How Android Made Notifications Less Annoying

Google’s changes in Android P have made them useful, not awful.

Illustration of the Nokia 8 Sirocco Android smartphone with an illustrated chaos screen.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Peter Nicholls/Reuters.

Notifications have become one of the most annoying aspects of the smartphone experience. Left to its defaults, your phone issues a circus of pings, dings, flashes, and pop-ups. Whatever you’re doing, stop right now, you need to open this app!

On the opposite end, a phone with all its notifications suspended, though peaceful, proves ineffective. You may miss out on legitimately important updates from friends, event invites, or alerts about intriguing new restaurants to check out in your area. After switching from an iOS device to an Android device in 2016, I found Android’s notification handling particularly problematic. But with Android P, Google’s latest mobile OS version (which is currently available on a handful of phones), it has made some striking improvements to the experience.

As Android P uses artificial intelligence to learn about your phone behaviors, it’s not surprising that it does this for notifications as well. If you’re constantly dismissing notifications from a particular app, Android P may eventually suggest an option to “Stop Notifications” from that app below one of its alerts in the notification panel. Tapping this is an easier alternative to heading into your phone’s settings and switching off notifications for the app—something you may have been meaning to do but never quite got around to (or something you forgot you could switch off). With this capability, you can clean up your notifications menu so it’s limited to only the apps you care about most, saving you time and from unwanted disruptions.

When you do want a disruption-free phone experience, “Do Not Disturb” mode, a feature available on both iOS and Android, has proven useful. With Do Not Disturb, all notifications—with the exception of reminders, alarms, repeat calls, or messages from specific contacts, as deemed important by you—are typically prevented from waking your screen or making an audible notification alert sound. In Android P, Do Not Disturb customization goes even further.
You can make the feature more mild, by allowing messages and notifications to come through, just not waking the screen or showing pop-up notifications on-screen. You can also just turn off notification visuals or sounds. These more varied Do Not Disturb options are convenient in social situations or the workplace, where you may not want to be interrupted by text messages or app alerts, but you don’t want to stop their delivery altogether.

Android P’s notification changes aren’t all about reducing their presence on the OS, though. They’re also about making them more useful and actionable. For example, when your battery starts getting low, instead of just suggesting you make the switch to Battery Saver mode, the OS now alerts you to what battery percentage you’re currently at and gives an estimate for how long the phone will last at your current usage level. This can help you decide whether it’s time to switch to Battery Saver, whether you’ll make it home before your phone dies, or whether you should find the nearest outlet, stat. Other notifications alert you to things like background app usage, so you can learn which apps are gobbling your battery life and make permissions tweaks to fix it. You can also customize which system notifications pop up and which don’t—I’ve always loathed the “Screenshot Captured” notification (yes, I know I took that screenshot), and now I can switch it off in the phone’s settings.

Android P also borrows a few notification tweaks from the iOS playbook. The notifications menu (technically called the “notifications shade”) now includes more content previews, such as a thumbnail of a photo or the last few messages of a texting thread, rather than just the most recently received message. In conjunction with these more illustrative notifications, you can also take action directly from this menu by tapping to reply or send one of Google’s automatically generated Smart Replies. (Some of these features are remnants from Google’s Allo app, which the company stopped development on after it never garnered wide adoption.)

If notifications have been the bane of your digital existence, Android P looks to offer a variety of solutions to make these alerts more useful, more contextual, and less disruptive. One of Google’s goals with the new OS was to make the experience more efficient, so you waste less time staring at your screen. It’ll take time to evaluate whether that’s indeed the case, but when it comes to notification management, Android P looks off to a good start.