The Sanctity of Focus: A Notifications Primer

I rarely write about my personal habits, in any area of life. I share them liberally when asked, and post about them intermittently on (the only "social network" I belong to—except Tumblr; maybe I'll write about that sometime), but my good friend Chris Krycho wrote about his change to how he uses notifications on his iDevices, so I thought I'd discuss my philosophies around distraction briefly. Indulge me a moment, I won't be long.

Fundamentally, I consider my current task sacrosanct. I therefore consider any unnecessary interruption to border on evil. I am not terribly religious about technology, and it should surprise nobody to find that I am extremely well versed in the ways of Windows (up to Vista, at least) and Windows development despite my current immersion in the Apple Kool-Aid. But the single most important factor in my full-time "switch" from Microsoft's ecosystem to Apple's was the sense that Apple had a higher intrinsic regard for how I use my devices:

Put simply, neither the operating system nor applications on the Mac stole keyboard input focus from me.

On Windows, focus stealing was rampant. Every cockamamie, two-bit dialog box about unimportant nonsense would pop to the front of the window stack, and since hitting the spacebar triggered the selected button and the default action (Yes/OK/"Sure, format my hard drive") was selected by default…

Nearly everyone has had the experience where they're typing a paragraph and a dialog box flashes but then disappears and you're left with missing words in your paragraph and the uneasy feeling about what, exactly, it was you just agreed to let your computer do.

Microsoft's "solution" to this, once the problem was realized, was typically passive: a new API, FlashWindow, and its -Ex variant, that would politely flash the window titlebar or system menu button—a solution that required developers to modify, recompile and redistribute their applications. Oh, and it only worked on Windows XP or higher (which seems reasonable in retrospect, given XP's incredible popularity).

The heights of Microsoft's pathology on this issue, for me, was the realization that circa-2007 versions of Office for Mac stole focus! On an operating system that didn't by default, meaning someone in Microsoft's MacBU spent time finding a way to emulate the user-hostile Windows behavior!

When Notification Center debuted on iOS, I moved to restore sanity to what was becoming a cacophony in my pocket. On my iPhone, only the Phone and Messages apps can show notifications on the Lock screen. Phone calls are relatively rare events (for me), so I want to know when they happen and when I miss them. Ideally only certain people's messages would show on the lock screen, but that's not an option (yet?), so I make do.

This illustrates my general principle: I want to be notified about events with an immediacy proportional to their value, and inversely proportional to frequency. Social media mention? Medium value, high frequency: show in Notification Center, but no ringing or buzzing and definitely not on the lock screen. Private message? High value, low frequency: up there with Email? Low value, high frequency: badge, but that's it. Random IAP-laden game entreaty to "come back and play"? Delete from device :-P

I do modulate this by the intimacy, for lack of a better word, that I share with the device. My phone is extremely personal, nearly always on me or near me, so I want the fewest unnecessary interruptions possible. I remain a heavy computer user, so I similarly want few interruptions there, though I'm more tolerant of transient notifications because they take up, proportionally, so little screen real estate. My most notified device is actually my tablet, which is mostly superfluous to me and which I would have sold if new features in iOS 8 and OS X 10.10 Yosemite didn't make it more valuable as a test device.

Notifications are valuable, but a constant stream of buzzes, pings and overlays—not to mention audio ducking while you're listening to music, or a podcast, or map directions because you were mentioned on a social network? Aggravating. Restricting their ability to interrupt you in inverse proportion to frequency and direct correlation to "value," for me, finds the right balance between what I'm doing now and letting me know about what's going on elsewhere.