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Enough with the notifications! Focus Assist will shut them u… 'But I'm too important!'

An app will always find a way to interrupt what you’re doing

Something for the Weekend Mme D and I are in the cellar, listening intently. Nothing.

We head upstairs and stand under the smoke alarm. Nope. We stand motionless in my office for half a minute but the noise isn't coming from any of the kit. We head down to the kitchen and press our ears against the microwave, the dishwasher, the washing machine, the IoT Smart Yoghurt Maker under the sink…

There’s a beep coming from somewhere. It beeps once every 15 seconds. It is annoying.

Things are designed to beep to let you know something. Until the source of this particular beep can be located, there’s no way of knowing what it might mean.

It’s louder in the back garden. A neighbor on the parallel street behind ours, perhaps? We decide to go for a walk to hunt the beep.

Sure enough, it's that neighbor. The one who has been rebuilding his own house very noisily every evening when he gets home, like some powertool-deranged Petrocelli. The moment you want to sit in your garden and relax, this neighbor pollutes the neighborhood with drilling, hammering and the nails-down-a-blackboard song of a circular saw. He’s been doing this every night for two years with no sign of completion.

We'd hoped for a respite from neighborhood noise pollution when the family went on vacation this week. Sure enough, the raucous DIY has stopped. But it has been replaced by this infuriating, repeated beep every 15 seconds. And it’s coming from the half-finished property. It's as if he installed a device to keep beeping while he was away for fear of inadvertently leaving a silence in his absence. How thoughtful.

What does the repeated beep mean? A home security device triggered by the hot weather, perhaps? A personal health alarm? A smoke detector low on batteries? A delivery van stuck in reverse gear? A retro game console set up outdoors and left to run Pong in Demo mode until the owner returns next week?

Since nobody in the neighborhood knows what the beep is supposed to indicate, nobody knows what to do about it – other than stuff angry anonymous messages in his letterbox, of course.

It doesn’t matter what the annoying beep indicates. In my experience, even when you know what a boisterous alert is trying to tell you, it is rarely important and practically never wanted.

Take burglar alarms, car alarms and shop alarms for example: they all go off by themselves when it’s sunny or a bit windy. That is, rather than alerting you to the presence of a thief, they provide anyone within a radius of 2km an extremely loud and thoroughly unnecessary update on the prevailing weather conditions.

If you ever want to rob a betting shop, do it on a stormy night.

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My computers do this too. Barely a quarter of an hour goes by without one or other alerting me to something irrelevant or unimportant. Don’t get me wrong: alarms and notifications have their role. I just wish they would learn their place.

In the early days of software notifications, they would fulfil useful functions. They’d tell you when messages arrive, for example, or announce that a background task had completed, or warn you that a drive was running short of space.

This changed with the advent of mobile devices. Where once you might have expected to be alerted, say, when a new update became available, the concept of notifications was quickly reinvented as a relentless channel through which software publishers could berate users with whatever messages they fancied: invitations to install trial versions of the software company’s other products, increasingly hysterical requests for you to give them a five-star review on the App Store, stating-the-bleeding-obvious how-to advice masquerading as "secret tips" written by company’s (air)head of Fun, and so on.

Notifications have changed from being a targeted line of app-to-user communication into a free-for-all of trivial one-sided chatter. And there seems to be no way of switching it all off.

On Windows, you have something called Focus Assist, which has an icon of a crescent moon to suggest that it will send notifications to sleep. But if you expect Focus Assist to shut all those notifications up, you will be disappointed. You can't stop them completely; you can only slow them down. The best you can do is choose between Priority Only and Alarms Only: that is, notifications will always get through as long they are deemed important enough.

Yeah, OK. Who decides what is important and what isn't? Even when I switch to Alarms Only, I find that some software publishers take a very loose interpretation of what constitutes an "alarm." The worst offenders are the OSes themselves, of course, along with antivirus and anti-malware utilities which take a haughty attitude towards what messages the user should see. They consider themselves above the hoi polloi of software development and permit themselves to run roughshod over user preferences.

"So what if the user wants to hide notifications? Our alerts are just too important!"

When I am running online remote training courses, I have Focus Assist set to Alarms Only in the vain hope that I won't be interrupted by non-essential alerts. Yet every now and again while I am speaking to remote students and trying to demonstrate something, my shared screen will be interrupted with such urgent and vital pop-up messages as "Virus file definitions updated" or "You have enabled a microphone."

I suspect some everyday apps are cheating too. A bland notification possibly won't get through Focus Assist, so they publish it as a critical "alert" as well. So while I am not interrupted by the notification, I still get an alert to tell me that I have received that notification – which rather spoils the whole point of Focus Assist.

When these daft alerts got too much, I switched over to my MacBook instead, expecting things to be quieter there.

Oh Lordy.

Mac notifications are even worse, despite macOS having a similar Do Not Disturb feature called Focus. Until you beat them down with a shitty stick, Mac apps inform you needlessly every two fucking seconds about absolutely everything and anything that happens on the computer. I'm only surprised that the macOS doesn't notify you every time an electron passes through the MagSafe plug.

Drill down into the Focus settings and you will discover a Share Focus Status option – already ticked by default – that indicates: "Tell apps you have notifications silenced and allow people to notify you anyway if something is important."

Worse, because it's a Mac, the alerts make noises. Usually I set audio volume to zero when working, but here I was, running a live training course with the sound on, and every shitty little buggeration of an alert was going bing! ding! da-dum! ta-ra! boing! arroogah!

And worse still, I hadn't realised that Siri was active in the background – not that I ever saw any notification to tell me this, mind – and every now and again while I was talking English to my students, it thought I had called out "Dis Siri!" in French and starting talking back to me.

If this constant stream of rubbish is getting through Focus Assist and Do Not Disturb, I thought, what the heck isn't? Well, I had a look…

I have a vast backlog of non-essential alerts, telling me that I have opened a file, saved a file, copied a file, moved a file or deleted a file. If I hadn’t enabled Do Not Disturb, it would be popping up to tell me this every time I do it. It's also been regularly reminding me that I have been using a keyboard and a mouse, maybe a display too.

Maddest of all, it has been trying alert me to the current weather throughout the day, when I can see it for myself by looking outside and listening to all the car alarms going off around the neighborhood. It would have been better off alerting me when the betting shop gets burgled.

Request to OS developers: can we have a total STFU mode, please?

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He would like to point out th… TEXT HAS BEEN TYPED. He wishes apps would stop interrup… AN APP IS USING YOUR KEYBOARD. Look, could you just cease showing these notifica… SAVED DOCUMENT WAS SAVED WITH THE FILENAME YOU GAVE IT WHEN SAVING. Shut up you annoying cree… TAKE A 15 MIN BREAK. Bloody stupi… YOU HAVE MOVED YOUR MOUSE Arse shit fuc… IT LOOKS LIKE YOU’RE WRITING A LETTER. WOULD YOU LIKE HELP? More SFTW here. Other stuff at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.

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