Push Notifications: Responsible Web App Development

By Dennis Sheppard 

While push notifications on the web are a powerful feature that inches the web ever closer to native apps, some developers have started to transform them into trite annoyances that have conditioned users to ignore notifications or turn them off outright. How often do you give an app the okay to send you notifications on your phone or on the web? There’s a good chance you’re pretty stingy with which apps you give permission to send you notifications. So before we dive in to the technical aspects of this feature, let’s examine your responsibility in creating them. 

Imagine, if you will, that you walk into a store. Maybe it’s a clothing store or a grocery store. It doesn’t matter. The second you walk through the door, a sales person is in your face, asking if he or she can call, or text you, or mail you something, and even show up at your house! Best case, you’ll try a nifty spin move to get around this crazy person. Worst case, you’re going to turn around and just leave the store.

Perhaps you think this is overstating the problem. A push notification never hurt anyone, right? True, but they can be a nuisance, and a good way to drive away users if they’re not done correctly. As an example, just in doing some research about this very topic, you might run across a site that does something like this:

Aggressive Engagement Attempts

Figure 1. Aggressive engagement attempts - pretty meta

Within seconds of arriving on this page (that shall remain unidentified), the user is bombarded with a request for notifications, and to sign up for a newsletter. Take it easy, site, we just met! If you haven’t even had a chance to show users what your app is or what it’s offering them, there’s little to no chance a user is going to automatically sign up for your notifications.

We could talk about opt-in statistics by industry and platform, and that Android users are more likely to allow an app to send push notifications than iOS, or that both numbers are declining in general. We could talk about engagement rates and how they go up once a user does accept push notifications. But all of those stats miss the point that waiting for the right opportunity to offer more long term engagement with your users is the real key. And that opportunity does not take place the second they land on your page!

The opportunity will vary from app to app, ideally though, you’ll want to wait until the user has done something that indicates an interest in whatever the push notifications are about. Maybe you even wait for the user to click a big button that says “Enable Push Notifications.” Whatever the opportunity, remember to treat your users how you’d like to be treated.

Now that the PSA is out of the way, let’s look at how we might (responsibly) engage with our users via notifications!

About the Author

Dennis Sheppard, VP of Technology at NextTier Education, has been developing web applications for more than 10 years in a variety of industries, including education, insurance, and finance. Much of his career has been focused on building apps that run on the mobile web, development that until recently has been overshadowed by native mobile apps. Dennis strongly believes in the power of technology and is an advocate of enabling the tech world to do more for those who don’t have access to the fastest networks and costly hardware. He is pleased that Google has made a concerted effort to make the web a dominant platform for applications.  

This blog post is excerpted from the book Beginning Progressive Web Apps by Dennis Sheppard, publishing fall of 2017.