private mode or not.

Plus I miss a few Chrome UI features that just streamline common actions:

  • When clicking on the search bar, if you have a URL in the clipboard, Chrome offers to load that URL. (This is particularly helpful for opening email links in private mode.)
  • Auto-fill an entire address form at once
  • Clear the last X minutes of history

On the PWA front: These are packaged web applications that can be “installed” locally and used offline, powered by whichever web browser you used to install them. When I switched browsers, I also reinstalled the PWAs I was using on my phone and tablet, switching them from Chrome-powered to Firefox-powered. These amount to a couple of Mastodon instances and Twitter. (I don’t want to install the full Twitter app on my phone so I’ll be less tempted to get caught in infinite scroll.)

On Firefox, Mastodon’s PWA frequently logs me out. Every other day at least. Sometimes it stops being able to load any new statuses, and I have to close the app entirely and re-open it to get back to normal. (Fortunately that’s fast.) Twitter…well, it worked for a couple of days, then it got into a redirect loop where it kept switching between the regular UI and the login screen. I considered reinstalling it through Chrome, but finally decided I was better off without Twitter on my phone anyway.

Despite these issues, I’m going to stick with mobile Firefox for now. We’re entering another period of near-monopoly in web browser engines, and it’s important to keep a viable alternative going to ensure that the future of the web isn’t built on a single stakeholder’s goals.

The Smartphone Paradox: Social Media vs. Actually Using the Damn Thing

This post I rescued from my Google+ archive in August 2011 really speaks to how quickly expectations for mobile computing were derailed by the social media feedback loop.

Years ago, I wanted a smartphone so I could write down all the blog posts I compose in my head when I’m away from a computer. Now that I have one, I end up reading Facebook, Twitter, or Google Plus instead, and I compose blog posts in my head when I’m away from both my computer AND my phone. Maybe I just need a pencil and notepad.

That’s just me, and just one niche that I wanted to fill with a mobile computer. I also wanted SSH access, control panels, the ability to look up information easily, and photo uploads. But those things weren’t pushed out of the way like actual creative output was when I installed a bunch of dopamine generators on the device.

OK, blogging was fading anyway, and typing on a phone was tiresome. But neither of those made as much of a difference as the fact that it’s so, so easy to check Twitter for “just a minute” and find yourself still scrolling twenty minutes later.

It didn’t slow down photography. That was something that the social media cycle could latch onto. (Follow me on Flickr, Instagram, Photog.Social and Pixelfed!) And when I used a better camera, well, most cameras don’t have Facebook on them.

I think my use of social media is healthier now than it used to be. I still find myself staring at the train wreck of Twitter longer than intended, but I confine most of my activity to one session a day (or less) except for Mastodon, and that’s just different enough that it’s less likely to trigger a vortex to begin with. I do miss out on a lot with friends and family on Facebook by only checking once every couple of weeks, but I’m also happier the less time I spend there.

Still, I haven’t returned to the volume of long-form writing I used to do. And I know there’s so much more I could be doing with an always-connected computer in my pocket.

Who are phone notifications for?

Phone notifications aren’t just reminders. They’re interruptions, especially if you have sound or vibration turned on. That gives them a lot of power, and means they should be used responsibly.

In short, phone notifications should serve your interests as the person using the phone. Not the app’s. Not the service’s. Yours.

If someone you know sends you a message, you probably want to know that. If you put an appointment on your calendar, that reminder is going to help you. A shipping update, or delivery notice? Probably helpful as well. Completion of some long-running process that you requested or are waiting for? OK. App and system updates? You do want the phone to keep working properly, so there’s a case there.

If your friend tags you on a photo, or replies to your comment, or sends you a message, then yeah, Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or Mastodon can justifiably notify you. It’s the start or continuation of a conversation between you and that other person. (Though you should still be able to mute it if you don’t want to talk to that person.)

But when Facebook starts pushing friend suggestions, or “did you see so-and-so’s comment on this conversation that you’re not part of,” or choosing to promote some subset of people’s broadcasts? That’s not in my interests, and that’s not in the other person’s interests. That’s Facebook advertising itself, because they’re desperately afraid they’ve lost my eyeballs.

It’s no different than the Black Friday through Cyber Monday ads that Amazon pushed into my notifications over Thanksgiving weekend.

We can pare down notifications, but it takes time, and not every app offers fine enough controls over which notifications it sends. And of course you have to re-do it every time you get a new phone, and every time you add a new app.

Advertising in an alert is, IMO, an abuse of the feature. We’re bombarded by so many demands for our attention as it is. Phone notifications should stick to those that help us do what we want, not those that distract us from it.

Trying to get at the features left out of the mobile app

I use extensive filters on Gmail to categorize mail the way I want. I pre-filter some things to look at later, prioritize some lists (like allergy or uptime alerts), and pre-categorize things that I may want to file away after looking at them.

The problem is, I can only change filters on the desktop site. When I’m reading on my phone, I need to remind myself not to archive or delete messages that I want to start filtering.

It occurred to me: I can label those messages “Change Filter.” I could even do it right away – there’s a “Manage labels” option on the Android app!

Nope!

I can’t add labels in the app, just change the download and notification settings for each.

So, website then…

Except I can’t get at the full Gmail website on my phone. Or my tablet. Google insists on showing a stripped-down mobile site, which has even fewer capabilities than the app.

I can’t fault them for starting with the mobile site. It is helpful to focus on the features that work best on small touchscreens, under-powered processors, and high-latency, low-bandwidth networks, and can be done by someone on the go, rather than someone sitting at a keyboard with a big screen and a mouse.

But if someone wants to use the functionality you’ve left out, and is willing to slog through the desktop site on their phone or tablet, you should at least let them get at it!

In this case I waited until I could log in on a desktop, then added the label. But not everyone with a phone has a desktop or a laptop. And as the balance keeps shifting towards phones as people’s primary internet access device, that’s going to be more and more common.