A Pox on Your Phone: Red Dots and Pings in the Age of Annoyance


There’s a New York Times article making the rounds lately which points out the futility of something most of us probably wrap a good portion of our lives around. Those little red dots on our phones and desktops are everywhere, and they’ve only become more prevalent with time. Just look at this article from 2011 warning us of the deluge of red to come. The more recent article tracks the little pests from useful email feature to meaningless distraction, and gives us a roadmap for better design thinking through advanced planning.

The problem with red notification dots isn’t their function—on the contrary, the purpose they were intended to serve is still there—it’s simply overused. The first instance of the red dot notification feature rolled out with Apple’s email client. The number in the red circle simply reflected the number of unread emails in your primary inbox. No spam or trash was counted in this number unless the unwanted mail found its way past the filter. The user was well-informed.

Then the dot, like a virus, spread. The iPhone featured the same notification system not long after and then, as developers began creating their own smartphone products, it was everywhere. Today, the dots can mean almost anything. A new, important email? You’ll see a dot. Facebook notices that you haven’t posted in a while? They might add a dot to your Facebook app. Suddenly you’re down a rabbit hole—a dot in Instagram leads to a dot on Facebook which leads to a dot in your Notifications which was triggered by a friend posting a New York Times article about red dots.

The overuse of notification dots has caused them to become devalued to the point of uselessness. There are red dots on apps that will never be resolved simply because we know what they are for: promotions, updates, and useless information we don’t want right now or maybe ever.

Apple and other companies have discouraged developers from overusing red dot notifications, but they can only do so much. The red dots, it seems, are here to stay until we come up with something less annoying… or more intention-driven.

In the greater context of UX design, the red dot is symbolic of the methods and systems that are either overused or just plain annoying. The hamburger menu is overused, but it’s currency as a symbol for the dropdown menu hasn’t made it quite as annoying. Three-tiered date selection menus (selecting month, day, year separately) used to be everywhere, but have been largely replaced by simulated month-view calendars. There’s a difference between the hamburger menu, date selection tools, and red dots though: Red dots are a command. As a result, they add deception to the annoyance of bad design.

The dots hail from a time when you didn’t necessarily have your phone on your person all the time. If you were at your desktop, they gave you a quick preview of your email. But the playing field for your attention has exploded in all directions. Developers and marketers alike know you’re looking at your phone all the time, and they want you to spend as much of that time as possible looking at their software, at their ads. What better way to get your attention than a bright red stop sign your brain associates with someone needing your immediate attention.

It’s basic economics at work here: your time and interaction information are valuable to developers and there is more competition for your attention than ever before. Even if that attention is gained because you’ve become so annoyed with the 38 times Groupon notified you of “a great deal,” you might just click to see that dot go away.

All of those dots and pings intended to inform you do a lot of harm as well. We’ve written previously on the detrimental nature of too much cognitive load, and red dots are more of the same. Though red dots are intended to make your life easier, the subconscious imagination of what lies behind each and the drive to check each red warning (just in case) is a huge distraction. It takes our mental energy away from important matters, interrupts flow, fragments our thought processes, and makes us less productive.

The unfortunate truth of the red dot disease is that, like the hamburger menu, it’s probably not going away. The red dots are great at getting people to pay attention and they’re simple to metabolize on a screen. Until someone designs and implements a better notification system, you can count on them sticking around.