Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

Push Notifications and Pufferfish

Growing up, one of my favorite articles was a National Geographic piece on pufferfish. This fascinating creature (known as fugu in Japan) has two unique qualities. First, it can inflate itself into a round bulbous shape. This unique defense mechanism makes the fish much harder for a larger predator to eat. Second, most puffers contain a toxin deadly to humans. A single fish has enough poison to kill 30 people!

I remember the article most for the highly trained chefs using incredible skill and training to prep the fish to eat. If prepared by the chef incorrectly, a rare delicacy instantly turns into a deadly dish.

Fast forward to the 2010s: the heyday of touchscreen mobile. Push notifications became all the rage, flooding lock screens everywhere with an overload of content. Not surprisingly, a backlash followed: People opted out of push notifications altogether.

As a UX designer, I struggled to think about how to design push notifications for mobile apps — until I remembered the pufferfish article from my childhood. The solution was to think just like those pufferfish chefs: If you make sure to cut out all the poisonous parts, you’ll serve up a delightful mobile experience. On the other hand, one single mistake could be fatal to your app’s chances for survival on a phone.

To that end, I came up with a set of guiding questions and principles that apply to both pushes (on mobile apps) and puffers (on your plate):

1. Not everyone has an appetite: Design your mobile app assuming people will turn off pushes. How will you connect to them when that occurs? Make sure you’ve designed a back-up plan for that possibility, e.g. notifications by email or SMS (as long as users opt in to those willingly, of course).

2. Less is more: Every puffer you eat is a roulette, risking death. Likewise, every push is a reminder that the user can decide to turn them off, or even worse, delete your app altogether. The best strategy is as few pushes as necessary. Many push notification platforms have features that segment pushes to specific audiences you create and manage.

3. Establish trust beforehand: People who consume puffers willingly only do so because they’re being prepared by someone taking great care in looking out for their safety. Similarly, as a UX designer, you’ll need to carefully remove all the deadly toxins that make pushes feel like spam, e.g. sales-y language, generic messages, repeated duplicates, and content users weren’t expecting. Another idea: Don’t ask for permission to push right away; give the user time with the app first to gain comfort. Ask when it makes sense to do so; let the user lead the way first.

4. Make it a delicacy! If you ask users in advance what data they’re most interested in, it’s easier to make pushes more desirable to consume. Consider designing a feature within your app that makes it easy to self-select, manage (and yes, snooze) pushes. If they have fine-tuned controls within the app, it makes them less apt to manage them outside the app.

For more on designing push notifications, I recommend the human interface guidelines on the subject from Apple and Google.

When people happily consume pushes, it’s because they know they’re non-toxic: It’s the right info, at the right time, in the right place. The only way you get to that level of trust with users is fully understanding the context in which those pushes occur. If you push users compelling content that matches their current context, your app will live a long, happy life.

Nelson Taruc is the principal designer at Lextech, the company that designed and developed the new digital workplace at

Principal Designer at Lextech. Focus. Boost signal, kill noise. Solve the first problem. Embrace uncertainty.

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