Messages vs Notifications

Lately we’ve been working on a messaging system to alert users that something related to a product they are associated with has changed. This could be anything from the product being edited, users commenting on it, products being sold, etc. It seemed like a pretty straight forward thing to develop. All we had to do was develop a messaging system (a la email we thought), that would generate new messages every time changes were made, and deliver those messages to the user’s inbox.

We began working on adding this new feature to our site, and everything was going smoothly until a philosophical question arose from one of our developers: “What is a message?”. He went on to explain that “We are sending messages to our users, but the one who is really generating them is our system, not real users”.

We stopped working and gave this idea some thought, and after a while, we pretty much all got what he was talking about. A message implies there is a certain exchange of information. A back and forth flow between a sender and a receiver. There is no such flow in a model where messages are being automatically generated by a computer system. Since our users cannot reply to those messages, they are not really messages; hence, we were taking the wrong approach.

What we really should’ve been developing from the beginning was not a messaging system, but a notifications system. The difference is subtle, true, but it’s a difference nevertheless. Besides the difference we mentioned earlier about not being able to reply to notifications, there is also another issue regarding them. They are associated with dynamic behavior and messages are not.

Even outside the realm of computers and internet, notifications makes us think in things that are happening right now, like being notified of a fire emergency, or that our flight is arriving earlier. Messages on the other hand, are static. Just by putting the word “Inbox” into Spekios, we would be giving out the idea that the in-site messages are like emails, and can be ignored due to, let’s face it, a high probability of them being insignificant. That is not what we are going for. We want the users to feel that the notifications the website shows are truly significant to them, or else the system wouldn’t be bothered with wanting to get in touch with them right now.

For this reason, messages system went out the window, and we’ve since began working on a notifications system 🙂

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