Product Strategy, Startup

Why every app needs a “mark all as read” function

Every app and every web site has notifications. Whether they are push notifications, email notifications, phone call notifications, voice mail notifications, in-app notifications, or smoke signals, you are competing for a valuable and scarce commodity: the customer’s undivided attention. There are too many notifications to pay attention to, even if you just dip your toe in the information river now and then.

It must be a problem for a lot of people these days, judging from the number of retweets and favorites on a single Saturday afternoon tweet. Yes, you can turn off all notifications for an app or a service in the operating system of the phone, and this is a solution that may just leave the app unused. Surely there must be a middle ground.


So how can you make your message the one that the customer reads?

B.J. Fogg, a Stanford Professor, suggests that “three elements must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur: Motivation, Ability, and Trigger. When a behavior does not occur, at least one of those three elements is missing.” (read more about it here).

The results of motivation are obvious – if someone wants to respond to your notification, they will. You can see the positive result almost immediately. Teasing out the reasons for the negative or null result is a bit more challenging. Did the customer see your message and ignore it? Did the customer never see your message? Did the mean to respond and forget? There are many reasons why this outcome might occur, so the next “why didn’t it happen” focuses on ability.

Does the customer know what to do? An extreme view suggests that notifications as a method are an anti-pattern – that is, they are a mechanism that contributes directly to the customer being unable to focus. When the notification happens so often that it becomes background noise, it’s hard to know what’s an “important” notification and the easy thing to do is to just ignore all of them.

If the customer knows what to do, why don’t they do it? They might not have the ability. The notification might make sense to the designer or the programmer who knows the intended behavior of the feature and the customer might not have the same mindset. Or there might be a bug in the system. Either way, when the customer encounters the notification, if things don’t happen right the first time their motivation will suffer, they may question their ability to complete the task, or they may more likely just say “that’s broken.”

And every time there is a “that’s broken” moment the effectiveness of the trigger declines – the reason you wanted the customer to interact in the first place – and you have to have a “one in a row” moment before the customer trusts that the notification is worth responding to in the first place. A great way to save a “that’s broken” moment is to understand when it happens (ideally before the customer does) and reach out and let them know you’re working to fix it.

As for the problem of too many notifications and overall cognitive overload? There is no way to control what’s going on in someone’s phone or in someone’s head. Giving the customer a pressure relief valve like “mark all notifications read” is one way to alleviate the problem before there is a fine-grained solution. Designers might say that adding such a feature is a mark of failure, and readers on Twitter who clearly deal with this problem frequently in apps might just say, “thank you, app developer.”


Life Hacks, On Writing

Future You Will Thank You for Handling Email Better

We get a lot of email – especially the kind we don’t want. The worst is getting email from sites that you don’t even know (when they got your details from the people that you did want you to send email originally.) How does this affect an average person? You might be spending 28% of your time just answering email, as this graphic from McKinsey demonstrates. That could be two or three hours out of every day.



I understand how this feels. I used to feel completely overwhelmed by email – and it was a constant game of “ping-pong” where when I received emails I would need to either delete, answer, or file them for later. Deleting wasn’t hard – it was easy to find the emails I didn’t really need to answer. Yet it was more challenging to store the emails I kind of wanted to read and didn’t need to act on.

My solutions for this organizational problem were to put everything in a folder. I then tried the “pomodoro” method of only answering email a few times a day for a set period of time. And I also tried answering all of the emails. None of these items really worked. I still ended up with a lot of email that I didn’t really want to read. And it seemed like it got harder and harder to unsubscribe over time. It still felt like I was wasting my time instead of either enjoying the email or just ignoring it.

Three actions solved my problem with email. The first was to turn on Gmail keyboard shortcuts. The second was to adopt Keith Rarick’s method of dealing with email using just a few shortcuts. And the third was to use Sanebox to automatically filter my email.

After starting to use Sanebox, I had two great benefits: first, all of my mail got filtered automatically into “News”, “Bulk”, and “Top” folders that I could also rename and train if I wanted (but frankly, I’ve just left it at the “set it and forget it” mode because it just works). And I also gained the “SaneBlackHole”, a folder into which I can drag any email that I never want to hear from again. There are lots more great features in Sanebox (works in any client, has lots of cool “snooze” and reminder features), but it’s worth it to me to subscribe just for the automatic filtering and the Black Hole feature.

Trust me, future you will thank you for trying it out. You can do that here.

Life Hacks

There are 96 15 minute intervals in a day


(photo by

How busy are you, really?

A day starts with 96 15 minute-long sections – you have a limited number of these in your day – and you are not going to be 100% available during all of them. By most people’s count, you probably need to spend between 28 and 32 of these 15-minute periods asleep, or you’ll be incurring a sleep tax during the rest of the day. Add in 6 intervals for eating and 3 for personal care, you’re down to about 57 intervals daily. Many of us also commute for 6 to 8 intervals in a day. And you probably need 4-8 intervals of family time beyond that. That leaves about 45 15 minute intervals for effective action during your entire day.

You are also distracted. Right now, you might be thinking about three to seven things that have nothing to do with this post. You might simply be scanning the first few words of every sentence, and you might be working or listening to music when you’re reading. It’s okay – I’m probably distracted too.

I guess this explains why that day flew by.

What would you do if you had a limited time to make an impact in a single day?

You might do a few things differently, including identifying a few of your key priorities every day; shortening or aggressively declining meetings, and spending some time at the end of each day seeing if you got your Most Important Tasks completed. You might read about key planning techniques that other people use to be Amazingly Productive. And you might start a habit. Which is great until your day strikes and activates your lizard brain.

There are many things that happen in a day that are unexpected. From emails that prompt action to just-in-time meetings, some of them are genuinely important and others are not. Sometimes, you do need to drop everything and focus on something else.

Planning and executing in an interruption-driven culture is really challenging.

The best laid plans often disappear in the face of whatever is happening that day. And you can combat that distraction with ruthless triage, if you can focus. What is the most high-value thing I can work on right now? And what can I get done in the next 30 minutes or 1 hour?

And what if I can’t focus? Do whatever you have to do to get in a focused place. You might need to turn off your phone. You might need to close your computer. You might need to have nothing else in front of you but an empty whiteboard or an empty piece of paper. On the paper, you should write: your desired outcome, the goals that will reinforce that outcome, and the strategies you will use to get there.

You might not know how to get there yet – the first step might be to ask for help from someone on the team – and you might not feel great about your contribution that day. And you can move something forward in the next 15 or 30 minutes.

“Those with resilience build on the cornerstones of confidence — accountability (taking responsibility and showing remorse), collaboration (supporting others in reaching a common goal), and initiative (focusing on positive steps and improvements).” —Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Are you making the best use of your time right now?

The “best” use of your time is to combine the best action you can take with the best planning you can take. On the best day, that will be your most important tasks done at the right time with enough buffer to handle everything that the day can throw at you. On your less-than-best day, it might be just enough to move one of your most important tasks forward.

You don’t have to be perfect. The best use of your time is to make the time you spend more intentional. Multi task less. Single task more. And remember that done is better than perfect. And also remember that some things must be done perfectly.







(image courtesy of