iOS 15 gives you better tools to fight the firehose of notifications — with a catch

Apple’s iOS 15 preview earlier this week gave us a look at an important new feature coming to your iPhone’s notifications: help. A few new tools may act as a life preserver for those of us up to our eyeballs in a sea of notifications every day, regulating which apps and people are allowed to bug us, and when. But on the flip side, app developers get some additional tools for getting your attention, too, and could very well start sending you even more notifications — albeit in a less disruptive way.

What’s new in iOS 15 notifications?

  • Focus: Do Not Disturb for more scenarios, plus away messages!
  • Notification summaries: scheduled digests of lesser notifications
  • Interruption levels: App developers decide how much a notification is allowed to bug you

Here’s Apple’s full dev session.

First, the good news: the new notification features in iOS 15 look genuinely good and useful. There’s a new feature called Focus that allows you to choose which people and apps you’d like to see notifications from at a given time. It’s like Do Not Disturb but with much more customization than simply turning off every possible disruption. You can set up modes for work, sleep, personal time, and other scenarios like workouts.

When setting up a new Focus mode, Siri can scan your outgoing messages and calls and automatically suggest allowing notifications from the people you talk to most. There’s a neat trick here too: communications from the people you approve can come from other apps, like Facebook Messenger, not just from iMessage or texts. When you get that Facebook Messenger message in iOS 15, you may see prompts to associate that person in that app with a matching person in your contacts list, too. Once you’ve done this, communications from that person in a third-party app will be allowed to interrupt your Focus mode, provided that you approved them to do so.

You’ll also have the option to set a kind of away message when you’re using a Focus mode that will let others know you’re temporarily unavailable when they send you an iMessage. When your friend doesn’t hear back from you for hours, they won’t have to guess whether you hate them or you’re just really busy with work, and that’s nice for everyone. iOS 15 also adds notification summaries, which will batch lower priority notifications into digests you’ll receive at certain times of day.

All of this gives you more control over interruptions, which is great! But what about app developers who want you to ~engage~ with their platform? They have new options too. They can now use one of four notification interruption types, two of which are new in iOS 15. First are passive interruptions, a new, less obtrusive kind of notification available to developers that doesn’t wake your screen or cause your phone to vibrate — they go straight to your notification center. Previous versions of iOS allowed the user to designate notifications from certain apps to be delivered silently, but this new framework lets the app developer choose to deliver them this way.

These are the types of notifications likely to end up in summaries if you’ve enabled that feature. They don’t just appear in chronological order in the summary digest either — machine learning helps sort them by priority. They’ll likely include images and other visuals too, since Apple encourages developers to include media as part of the notification to increase its chances of showing up at the top of the summary list. And since the risk of annoying you is lower, developers have some incentive to send more frequent, more engaging notifications. They’ll be less disruptive, but these are the kinds of notifications we’re likely to see more of in iOS 15.

since the risk of annoying you is lower, developers have some incentive to send more frequent, more engaging notifications

The other new interruption type is “time sensitive,” which is kind of a Notification Plus. It behaves like a standard notification, lighting up your screen and playing a sound or vibrating, but with an important difference: it’s allowed to break through your focus mode settings and notify you even if they aren’t from an “approved” app. The option to see time sensitive notifications can be turned on and off by the user, so if you really don’t want to see them, you don’t have to. In theory though, they should be for truly time sensitive events, like a package being delivered or your credit card company making sure it was you who bought two round-trip tickets to Maui.

In theory. Apple lets developers decide which notifications deserve time sensitive designation, so it’s more or less on the honor system. The company urges them to maintain trust and keep in mind that users can turn off notifications for their app if they feel they’re being bothered unnecessarily. And lest we forget, Apple itself has bent the rules before on what’s considered too intrusive for a notification. Could developers end up overusing time sensitive notifications? Possibly, but they likely won’t gain much from doing so, since users can opt out of them and may decide to silence the app entirely.

There are a few other things worth noting about notifications in iOS 15:

  • With compatible audio devices like AirPods, Siri will be able to read any incoming notification to you. Previously, this function was limited to things like incoming messages. By default, Siri will read the contents of messages and time sensitive notifications.
  • Notifications with a “critical” interruption type basically remain unchanged: these are things like Amber Alerts, which bypass your ringer settings to play a sound and get your attention. App developers still need special permission for these notifications, so we shouldn’t suddenly start seeing more of them in iOS 15.
  • Notifications will look a little different, with bigger app icons and images of contacts included in messages. The actions you can take on a notification (liking an image, etc.) will get graphical icons, too.


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