How PMs Should Build a Great Product Notification Experience

A happy person with pink hair and blue eyes holds a tablet that gushes teal rainbows, emojis, and notifications

Your product’s notification experience can make or break how your users perceive your application. That’s why getting the notification experience right should be at the forefront of product managers’ minds. But what, exactly, is a great notification experience for a mobile or web app? Here at Courier, we often hear this question from product managers.

In this article, we’ll do a deep dive into what contributes to a great notification experience. We’ll talk about various notification types, which notification channel is best suited for what kind of message, and how to make sure that your users don’t leave your product due to wrongly timed notifications. After reading this article, you’ll have the confidence — and the tools — to set up a notification system that delights and doesn’t annoy.

What is a notification experience?

In this article, we use the term “notification experience” to include everything your users see, hear, do, and feel when they interact with notifications from your app or software service — from emails to push notifications to Slack messages and beyond.

Image: email, push, and Slack notifications for an HR application.

Notification channels are a central component of a notification experience. Each channel is a way to reach the user through a particular technology, platform, or service that is able to deliver notifications. Here are some examples:

  • Mobile push (including banners, badges, sound alerts)
  • Email
  • Chat (like Slack or WhatsApp)
  • SMS
  • Phone call
  • In-app notifications

In many cases, it’s not sufficient to only use one notification channel, so most notification experiences would also include notification logic. In addition to defining which channels to use under which circumstances, the logic would process user preferences, pick the right language based on the user’s profile, and so on.

How different notification types contribute to the overall notification experience

There are two broad types of notifications used by software products and services: transactional notifications and marketing notifications.

Transactional notifications are directly relevant to a specific action, like creating a post or placing an order, that a user takes within your app. Examples can include a delivery app that sends them an immediate confirmation of an order, or a marketplace app that notifies them of a new message about a product they’re looking to sell.

Lifecycle notifications are designed to encourage your users to return to and interact with the product itself. An example is sending a user who hasn’t been in the product for three weeks a reminder email that their work in the app is waiting. Or sending a weekly digest of statistics to a user by email and having them return to analytics within the product for more details.

While the boundary between these notification types can sometimes be blurry, the core concepts are defined quite specifically in law.

A transactional push notification and a marketing push notification. Similar format but different purposes.

In general, you could use any notification channel for both transactional and marketing purposes, but some are more suited to one or the other. We offer some examples in the table below.

There is no single channel that is perfect for all uses. A good notification experience should take advantage of each channel’s strengths.

A bad notification experience can frustrate users

Based on our experience speaking to Courier customers and prospects, product managers understand that notifications matter, but sometimes they don’t see how much they matter. In reality, lots of bad things can happen if the notification experience for your app or service is not good. For example:

  • You could lose users due to incorrectly using notification channels, like sending marketing notifications via channels like mobile push which are normally only used for time-sensitive, transactional alerts. Such application behavior can feel unprofessional and spammy, causing users to lose trust in your product or service.
  • You could upset users due to sending notifications at the wrong time. For example, someone who gets an avalanche of notifications might decide to completely block them for your app. This means that even your important messages can’t reach them. Also, needlessly sending out notifications at night could cause users to literally lose sleep. Who would want to do that to their customers?

What does a good experience look like, in contrast?

Let’s contrast the potentially serious consequences of a bad notification experience with the more positive aspects of a good experience. Based on what we see at Courier, here are the key aspects that contribute to a good notification experience.

Right channels. Choosing suitable channels for your notifications makes it more straightforward to build and improve your notification experience later on. For example, in a banking app, using mobile push for transaction notifications would likely be a good fit due to this format’s timeliness, while email wouldn’t be so suitable. However, if there is a suspicious transaction, it might be better to send an SMS, or even escalate to a phone call to make sure the customer doesn’t miss the notification.

Right timing. It’s better to avoid sending some notifications like mobile push at night, as that might wake your customer up unnecessarily if they don’t have the right alert settings. A local marketplace app, for instance, should thus try to avoid sending mobile push (or other intrusive) notifications at night. Instead, it could send a summary email in the morning. On the other hand, mobile push notifications could be totally right for a security-related alert.

