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Why Apple’s Notification Bubbles Are so Stressful

Plus, the simple changes that could make a big difference

Credit: NurPhoto/Getty Images Plus

In Microprocessing, columnist Angela Lashbrook aims to improve your relationship with technology every week. Microprocessing goes deep on the little things that define your online life today, to give you a better tomorrow.

I hate the color red.

Not in all contexts, of course. A richly dyed red wool sweater is beautiful and even festive. It’s hard to find anything more glamorous than a garment made of red silk. A red dahlia is perhaps one of the most perfect flowers, the way the petals turn dark at the center.

Then there are things colored red for more practical reasons. A stop sign is red to ensure you see it and avoid accidents, while a red stripe on the floor indicates that you’re not to cross it. I don’t enjoy those particular red things — their crimson shades are often without depth or character, a flat hue that indicates “danger” and little else — but I’m glad they’re designed to catch my attention. A stop sign is too crucial an item to craft for beauty alone.

And then there’s the red on my phone.

I have 130 unread messages, which my phone relentlessly reminds me about in the aggressive red badge on my iMessage app. I have 15 missed calls, 99 percent of which are spam; I get to think about that robot voice berating me about my nonexistent car loan every time I see the red badge over my phone app. You don’t even want to know the number screaming at me every time I glance at my email.

I am assaulted by my phone every time I unlock it.

These ugly red badges are a reminder of how I’m either a failure (Call your grandparents! Answer that nice text!) or a target (as is the case with the robot spammer hawking auto loans). And because of their hue, they’re difficult to ignore. I am assaulted by my phone every time I unlock it. And I’m not alone.

“They drive me insane,” Paul Sherman, an assistant professor and the program coordinator of the user experience design master’s program at Kent State University, tells me. The red, as he put it, “causes more stress and distress.”

This horrible feeling of anxiety I feel when I open my phone is what’s known as cognitive overload, which can be roughly defined as the way our brains react to the regular bombardment of information from all corners of our lives, from social media to news to advertisements.

There’s a simple way Apple — and any other phone makers employing red dots — could remedy the issue: Change the color of notification badges, or allow users to select their own.

The clearest outcome of these notifications is that they keep us engaged with our devices. Many neuroscientists and psychologists are worried about the negative effects of this technology, from the way smartphones appear to affect our ability to concentrate to the potential correlation with rising rates of mental illness and suicide in teens. There’s also a fair amount of research detailing how notifications themselves distract users or even cause stress, as I’ve written about previously.

Even some Apple shareholders are concerned about the compulsive power of the iPhone. In January 2018, the investment firm Jana Partners, in collaboration with fellow shareholders at the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, released an open letter expressing concern over the “unintentional negative consequences” of the phone’s ubiquity among children and teens.

Apple seems to be taking stock of many of these concerns, as is evident with the company’s June 2018 introduction of Screen Time. The feature informs users of their weekly iPhone use, broken down by app, and how it compares to the previous week. Of course, this information is delivered regularly with an automatic notification that you have to manually turn off. My own nonrandomized, non-placebo-controlled, non-peer-reviewed research on the subject (a Twitter poll with 79 participants) discovered that only 27 percent of respondents found Screen Time to have encouraged them to use their phone less, with 30 percent voting that Screen Time doesn’t help. Another 43 percent voted that not only does Screen Time not help—it makes them feel worse. (I excitedly await actual data about this, for what it’s worth.)

In John Herrman’s wonderful history of the red notification badge in the New York Times Magazine, he points out that both Apple and Google, to varying degrees, have attempted to dissuade app developers from overzealous use of badge icons. But the fact remains that the core communication apps on our phones — iMessage, email, and social media — will continue to employ the red badges that Apple has relied on for years unless we turn them all the way off.

Maxim Leyzerovich, a user experience manager for Capital One, explains via email that Apple employed the use of the red notification badge before the iPhone was even invented, in its MacOS Mail app.

“Red made sense to stand out from the pastel (and later baby blues) of the system interface,” he says. “Red — being both the most vivid color for our ocular perception and also the most rarely used one — does significantly multiply the effect of the feedback cycle that pushes us (puns!) into these [addictive] behaviors.”

Screenshot from Compétence Mac

All this stress might not be the intended result of the icon zit’s design, but it’s not exactly unexpected, either.

“Long before iPhones and notification UX design, we as a culture accepted red as a color that signifies immediacy and importance,” Michael Wagner, an information architect at design consultancy Markon Brands, tells me in an email. “Using red as a notification badge makes sense because we are already conditioned to pay attention to red signals as items that require our attention.”

Context is everything, but we’re more likely to think of a stop sign than a red dress when we see a red notification badge. A plethora of research shows how seeing the color red causes what’s known as “arousal” (no, not that kind — usually). A 1974 study found that viewing the color red caused a greater galvanic skin response, or changes in sweat gland activity usually caused by some form of stress, than blue or yellow. A 2004 study from Hong Kong found that when webpages have background colors that lead to greater feelings of relaxation, such as blue, users feel the load time is faster than when the background is red, a color that causes more anxiety.

“It’s a bit more angry than other notifications,” Sherman says. “I absolutely feel like, in the effort to make a notification be noticeable, they contributed to increasing stress. Absolutely. I’m looking at my badges now and going, ‘Oh my god!’”

Currently, the only way to change the appearance of your iPhone’s red notification badges is to jailbreak it, which isn’t a good solution for most of us. C.J. Yeh, a professor of communications design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, points to the badge design on the Android Oreo operating system as potential inspiration for Apple moving forward.

In Oreo, the badges are quite a bit smaller than those on an iPhone, and rather than being a unified color across the operating system, they’re a lighter version of the app icon’s dominant color. So, for example, my Phone app badge would be small and light green, while my email icon would be small and pale blue.

“It is clear enough to get your attention, but it is not screaming at you,” Yeh tells me. “Overall, I feel this is a pretty elegant solution.”

Image from Mobile Industry Review

The Android system also allows for external launchers, which users can download to change the look of their entire operating system if they so desire. It’s unlikely that Apple, king of the walled garden, would ever allow external developers to design entirely new looks for its OS. But it could allow a little more breathing room by opening up the option for users to choose between different badge styles. This isn’t out of the question: Over the years, Apple has loosened its grip on notification styles, most recently with iOS 11, which allows users to hide the content of notifications on their lock screen.

That’s a feature I personally take advantage of. I just wish Apple would extend more options to badge design as well. With the release of Screen Time, increased parental controls, and more notification options, as well as discouraging outside apps from overenthusiastic badging, Apple is clearly aware that its design is, in many ways, harmful to consumers. By using less anxiety-inducing colors (like purple or blue) or shades (like a less saturated red) for its badges, or by allowing users to choose, Apple could make its product a modicum less stressful. It won’t wipe out all my unread messages or unlistened-to voicemails, but I’ll take whatever I can get.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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