Nobody Knows That I Use These Apps

More and more, I’m finding myself using mobile apps without ever opening them. I use apps like Moves and Dark Sky every day, but the app developers don’t know it.

Dark Sky sends me a push notification with a custom sound whenever it’s about to rain. I’ve become so accustomed to it that I no longer need to even take it out of my pocket when I receive an alert. The custom sound is enough.

Moves sends me a push notification every morning, telling me how many steps I took on the prior day. I don’t really need to open the app to learn more. A quick glance at the notification tells me what I need to know, and I am free to continue on with whatever I’m doing.

Moves and Dark Sky have no idea that they are providing value to me, since I typically do not take any action on the notification that is visible to the developer or even the OS.

The business impact is that companies are evaluated and funded on the basis of metrics like Daily Active Use, Monthly Active Use, Impressions, Visits. Notifications happen prior to all of these metrics.

The product impact is that if the goal is to deliver value in the notification itself, then these apps have no way of knowing whether or not their notifications are successful.

My hunch is that, for these two reasons, push notifications are an under-explored interface. Imagine an entire suite of apps with which you interact without ever opening. Imagine if app developers could send more data (images, videos) through push notifications, or even receive simple responses (“Yes” / “No”) from users without requiring users to launch the application itself.

Our phones and the apps within them are with us at all times — they are starting to feel more and more like extensions of the brain, augmenting its inputs with sensors that don’t come pre-installed in humans.

I’d love to see some forward progress in notification interfaces from the major mobile operating system. That’s the type of change that could unleash a massive wave of innovation in app development.

  • Michael Shafrir

    Seems like Facebook Home had a similar thought?

    • jakelevine

      Yep I think so. It’ll be cool to see how that plays out.

      • Jack Schofield

        Seems like Microsoft had a similar thought a couple of years earlier….

  • Octavian Costache

    Unless you start accepting ads notifications from these apps, what is the value of these users of such a notifications-based service?

    The value of daily actives is the build up of a user base that can be either transformed into eyeballs for advertising, or a solid user base that could be transformed into paying customers.

    I’m not saying that there isn’t value that these companies provide you, I’m only making the point that daily actives is an easier proxy to understand towards monetizing that value.

    • jakelevine

      You’re right. Those metrics are important when you’re monetizing via ad impressions. But there are other ways to generate revenue — Dark Sky, for example, is a paid app.

    • r00fus

      Not all metrics are hinged on being able to sell the user ads (now or in the future). Lots of these metrics give funders a feeling that a particular startup has traction, thereby allowing them to assess the value of the company.

      They’re also useful to get some “sentiment analysis” – ie, a sudden dropoff in notification subscriptions may indicate that your app is too annoying in some way when it’s notifying it’s users.

      I’m not a big fan of Facebook, but a “like/useful” button/action on the notification would be really interesting here. For example, it’s really nice to know that an Amazon shipment was delivered.

  • Srikrishnan Ganesan

    The new android app for gmail let’s you archive mail right from the notification. I love how this has reduced the number of times I open the app.
    ANY.DO is another app that I interact with everyday right from its notifications. By far the best android app experience I’ve had.
    I hope many more apps use smarter notifications.

    • r00fus

      Ostensibly, this is one action that Google can track usage of and see how much it’s used.

      The Dark Sky notification sounds like it’d be hard to track – sure it’s sent, but does the user like it? Do they ignore it? Did it save them from a traffic jam? Developer doesn’t know and thus they can’t measure value.

      • Montana Flynn

        Surely the fact that they are not being disabled could be used as a heuristic that they are in fact appreciated.

      • iamafeminist

        Don’t be a prick on a public comment box, dude. Seriously! If you’re so concerned about Google tracking you, then don’t use their service – Simple?

        • crozzy

          I think you’re missing the point, r00fus saying that the event can be tracked because there is a user action (pressing a button to archive), with the apps mentioned above there is no event. Although I agree tracking the number of users removing or stopping the data push from the app could be a useful metric for the developer

      • Timothy Meade

        How about a “Thanks” button, it would do the same thing as dismiss put provide feedback as well. (Clearing the notifications would still skip that but it would give a user chance to provide feedback)

  • Ville Laurikari

    In the case of push notifications on iOS, the sender will get notified if the app has been uninstalled. This is so that they can stop sending messages that would end up nowhere anyway.

    It’s not much, but it’s at least something.

  • Tom

    How do you know the app isn’t keeping track of every notification that’s sent?

