Importance is contextual
I’m sitting in a plane to the US right now. And this is the perfect example case, because when I wanted to board I was asked to get out my mobile ticket, which – of course – was sent via email to me two days ago. But at the security check I was also asked for the details of my return flight, an email that was send to me roughly eight weeks ago. Of course I starred both because they are important. But so are another forty-thirty-hundred emails, just not right now. Not in the moment I want to board. In this moment only emails that concern my travel are important. Which is an example case of what is truly important, because it depends highly on its context.
But for years in software development that has been of little concern. With a stationary machine at university and later a home computer on the desktop, the context that things would happen in were very clear. The ways in which a program was used and the information needed were pretty clear and easy to grasp. But with mobile computing and smart phones the game changed. People are now reading Facebook on the toilet of clubs between two drinks with friends. Just image that happening a decade ago, with a clunky IBM ThinkPad. Funny though right? Well, the technology and concept are still from that time – email is way older actually.
And suddenly we find our programs, our content, our data and our notifications in a totally new context. Oh, right, notifications, one of the great new aspects of mobile communication. But especially thinking about my case from before again, are these really of benefit? And moreover equally important at any time (as we have implemented them now)? While I was looking for that email, my phone was buzzing twice because of new notifications, one from a google+ conversation, one from a twitter mention. It is easy to argue, I don’t want to deal with them at this moment and they are distracting to say the least.
A few people realized this and try to tackle the problem. Like Google Now analyzing ones emails trying to find time sensitive information like flight tickets or withing its App having a “Snooze notifications for X hours” feature. Because otherwise, notifications just become noise and overtime will be another thing our brain learns to ignore. Because our brain is able to understand what is important from the context we are in, our phones aren’t (yet).