Why wearable computers will need advances in notification technology to thrive

As we quickly move into an era where even our jewelry, vehicles and household appliances are connected to the web, one of the chief elements of the mobile computing experience as we know it now will undergo a stark change: the push notification. That alert, which pops up with a pleasant ding or annoying buzz to alert us to the latest Instagram like, message, email, reminder or voicemail, will have to adapt when every kind of display is suddenly a computer.

The most interesting advances in notification strategies being made today are with mobile productivity and personal assistant apps. Today you can download apps that tell you when it’s your mom’s or co-worker’s birthday; that will dial you into a conference call automatically; that tell you when to leave for the airport; whether to bring an umbrella to your afternoon meeting; and even alert you when a package has been delivered to your doorstep.

Push notifications tell you when your friends are active on Path.App makers, like Mikael Berner of productivity app EasilyDo, is one of the developers salivating at the idea of putting his app on wearable computers specifically. The entire premise of his app is saving time and getting things done. The creators of smart mobile calendar app Sunrise also think of wearables as quicker avenues of getting the information that users need now. An incoming email or a reminder of the next meeting comes in even faster with a quick glance at a wrist or popping up in your field of vision.

But the standard, square pop-up won’t cut it as devices with different purposes and sizes become more prevalent. And even though any iWatch is still likely at least a year away, other wrist-worn computers remain niche health-tracking devices, and Google Glass(s GOOG) is still not consumer-ready, the people building these apps are very much thinking about what comes next.

Wearable computers: just another screen

It’s tempting to think of Google Glass or a smartwatch as the “new” smartphone, but that’s wrong, according to Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote. “It’s totally different than the transition from PCs to mobile, which is the paradigm most app makers and users are working from. “Mobile to wearables is a much bigger deal in how you think about making products,” he told me in a recent interview.

For one thing, people don’t use a mobile app and a PC application at the same time; one is a replacement for the other. With wearable devices, a product or an app has to know and interact with multiple devices at the same time — your computer, smartphone, car, etc.

When that happens, the mission changes: you have to design for the person, not a particular screen — as we’ll be discussing at our RoadMap conference in San Francisco in November.

Tempo on a smartphone
Tempo on a smartphone

Raj Singh, CEO of Tempo, the AI-based personal assistant app from Siri-creator SRI, thinks a lot about this idea: getting notifications for a person to show up on multiple devices, yet making them smart enough not to repeat themselves when the user starts working with another connected device. And an even bigger issue is knowing which particular types of notifications should show up on which devices.

“Certain signals are very high value and some are very noisy,” Singh said, depending on how you’re using a device. “‘More data is better’ is not very true.”

You might, for example, get 100 notifications per day on your phone right now — new emails, meeting start time notifications, alerts for Twitter direct messages — but you’d go a little batty if all 100 of those showed up on every connected display you had. Even if you don’t think about it, you have a personal hierarchy of what kind of stuff is important to you to know and in what context.

If you’re sitting at your computer during the day, you probably don’t mind, or even notice, getting a lot of notifications there. But on your phone screen you might; you probably only want notifications for things you need at that exact moment and that you can take action on from your phone and while you’re away from a computer.

And on a tiny wrist display? Probably very few alerts would make the cut. And for another twist, you and I likely differ in what we want.

“That is one thing I don’t think will be universal; it’s personal to each user,” Singh said. “I like to think of it on a slider — ‘Raj likes this much noise on X screen’ and ‘this much on Y screen.’”

So EasilyDo and Tempo and plenty of other apps are working on the ranking algorithms to be as informative but least annoying as possible.

Time, not screen size

But what does the notification of the future actually, physically look like? Is it a sentence that pops up in a box, like we have on computers and mobiles now? Just an icon? A series of flashing lights like the original mobile productivity powerhouse, the Blackberry? Or something else entirely? No one seems to have an answer just yet.

It’ll likely take years of designers dabbling with a real product, playing with the interface here and there to come up with something simple and useful. Even the iPhone took two years —  a pretty long time in mobile — to get push notifications. (And even then, it basically borrowed Android’s approach.)

Notifications for mobile screens in many ways are shrunk down from the kind that appeared on larger desktop displays. But for wearables, screen size isn’t what will dictate what notification goes on what screen. It’s time.

“It’s a half second or a second or a second and a half,” says Libin. “With productivity software it seems ridiculous: you can’t do anything in a second and a half, but you can: you have to imagine it.”

Whatever that notification is, it can only capture your attention for a very short amount of time if it’s on a glanceable device like a smartwatch. The notification is only serving the purpose of telling you there is new info or something that requires action on your part. You’re not going to type out a text or answer an email to your boss on your watch. “The notification is to make me mentally ready to consume this information,” Libin explained. You’ll pick up the device you actually want to respond with once you get that notification.

Building the future

So, how do we build these new notifications, for the kind of apps that live on a half a dozen different screens and need to talk to each other through the cloud but also differentiate between screens of varying importance? That picture is still coming into focus — like the hardware they’ll eventually run on.

The current tools for building apps, using storyboards and wireframes, “don’t work if you’re not focused on one screen,” said Libin. If you’re focused on the person as the central connecting factor of all these screens, everything changes: “The single interaction flow is not across one device one screen, it’s across multiple.” So Evernote is investing in those tools for developers as its apps teams work on Google Glass and on Pebble, which is one of the few commercially available smartwatches.

They have time; but they don’t want to wait. “None of this is going to be super mainstream in six or 12 months, but I think it’s going to be in the next two or three years,” said Libin. “It’s going to go faster than people expect.”