Right customizations and preferences. In addition to allowing notifications to be fully on or fully off, applications should offer ways for users to customize notification settings to their needs. For example, a weather app might offer a separate setting to turn rain notifications on or off independently of low temperature notifications. Some of us dislike rain less than others!

Following platform best practices. A notification experience that seamlessly fits into the platforms you use for notifications, like iOS push, in-app notifications, or Slack, will add delight into your customers’ day. An HR app like the one we showed above, for example, should make use of Slack’s various built-in “blocks” when it makes sense, rather than using the basic text-only format and shoehorning various content types into that format’s limitations.

Common objections to building a good notification experience

At Courier, we frequently talk to product managers as part of our support, solutions, and sales conversations. We’ve noticed over time that there are a few key issues that are blocking PMs from improving their product’s notification experience. Below, we list some of the most common concerns. Have a look if any of those resonate with you!

“I can’t control the notification experience the same way as I can control the app experience.”

Yes, it’s true that you don’t have as much control over how the notifications in your product look and feel, compared to the app itself. This is because the notifications on platforms like iOS and Android need to look like iOS and Android for consistency, rather than your brand colors and font face. Your app can only customize parts of the notification experience on these platforms.

Another way to look at this limitation, however, is to recognize that there is a smaller UX hurdle for users to overcome when relying on an existing notification system, where users already know how notifications look and feel. Moreover, modern notification systems on iOS and Android, as well as other channels like Slack, Discord, and email, are flexible enough for companies with such unique products as Uber, Airbnb, and LinkedIn to offer a good notification experience — so you can do a good job too despite platform limitations.

Our advice is to explore what different notification platforms have to offer: Slack, for example, has multiple message “blocks” that your application can send, and you might find exactly what you need in one of the pre-built blocks. And in iOS 16, the new Live Activities feature for notifications can change how notifications work for time-sensitive events.

“I don’t know what a good experience for my users looks like.”

It can be challenging to identify exactly which notifications need improving for an optimal app experience, or how you can make a notification’s content or format more valuable to your users — and lack of in-depth notification analytics can be a contributing factor. While it’s straightforward to measure engagement on a website with tools like Google Analytics or Matomo, analytics of users’ notification experiences are harder to get.

Our recommendation is twofold:

Try to get quantitative data on notifications — for example, open rates and clicks across channels. On some platforms, like email, this is easier; on platforms like iOS this is more challenging but still possible. Support the quantitative data with user research. Send surveys to your users and ask them which notifications they find most valuable, and which they find annoying (if any).

For inspiration on good notification experiences, consider apps that you use frequently yourself. Are there any apps where the notification experience feels “just right” — delivering messages at the right time and pace, with relevant and engaging content?

“Designing a good experience is too hard.”

Because there are so many different platforms involved in a notification experience, PMs can feel overwhelmed by the number of decisions they have to make when it comes to designing the notification system.

Our advice is to focus on fixing aspects that are wrong and getting the basics right, rather than trying to implement advanced notification techniques from the start.

For example, the basic steps can include:

  • Getting basic analytics on notification interactions to better understand how your notifications are used by your users
  • Making sure notifications don’t crash the app
  • Allowing users to customize their notification experience using basic preferences
  • Adding relevant channels — as outlined in our table above — so that users can receive the kinds of notifications they need

Each of these items should be small enough to be able to implement with your team. By focusing on smaller, tangible deliverables you can slice the ambiguous “notification problem” into manageable chunks.

Tips for building a great notification experience

To summarize, the way to build a great notification experience is to consider notifications a core part of your product and treat them accordingly.

Apply user research, design thinking and other product techniques to notifications too, not just your application. Test your notifications the same way as you test the rest of your product, to ensure that they are functional and look good. Measure the impact of notifications on user behavior via analytics.

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Courier.com

Courier is the fastest way for developers to build notifications for their apps. With one API and easy-to-use UI trigger multi-channel notifications at scale.