Think Like a Content Strategist to Design Better Notifications

No longer reserved for mobile devices, push notifications are now an everyday part of our lives with technology. But are notifications the best way to communicate with your users?  

Incorporating an option for push notifications might seem like an obvious solution—however, poorly implemented notifications can undermine the effectiveness of your communication with your audiences. Applying a content strategist’s lens to your use of notifications can ensure that you use them appropriately.

As a content strategist, I ensure that the way we communicate with users through a website, app, or other digital product inspires trust. If your notifications are only designed to serve business needs, you may be damaging trust in your product without realizing it.

It’s Good Content Strategy and Science

Research indicates that push notifications are a key component in causing fragmented attention and screen addiction. Our brain’s mechanism for forming habits is the primary driver. We form habits when our brains perceive a reward from a repeated action. This association is especially strong when those rewards occur intermittently.

Social rewards are particularly powerful. When we receive a notification of a text from a loved one or a “Like” on a social media post, it triggers a tiny dopamine surge. Dopamine releases “feel-good” chemicals in our brains. Over time, this repeated interaction trains our brains to divert our attention to the source of the notification. We maintain the behavior even when it isn’t desirable for us to do so.

What’s the Cost?

Throughout the course of a day, notifications can interrupt your attention dozens of times. These interruptions are designed to get you to engage more frequently with a website or app. I don’t know about you, but unless the notifications are relevant and expected, this is not a good long-term strategy to get me to trust your product!

Push notifications are an everyday part of our lives with technology, but are they the best way to communicate with your users? Check out how to strategically use notifications to add value and build trust with your audiences.

Research also indicates that users will abandon an app or site that uses too much of their time unproductively. Have you ever deleted social media or news apps from your phone to help you spend less time online?

Applying principles of good content strategy and human-centered design can help you avoid losing your audience’s attention or breaking their trust. Good content strategy considers what information a user needs and when they need it to determine when and how to communicate.

The following three questions can help you decide if your notifications add value and build trust for a user for an overall positive customer experience:

  1. Is this content useful at all?

    Many notifications don’t benefit the end user, even if the user has opted in for them.
    While it might be tempting to encourage use of your site or app by incorporating push notifications—it’s also risky. You can burn through your user’s attention span quickly or possibly annoy them, and even lead them to avoid your product altogether.

    If your research doesn’t indicate that users have a real-time need for your content, notifications are not going to create a demand for it. Pushing content that users don’t need or want will diminish trust in the content you do provide.
  2. Is a push notification the most natural place for a user to receive this content?

    As a content strategist, I want users to see the content they need to make a decision or complete a task exactly when they need it. A push notification only makes sense if a user needs a nudge to complete a time-sensitive task. A reminder to pay a monthly bill or register an event are good examples of tasks where notifications can be helpful. However, in some cases, rather than using notifications, a better option is to examine your entire user flow and journey map. Look for areas where users might need more support not to abandon their desired task.
  3. If you received content as a push notification, how would it make you feel?

    Don’t underestimate the power of emotion in content design. Put yourself in the user’s shoes. How would it feel if you received this push notification, even if you asked for it? Would it make you anxious? Confused? Irritated? Or would you be relieved to have received the reminder? Now, also imagine you received it at a time when the distraction was especially inconvenient. Does that change your answer?

    While you can’t anticipate every user’s emotional reaction, it’s important to stop and consider how a user might perceive the notification. If a notification evokes a negative reaction from you—the designer—that’s an indication that there might be a better way to construct that user communication. Better yet, test your assumptions. Content is the easiest aspect of your design to test with real users and can be done even without a digital prototype.


Push notifications are a powerful weapon, to be used carefully and sparingly for their greatest effect. Let your users’ needs guide your thinking about if, when, and how you might use notifications. Applying a content strategist’s eye will help your app or site find the best way to build trust in your communication with your users.

Want to learn more about where push notifications fit in with your customer experience strategy?

Contact our content strategy team!

Get alerted to new job postings, events, and insights by registering for our monthly newsletter.