UX Design

The Dos and Don'ts of In-App Notifications

5 minute read

A bad in-app notification can make your user leave your product quicker than you can say “spam.” A good one can give your user real value and build habitual product usage.

So if this is the potential power of notifications, why aren't we using them to provide meaningful product experiences?

Because messaging is often not deployed with the respect and time it deserves. They're often thought of as one-off and isolated experiences, instead of a holistic communication strategy. The result is a menagerie of alerts that detract from the user experience.

How Bad Can a Bad Notification Be?

Notifications can do more harm than just annoying your user. Those 2-3 seconds — where they have to redirect their attention — all add up. Messages poach your user at the wrong time, while they're trying to get something done for work or they're finally enjoying a few minutes off. Abrupt or impersonal messages can make the customer feel like they're fielding ads.

That's why you need to take the time to hone your in-app messaging strategy.

When used right, in-app notifications are extensions of your product designed around the human using them. They access user history, behavior, tastes, and schedules to give nuggets of real value. They can teach users how to use complex features, introduce them to great new things, and help them engage over time.

Let's look at three examples of notifications gone wrong, and figure out how to turn potential points of interruption into moments of value.

1. The Impersonal Welcome

If you treat your user like every other user out there by sending mass messages, they'll return the favor by tuning you out or leaving your product. In-app notifications are a crucial line of connection to your user — employ them with empathy or you'll risk polluting a valuable channel.

The trouble begins during onboarding. Just because a user has ventured inside your app, doesn't mean you now have a guaranteed captive audience. Take a look at how MailChimp used to handle onboarding.

mailchimp onboarding old experience

New users were dropped directly into their dashboard and were greeted with guidance about things like settings and customer support. These instructions aren’t really the first steps that a new user would take.

Now MailChimp has since dramatically improved its new user onboarding experience. From a personally addressed, low friction signup, new users are transported to a clean welcome page.

mailchimp welcome page onboarding

MailChimp has recognized what users want when they first arrive in the product. They don't need to know about account settings right away. They want to complete a tangible activity that will help them achieve what they signed up for, to “build their audience.”

Get Into Your User's Head

The best messages make users feel like the app was made solely for them.

Look at how Netflix does personalization. The great thing is that it starts the moment a new user finds the product. Every user has a different experience because they're immediately invited to log their personal preferences.


This personalization continues every time the user interacts with Netflix. With every show the user watches, her landing page changes to reflect her tastes.


This customized approach makes users feel like when they're on Netflix, they only see great shows that they love. That's a huge boon for brand identity.  

Once this personal palace is set up, Netflix continues to customize messages through email and push as well. This ensures that they're only reaching out with something that users definitely want.

‍Image source: Kahuna

Netflix shapes every notification around the viewer, predicting what will be of interest next by accessing viewing history. Netflix then continues this personalization by allowing the user to swipe right into their personalized collection of shows, right into that Orange Is The New Black binge.

2. The Untimely Update

Bad timing can turn a notification into public enemy number one. Say you're a UMich fan opted in to receive these ESPN sports notifications.

‍Live event notifications can be hit or miss. Image source: Twitter

Pretty informative, right? But what if you're waiting till you get home to watch the game and this arrives on your phone while you're getting beer at the store? Buzz killed.

Bad timing can be just as annoying no matter what purpose your app serves. Retail apps often talk to shoppers too early in the day. They don't realize that the ideal hours for notifying their customers are in the evening, after they've got home from work and are winding down in front of the TV.

Poorly timed in-app messages can be just as fatal for user retention. Apps attack users with advice about new features, ideas for integrations to use, and updates that they think the user will want to take advantage of. But if these messages find the user when they're doing something else, or just trying to use the product in peace, they'll likely leave the app and you may not find them there again.

Manage Your Users' Expectations

The first step in overcoming untimely notifications is to make users feel in control. Prep the ground for notifications by laying out what the user can expect from you and giving them a say over the frequency and content of the messages they receive. Digital organization tool I Done This lets its users control what day and time each week they can expect to receive digests and updates from their team.

I Done This turns notifications into an extension of its productivity mission. Each message comes straight from these personalized preferences, so the notification feels more like an efficient intern than an overworked robot.


Make sure you're always in the right place at the right time by using data. You have analytics at your fingertips that can show you where users are interacting and where they're uninstalling. You can even get a heatmap of where your users spend most of their time in your app. So there's no excuse for inviting a user to chat when they're trying to think.

If you know where users are, you can give them personalized information that helps them get extra value out of your product and helps you because they're finally making use of your app's many features and realizing its potential.

3. The Untargeted Tip

No matter how well-crafted and timely your message, if it's directed at the wrong person it becomes nonsense. It's like a salesman talking about roofing solutions to a kid who's home alone, rather than waiting for the homeowner.

Take this notification from Heroku announcing a new dashboard:

heroku dashboard modal

While the modal window introduces what’s new in the Heroku dashboard in an informative and easy-to-read design, it doesn't provide much value to new users. New users aren’t yet accustomed to what’s old in the dashboard—to them, everything is new—and the information provides little value.

Segment to Provide Additional Product Value

In-app announcements and tutorials must be especially well targeted to users. You use tips to help your user get more out of your product, more wisdom specific to their own personal goals and objectives. If tips are poorly targeted, the user may assume that none of your notifications will appeal to them and turn them off, or worse, they'll suspect they're using the wrong product for their needs.

AdRoll uses segmention to offer targeted integrations. They know when someone uses MailChimp and AdRoll separately, so they offer a helpful modal window about an integration in the hopes of saving users' time.


Because it's targeted and placed right inside the product where it's most likely to be useful, AdRoll enjoyed a 60% adoption rate with it.

Give Your Product an Encore

Notifications should be part of the main event of your brand, not just a sideshow.

Use the tools at your fingertips to craft and position your in-app messages so that they're timely, targeted, and personal. They can have a massive impact on how users experience your product.

Try out Appcues