How Alert Fatigue Impacts User Behavior and Retention (and What We Can Do About it)

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Alert fatigue, or alarm fatigue, was originally coined in the healthcare sector to describe the desensitization that occurs in individuals exposed to an excessively large number of frequent alarms. With 18 billion SMS messages, 100 billion direct WhatsApp messages, and 306.4 billion emails sent daily, it’s easy to see the relevance of alert fatigue in the world of notifications. Users can quickly become desensitized to the plethora of email, push, in-app, SMS, and direct messages they receive daily.

Here are some interesting numbers: On average, people in the U.S. check their mobile phones once every 10 minutes; 95% of new app users will churn within the first 90 days if they don’t receive any notifications; and between 61% and 78% of people, depending on generation, delete apps that send them too many unnecessary notifications. These figures show that while users expect, and even demand notifications, there is a fine line between sending too many and too few alerts.

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Percentage per generation that delete apps because of too many notifications — Image source: LeanPlum

Breaking through the inevitable alert fatigue to give your notifications a chance among the congested world of pings, vibrations, and pop-ups competing for their attention requires a strategy that prioritizes timely, personalized, and actionable alerts.

Alert fatigue reduces user engagement and retention

A user’s natural reaction when feeling overwhelmed by notifications is to implement steps to take back control. If your users perceive that they are receiving excessive notifications that don’t add value, hinder productivity, and contribute to alert fatigue, the likelihood that they unsubscribe from your notifications—or even delete your app—in the detox process is high.

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Number of push notifications per week that will make users stop using the app — Image source: HelpLama

Reacting to every alert, vibration, and ping limits one’s ability to focus and complete solitary tasks that require sustained cognitive thinking. This switching between tasks, even if only determining whether or not to respond to a notification immediately, can result in a 40% productivity loss. And, as this article from Trello—a company that focuses on productivity—suggests, “it may take you as long as half an hour to get back into focus mode.”

With so many apps and services demanding attention, the risk of users experiencing alert fatigue is ever increasing. The almost constant pings, pop-ups, vibrations, and tones can result in sensory overload. Sensory overload, in turn, can lead to stress (and other health disorders). The first implication is desensitization, which results in longer response times, missing important alerts, or outright ignoring notifications. But as the user feels increasingly overwhelmed, they will start to implement measures to correct their imbalance.

Alert fatigue is a real problem to the extent that the internet is full of advice on how users can “unplug, find space, and fight technology addiction,” “why you should turn off all your app notifications,” and how notifications are “destroying your productivity.”

Simple steps to take back control can range from instituting time management rules—setting defined times for attending to notifications—to unsubscribing from alerts deemed less valuable. But setting limits can be hard since reacting to notifications is psychologically addictive. Out of desperation and the inability to limit behavior, users just delete the app altogether. Or, on the extreme end, they systematically clean house. It takes time to configure alerts: what results in a pop-up, a ping, or a vibration, and what doesn’t. What appears on your laptop, your mobile phone, or connects through to your smartwatch. Which alerts should come through at which times and which should be silenced at night. It’s more often than not far easier to start culling alerts one app at a time.

Combat alert fatigue with a responsible notification strategy

While you alone can’t prevent alert fatigue among your users, you can implement steps to increase the survival rate of your notifications and app. The critical component to getting your notifications to stand out from all the rest is building trust in your brand and confidence in the information you communicate.
You create this trust by making sure your notifications always positively contribute to the overall user experience. If your notifications improve productivity, help your users accomplish their goals, and provide value, they will become an indispensable component of the app experience. There are three simple ways to create a well-defined and responsible notification that adds value and builds trust: Make them timely, personal, and actionable.

Ensure your notifications are timely

Timely means sending notifications that relate directly to the actions a user is currently performing or needs to perform in your app (and not sending your alerts in the middle of the night and being cognizant of your user’s time zone). Consider, for example, the perfect timeliness of a notification that your pizza delivery will be arriving at your front door in two minutes.

Since mobile devices are attention-disrupting by their nature and notifications tend to create a sense of urgency, avoid annoying your users by ensuring your notifications are always timely.

  • Consider the urgency of the alert and be respectful of your user’s time. Don’t send multiple push notifications for a single message when one longer-form email would be better suited.
  • Don’t broadcast the same notification across multiple channels; rather, pick the channel most appropriate to the content and importance of the information being communicated.
  • Analyze your user’s past behavior to select that time when, historically, they are more likely to engage with your app, especially for notifications that don’t require immediate action.

Personalize your notifications

Personalized notifications speak directly to the recipient. They are a one-to-one match to a user’s unique needs rather than generic one-to-many segmentations and correlations. As a result, they provide a more genuine experience, demonstrating a fundamental understanding of your user as an individual. The benefit of personalization is tangible; according to McKinsey & Company, “today’s personalization leaders have found proven ways to drive 5% to 15% increases in revenue.”

Remember, you’re sending your notifications to an individual, not a device.

  • Segment your notifications to make them relevant to your users and their preferences. More than just demographic segmentation, leverage the wealth of historic interaction within your app to tailor your notification content to each user.
  • Implement a preference system within your app to put your users in control. It allows them to select what topics they want to hear more or less about. The more granular the level per channel the better, as this allows users to opt in or out of categories of notifications instead of an entire channel.
  • Adapt your messages as your relationship changes with each user to keep them relevant and personal. A new user, for example, will derive far more value from a tips-and-tricks communication than an existing one who knows their way around your app.
  • Use basic personalization like name, age, location, and sex if your app and data analytics are not mature enough for granular personalization or a self-selection preference system. This is a good place to start, as basic personalization can result in an almost 10% increase in open rates.
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Example of basic personalization within a notification

Make your notifications actionable

The intention of actionable notifications is to encourage users to engage with your app. More than just sharing valuable information, actionable notifications include a call to action that requires a response from the recipient. They build on the momentum of timely and personal to continue the journey in the app.

  • Ensure the required actions justify the created disruptions; this increases the value users derive from your notifications. For example, think of the value of alerting a user to a document waiting on their review before it can proceed in the workflow.
  • Create trust with your app and brand, build a stronger relationship with your users, and leverage actionable notifications.
  • Consider the most appropriate channel suitable to the action required. Email is a good medium to share sensitive information that may need to be stored and referenced in the future. On the other hand, the real-time nature of in-app and push notifications are better suited to critical alerts that require immediate action.

Be part of the solution, not the problem

With the sheer number of apps installed on a user’s smartphone—80 on average, according to a BuildFire report — you alone can’t prevent alert fatigue. While it’s likely they aren’t all sending notifications, at least a good portion of the 30 apps the average user engages with monthly (or the nine daily) are. Add with web push notifications, calendar reminders, and personal instant messaging apps, and it’s easy to understand how alert fatigue is a real problem.

With MagicBell, you can build a responsible and fully customizable notification experience. A notification experience focused on timely, personalized, and actionable communication with your end-users. Find out how to reduce unnecessary alerts and focus on value exchange by scheduling a demo today.

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