Ever felt your phone vibrate, only to realise you’ve imagined it? An overload of push notifications could be to blame, according to EmPushy.
Have you ever wished your phone notifications could somehow exhibit more consideration for your time and interests? That’s becoming a not-so-distant reality here in Dublin, as the burgeoning concept of ‘empathetic push-notifications’ is coming to life.
The brainpower behind this idea, Kieran Fraser, is a computer engineering researcher at Adapt, the SFI Research Centre at Trinity College Dublin. Through funding from Enterprise Ireland, the project will soon form a spin out from Trinity Research and Innovation.
Fraser observed something that many of us are likely privy to – push notifications can be, in a word, annoying. But beyond that, the reality is slightly more worrying, given their potential to manipulate people and, sometimes, to plant the seeds for addictive tendencies.
Seeking to overcome the problems posed by push notifications, including their delivery to users regardless of their context, cognitive state or general wellbeing, Fraser set out to transform them.
In his ideal scenario, notifications would be sent only if they could add value to a particular moment or when they wouldn’t negatively impact health. And so, EmPushy began its journey.
Why target notifications?
EmPushy is all about making notifications intelligent and empathetic. But why? “Everyone can relate to problems with push notifications,” Fraser said.
“From getting them at inopportune times, like in a big meeting or at a presentation, and suddenly your phone starts buzzing like mad because your tag rugby team is all in a rush to find a sub for a match tonight, to getting multiple duplicate notifications.
“A new email arrives on my laptop, grand. Phone starts buzzing, same email. Watch starts blinking. It’s alerting you to the notification about the email on your phone that you just read on your laptop.”
‘Most people get 80 notifications a day. That’s 80 decisions pushed at you’
– KIERAN FRASER
In fact, we are so surrounded by reminders from our mobile devices, he said, that some of us experience a phenomenon called phantom vibration syndrome, where we think our phone has vibrated with a message but, upon checking it, we realise we have imagined it.
“That anxiety builds over time until suddenly you can’t be without your phone. Your addiction causes your screen time to skyrocket,” Fraser added.
Unsurprisingly, this can knock productivity levels at work, with every notification vying to arrest your attention potentially losing you up to 23 minutes per day.
Not only that, but in trying to make up for lost time, many employees speed through their tasks to get them done by their deadlines, leading to increased stress and frustration.
Research even shows that receiving a simple push notification can be as detrimental to your concentration as responding to a text message or answering a phone call. So, managing them effectively is crucial.
Nuts and bolts
That’s where EmPushy comes in.
The overarching goal for the system is to act as a mediator between the app pushing the notifications and the user receiving them. Through recommending content for the former and filtering through suggestions for the latter, the platform aims to help guard state of mind, empower end-user control and protect digital health.
Empushy’s technology is based on natural language processing and machine learning, and fundamentally it wants to help minimise our decision-making obligations or, at least, allow us to attain more autonomy over them.
“Most people get 80 notifications a day. That’s 80 decisions pushed at you,” Fraser said. “With EmPushy, the notifications sent to your device are kept in safekeeping until the AI thinks it’s relevant. You’re then presented with the notification and can make a decision on whether to open it.
“EmPushy doesn’t try and interfere with a person’s decision toward a notification, but it does try to reduce the number of decisions that the user ultimately ends up with.
“You have to remember that behind each notification we get, there are teams and teams of sales specialists, behavioural scientists and businesses crafting personalised and persuasive language and user interfaces, just to nudge us toward their preferred outcome. It’s scary how often this works,” he added.
Fraser did acknowledge some potential problem areas for the technology, recognising that although it doesn’t necessarily dictate a person’s decision about a notification, it does deprive them of the opportunity to make that decision, if only temporarily.
“It’s something I’m wary of. We have to ensure that, when it comes to identifying when to deliver a notification, EmPushy has equal, if not more, information on the receiver’s notification engagement behaviour than the sender.”
But he noted also that the platform employs techniques to protect end-user data, unarguably a critical point of viability for consumers today.
All of this is likely relatable for most of us, given the widespread ownership of smartphones and frequency of interactions with various apps through our personal and professional lives.
But we’ve only been exposed to these elements for the past five to 10 years, while future generations will develop as ‘digital natives’, perhaps leaving them more vulnerable to a technology-induced decline in work-life balance.
In fact, legislation has already been proposed in the UK to encourage social media firms to refrain from sending children notifications during the school day and at night. In Ireland, a similar initiative has been suggested to give workers the right to ‘switch off’ from work emails outside of office hours.
‘If apps could instead push with more empathy for the receiver’s context and state of mind, then push notifications would be better received and promote a positive user experience’
– KIERAN FRASER
Having empathetic push notifications in place could save the future workforce a slew of digital stress that encroaches on their lives beyond their careers.
“EmPushy uses natural language processing techniques to identify and sort out what is urgent and what can wait,” Fraser explained.
“When the situation is reversed, employers may benefit from the increased focus their workers receive when using EmPushy to manage their notifications, with less time spent distracted from notifications during work hours.”
While multi-tasking might seem like the impressive ability to give different duties equal amounts of attention, that unfortunately isn’t the case. According to research, multi-tasking or ‘context-switching’ can reduce your productivity by up to 40pc, if driven by the distractions push notifications place before you.
Pushing for a positive experience
Of course, we shouldn’t be demonising push notifications as a whole. They can be incredibly valuable and usually if we’ve downloaded an app or subscribed to a website, it’s because we actively want to keep up with its content or get reminders about things. But just not necessarily all the time.
“There is a theory that willpower is a muscle that becomes fatigued, and with so many devices and apps pushing content at us these days, it must be a muscle that spends the majority of its time worn out,” Fraser added.
“If the apps could instead push with more empathy for the receiver’s context and state of mind, then push notifications would be better received and promote a positive user experience for all involved.”
As we step further towards the future of work each day, technologies rerouting the trajectories of traditional workplaces are becoming more and more tangible.
EmPushy, though just one example, could be a game changer for modern obstacles to productivity.