The 3 laws of effective notifications



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In his famed experiments, Ivan Pavlov trained his dogs to associate mealtimes with the ringing of a bell: every time his bell rang, the dogs began to salivate involuntarily.

Today, the beeps, buzzes, rings, flags, pushes, and pings blasting from our phones prompt a similar response. They’re the Pavlovian bell of the 21st century and, instead of making our mouths water, they push us to check our tech incessantly.

But powerful as these cues are, people aren’t drooling dogs. Your users can easily uninstall your app or turn off notifications that annoy them.

To avoid that, you need to create triggers that are effective, but not pushy. Here are a few tips to help you do just that.

1. Good notifications are well-timed

Great apps create an instantaneous link between an emotional itch and the scratch your service provides. To create this mental connection, you need to time your messages thoughtfully. There are 2 kinds of triggers:

External triggers (affordances)
These cues exist in the user’s environment, and provide information on what to do next. Buttons telling the user to “Click here,” “Tweet this,” or “Play now,” are all examples of external triggers.

Internal triggers
These triggers rely on associations in the user’s mind to prompt actions. The most frequent internal triggers are emotions. When we’re feeling lonely, we check Facebook. When we’re uncertain, we Google. When we’re bored, we watch YouTube videos, check Reddit, or scroll Pinterest.

Habit-forming products try to time the external trigger (e.g., a push notification) with the moment when the internal trigger is felt (say, the feeling of uncertainty or boredom). This speeds up the formation of a habit.

Imagine you have a connecting flight and only 40 minutes to spare. As soon as you land, you’re worried about which gate to go to next and how long it will take you to get there.

You switch out of airplane mode and voilà: there’s a notification from your airline with all the right information. The airline presents your boarding time, gate number, and departure time right at the moment you’re most likely to feel anxious. Now you can get to your next connection without having to frantically scan one of the terminal’s crowded and illegible departure screens.

By providing information right when the user needs it, the app builds credibility, trust, and loyalty.

2. Good notifications inspire action

Good triggers prompt action while vague or irrelevant messages annoy users. It’s important that a trigger cue a specific, simple behavior.

For instance, notifications from WhatsApp make it easy for users to check the latest update on a thread and respond accordingly. Their notifications are simple, focused, and tell us what to do next.

The intended action can also occur outside the app. Google Now tells users when to leave for an appointment based on what it knows about their location, traffic conditions, and mode of transport.

Google Now sends actionable notifications.

Google Now sends actionable notifications.

3. Good notifications create intrigue

A bit of curiosity goes a long way when it comes to inspiring action. Triggers entice users when there’s some mystery regarding what they might find.

Timehop, for instance, sends a cheeky notification reading, “No way, was that really you?” It’s almost impossible not to swipe. And it helps that Timehop’s messaging is lightweight and humorous enough to be out of the ordinary.

Timehop creates intrigue with its notifications.

Timehop creates intrigue with its notifications.

Of course, if Timehop used the same copy every day, it would prove less compelling over time. Variability stimulates curiosity, and can make a notification worth checking. So don’t be afraid to change it up a bit now and again.

Don’t send the same message again and again.

Don’t send the same message again and again.

Building the ping

We all experience the annoyances of poorly designed notifications and triggers. Irrelevant, ill-timed, or repetitive triggers grate like fingernails on a chalkboard. The worst offenders get their notifications turned off, their apps uninstalled, and worst of all, horrible reviews.

By integrating thoughtful, interesting, and actionable triggers that are closely coupled with users’ deeper needs, designers can build notifications that people look forward to engaging with.

This post was coauthored by Ximena Vengoechea, a User Researcher at Twitter, and Nir Eyal, author of the bestselling book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.The post originally appeared at


Nir Eyal, Author of Hooked
Nir Eyal is the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and blogs about the psychology of products at For more insights on using psychology to change user behavior, join his newsletter and receive a free workbook. 

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