Drowning in notifications? Research recommends ‘digital spring cleaning’ to cut down on distraction

Deadlines and midterms loom around the corner. With your favorite study spot secured, your laptop primed and your notes laid out, you're ready to conquer your to-do list. You find your focus and enter a state of flow — only to be pulled away by the familiar ding of your phone.

Cell phone notifications are engineered to demand attention. Remarkably adept at their purpose, notification distractions have been shown to have a significant impact on attentive processes. Simply receiving a notification is enough to switch the brain into a “multi-task” mode. These distractions cause stress in users especially when the interruptions are not relevant.

A study done by researchers at UBC’s eDAPT lab to compare notification perceptions unveiled a spectrum of attitudes varying from “resignation” to accepting “necessary annoyances.” Even participants who made an effort to curate their notification streams often found themselves frustrated.

Dr. Joanna McGrenere, co-head of UBC's Computer Science department and lead of the eDAPT research group, has extensive experience in the field of computer-human interaction.

She said that the realm of notification interaction is intricate and unique. With no universal template that would cater to all users, a non-distracting notification setting requires input and customization.

According to her, what constitutes an acceptable notification varies from one person to another and can evolve based on their specific context.

"I'm at work, and so for the most part, I don't want to get text messages and so on and so forth,” said McGrenere, “unless they're from my kids who are having an emergency."

McGrenere highlighted that the current management options are either too “black and white” or “cumbersome.” The simplest option, turning off notifications altogether, risks missing crucial information and fails to accommodate the fact that users may be more receptive to certain notifications at specific times.

On the other hand, setting up rules to filter or highlight certain notifications requires time and effort. Most people are unconvinced that the energy spent personalizing their settings is worth the pay-off and end up accustomed to notification distraction. Research highlights that it often takes a significant event to motivate them to make a change.

One participant in the study described a barrage of notifications from a mobile game app they no longer used. The fact that they tolerated irrelevant notifications for so long shows how easily we become accustomed to annoying stimuli.

Another study by the eDAPT laboratory explores how by showing users their notification data in accessible visual diagrams along with providing tailored suggestions to their notification settings can inspire them to undertake a "reflective spring cleaning" of their feeds.

After collecting two weeks' of data, participants engaged in reflection discussions with the research team.

The majority of participants were found to have underestimated the volume of notifications they received. Notably, all participants accepted changes proposed by the researchers in a follow-up interview, with some even proposing their own modifications.

The self-reflection they did during the study prompted participants to feel more open to reflecting further and making changes to their notification settings. The study underscored that intuitive and relevant customisation workflows can have a long lasting and constructive influence on user-notification interaction.

A follow-up with all 21 participants found that their personalized settings had a positive impact.

While current popular mobile platforms come with options to visualize screen time or storage and get suggestions from that data, no such interface for notifications exists.

McGrenere said tools like the "Focus" mode on iOS and Android systems are a step in the right direction towards empowering people to prioritize digital well-being.