    • jakelevine

      It’s easy to track that a notification was sent. It’s impossible to track whether or not it is “seen” unless the users clicks through it.

      • r00fus

        Or whether it’s impression is positive/useful.

        • timp

          I think we are looking at this the wrong way. Regarding usefulness, its impossible to know if the content I’m showing when the user opens the app is positive/useful. All we can really say is that the user continues to open the app. We can then make the assumption that is it useful because they continue to open the app. Similarly, if I as an app developer decide to send notifications to the user that show compelling information I believe I can make two assumptions: 1. by the nature of notifications they will be seen and 2. if the user hasn’t deleted my app then they are still getting value out of it. its up to me to decide if I need to entice the user to open my app, i.e. to make money off of ads, or if I am ok with the sole value of the app being the notification because I sold it to them so they can decide how I use it. I would also argue in the latter case that if a user is getting value out of just the notifications this may well be a great customer. while they aren’t realizing the hard work I’ve put in to the rest of the app the word of mouth of “hey, this is app is fantastic because I never have to open it” is extremely valuable. I think we are here to make user’s lives easier. if that’s done by notifications, great and by opening the app, great. just make sure to value your app appropriately and its a win for both.

        • Vidar ‘blacktar’ Andersen

          No one cares about subjective “usefulness”. It’s all about in-total growth and retention.

      • Vidar ‘blacktar’ Andersen

        It is however possible to track on iOS if you received a push notification in my app. That counts as a seen in anyone’s book as long as you don’t delete my app or turn off push notifications (which is also monitored).

  • Rafe Needleman

    It’s all groovy until people start getting overwhelmed by too many popups, or especially multiple popups on the same topic. But yeah, ambient technology like this is awesome. And the popups do serve to “convert” people back into apps they might otherwise forget they had. I love Moves.

  • Bhavik Maneck

    Steve Gillmor has been talking about this for a while now, he frequently discusses it on the gillmor gang podcast

  • John Roepke

    I’m hoping that with devices like the Pebble, or the oft-rumored apple watch, we get more focus on notifications as a way to deliver useful information. I’d love an app that sends passive notifications like “rain in one hour” or “the subway is running 15min late” to a glanceable screen on my wrist.

    • Garrett

      I would love that, but it would need to be pretty specific in knowing what I’m doing. Can you imagine getting “the subway is 15min late” when you’re driving your car passes an entrance.. that would be terrible!

  • Jordy van Gelder solves the ‘dumb’ notifications. They enrich your app notifications with rich media and provide the possibility to add custom actions like Yes/No to the users.

  • Stephane L

    In the case of Move, they do know that you are still using the app…if you read their built-in help they indicates the data are uploaded and analyzed on their server… So hey know you are using the app, and if you are still accepting the daily notification then most likely they know you are still considered an active user.

  • Krish Ashok

    Consider a personal assistant that is entirely based on notifications that the app reads out to you once in a while (with some attendant sound). It could remind you of unfinished tasks and perhaps do a bit to motivate you to get them done. Such an app could potentially lay claim to a metric like “number of tasks/reminders per person completed” but I’m not sure VCs will buy that right away :)

  • Pete R.

    Great point about exploring the possibilities of push notification. Not many have push the limit of this and I can definitely a lot of opportunities there. The Gmail app on Android are one of the best example here as @twitter-40441888:disqus has mentioned. I no longer need to go inside the app to delete/archive the email.

    I wish more developers are on board with this. There are plenty of opportunities to standout here.
    Thanks for the post. :)

  • Vidar ‘blacktar’ Andersen

    SRSLY? As someone who got personal interest and capital vested in iOS apps, I can tell you that I of course monitor any and all actions you trigger with my apps. Actively, passively, explicitly and implicitly. Trust me – We know. e.g. If you keep receiving push notifications, that means that 1) you haven’t deleted my app yet 2) you haven’t turned off push notifications. From that I can extrapolate that you still get value from my app. What we look for is growth and retention. No one cares about the rest. For meaningful app retention metrics, see Fred @avc Wilson’s post For growth guidelines, see Ycombinator’s Paul @paulg Graham’s post

  • Tatham Oddie

    Rich media push notifications = Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 live tiles. It’s amazing how far I can get without opening an app: my airline (Qantas) direct me all the way from home to the gate, all via a live tile on my phone.

  • Miten Sampat

    think about what happens with Google Glass and their Mirror API for notifications. interesting times ahead.