Tutorial :Know any unobstrusive, simple GUI guidelines or design recommendations for notifications?


I'm in the process of designing and testing various ideas for an application whose main functionality will be to notify users of occurring events and offer them with a choice of actions for each.

The standard choice would be to create a queue of events showing a popup in the taskbar with the events and actions, but I want this tool to be the less intrusive and disrupting as possible.

What I'm after is a good book or papers on studies of how to maximize user productivity in these intrinsically disruptive scenarios (in other words, how to achieve the perfect degree of annoying-ness, not too much, not too little).

The user is supposedly interested in these events, they subscribe to them and can choose the actions to perform on each.

I prefer books and papers, but the usual StackOverflow wisdom is appreciated as well.

I'm after things like:

  • Don't use popups, use instead X
  • Show popups at most 3 seconds
  • Show them in the left corner
  • Use color X because it improves readability and disrupts less

That is, cognitive aspects of GUI design that would help users in such a scenario.


For notification, I prefer small notification windows in the bottom right corner. If they have a minimum UI allowing me to take some quick action, it would be ideal.

As model: incoming mail notification from Outlook, Skype notifications for incomming calls, etc.


I have read and recommend:


I don't know of any formal articles but the Ubuntu UI design team have considered this issue and you may find something of value in their notification design guidelines or in this discussion by Mark Shuttleworth.


Sorry, no book recommendation here, just one piece of advise: Ultimately, you should let your users decide.

In my experience, what one user considers to be a useful feature is seen as completely broken by the second, while the third doesn't care at all.

Offer them 3-5 options how they will be alerted (including the option to turn alerts off ;-). Of course you should optimise these options as much as possible, hopefully some other answers here can help you with that.


A collection of possibilities:

  • Change a static tray icon. Useful if the user doesn't have to answer each message immediately, and relatively unobtrusive. Should be an overlay on the original image, making sure that the user recognizes which application it's from, and should be different enough that the user immediately understands that it's not the original icon (for example, a red / yellow exclamation mark on a blue / green background).
  • Change the tray icon to a dynamic variant. This will be more obtrusive, grabbing the user attention periodically, but is useful when the message is urgent. Could for example be a revolving version of a circular logo, or a pulsating square logo. Depending on the urgency, the animation could repeat endlessly (highly distracting) or once in a while. Use with care :)
  • Pop-over box in a corner of the screen. This should give some context info, the primary object of which is to enable the user to decide whether or not it's worth checking out immediately. Could afford clicking by using a "More" link or big "+" sign.
  • Focus the application window immediately. Enormously intrusive, and should not even be used in case of nuclear meltdowns (what if the user already knows the meltdown is occurring, and is looking elsewhere for a solution?). Just don't.


I think an answer depends highly on the specifics of the UI you are working within. However, for general guides

The GNOME desktop environment's human interface guidelines (HIG) is a useful resource if your environment is GNOME, and perhaps informative if it's not. There is a section on using the "desktop notification area": http://library.gnome.org/devel/hig-book/stable/desktop-notification-area.html.en. This covers not overloading the area, etc. (perhaps analogous to the win32 tray).

Apple have their own HIG document. Part of this describes using the Dock for conveying status information: http://developer.apple.com/documentation/userexperience/Conceptual/AppleHIGuidelines/XHIGMOSXEnvironment/XHIGMOSXEnvironment.html#//apple_ref/doc/uid/TP40002721-TPXREF139

Apple also have a separate HIG document for the iPhone. there are several notification techniques described within, e.g. "alerts" http://developer.apple.com/iphone/library/documentation/UserExperience/Conceptual/MobileHIG/ModalViews/ModalViews.html#//apple_ref/doc/uid/TP40006556-CH11-SW1 which are specifically described as to be used for critical information (due to their disruptiveness).

Several apple iphone apps adjust their icon to convey some status info: e.g. mail, SMS, phone all indicate the number of outstanding mails, SMS messages, or missed calls/voicemails as part of their launch icon. I can't, however, find any reference to that in a cursory scan of the apple iphone HIG.

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