Taking Action on Notifications

One of the first iOS 8 features I wrote about last summer was actionable notifications.  Basically, this feature allows notifications to have buttons that let you respond to them without even opening the app.  When I first saw this feature, it was in the context of banner notifications on the top of the screen.  I thought this was definitely a cool idea, but not quite an earth-shattering one.  However, once I realized that these actions are also available on the lock screen, I realized how much time this feature would actually save me.

Let’s go through a hypothetical situation here.  Let’s say I’m sitting in class and my phone is buzzing off the hook.  I’m not going to look at it in class, so when it ends, I have a bunch of notifications.  Let’s say I’ve got a text from my brother, asking me a question about church tonight.  I’ve also got 16 texts from a group message, a notification from WordPress that someone linked to my post, two emails about my scout troop, a Twitter mention, two Instagram likes, and a Snapchat.  (Of course, I rarely open my phone and see notifications from all of these apps at once, but for the sake of this example, I’ve named lots of apps which have notifications I can act upon.)  Let’s go through each of these one at a time:

First is the text from my brother.  Since Messages is an official Apple app, it can have much more functionality than Apple would allow a third-party app.  Because of this, I can swipe right on this notification and tap reply.  A keyboard then pops up right on the lock screen, allowing me to respond to the text (rest assured, random people who find your phone can reply to your texts only if you’ve turned this feature on).  The only thing that’s annoying about this is that iOS won’t let me use SwiftKey on the lock screen, because that keyboard requires full access, and I guess they don’t want it to run unless I’ve put my passcode in.

Next are the group texts.  If it’s not something I want to reply to, I can just read them all right there on the lock screen, and then swipe right and dismiss the most recent one.  Now the cool part happens: I don’t have to dismiss every text.  If I dismiss one text from a thread, all texts that came in before that also clear.  The assumption is that if you’ve read the most recent, you’ve read them all.  This is great, because sometimes I open my phone to 50 or more group texts.

After dealing with all the messages, I’ve got a WordPress notification.  Since most of my pingback notifications are from my own blog (which is a whole different can of worms I can gripe about), I just want to approve them right away.  Fortunately, I can swipe on the notification and tap “Approve.”  The only annoying part is that this doesn’t mark the notification as viewed in the WordPress app; messages, in contrast, are all marked as read when you dismiss the notification.

Now come the emails.  I was a Boy Scout for seven years, but I aged out last fall.  I’m technically an Assistant Scoutmaster, but I don’t really do anything in that post.  That being said, most of the troop emails don’t apply to me.  With actionable notifications, I can swipe on each notification and tap “Mark as read.”  And they’re gone.  This is also nice because, while my read states do sync between devices, this process can take a while.  So if I read an email on my iPad, then see it on my phone, I can easily mark it as read.

Now on to social media.  More than likely I want to favorite that Twitter mention, and I can do so right from the lock screen.  As for the Instagram likes, I can just dismiss them.  Like WordPress, these don’t mark as viewed in the Instagram app, but I can just clear them next time I’m there.

Now all I’m left with is the Snapchat.  The difference here is that you can’t do anything to Snapchat notifications on the lock screen (besides clear them), so I have to unlock my phone for this.  Since Snapchat focuses on pictures, there’s not much they can do with actionable notifications.  However, I’ve just gone from 24 notifications to 1, without even unlocking my phone.  That’s a major boost in efficiency, and even better, one that I can use every day.  ••

First Thoughts on iOS 8

A few months ago, when iOS 8 was first announced at WWDC, I wrote about a couple iOS 8 features that I was really excited about.  iOS 8 finally came out last Wednesday, and so far I’m pretty impressed.  iOS 8 certainly isn’t anywhere near as ground-breaking as iOS 7 was, and it does have its share of new bugs.  Still, I think iOS 8 is really cool.  Now that it’s officially released, I thought I’d write about how those features I wanted actually work in practice.

1.  Actionable Notifications
In iOS 7, if you got a banner notification at the top of the screen, you could tap it to see the text message, email, or whatever it was.  However, that would switch you into the messages app, and after you replied you would have to switch back to whatever app you were using before you got the text.  With iOS 8, you can swipe down on a notification to get actions for it.  This means a reply screen for a text message, and “Mark as Read” and “Trash” buttons for emails.  This is really useful, and I’m looking forward to seeing what third-party developers will do with this new feature.


2.  Hands-Free Siri
This feature works more or less exactly as promised, though you’ll have to first enable it in Settings -> General -> Siri.  When your iOS device is plugged in, you can say “Hey Siri” to activate it.  You can then tell Siri to play music, text someone, or set a reminder.  There was also a little extra thought put into this feature that makes it really useful.  Normally, when you tell Siri to set a reminder, it says “Here’s your reminder” out loud but doesn’t actually say the text of the reminder out loud.  This was fine before, because you had to be holding your device to use Siri in the first place.  When using hands-free Siri, however, Siri will read the text of the reminder out loud to you.  This little bit of extra thought puts Siri’s new usefulness over the top.

3.  Continuity
The main part of continuity I want to talk about here is a new feature called Handoff.  With Handoff, all your devices are aware of what you’re doing nearby on your other devices.  If you’re looking at a website, typing an email, or looking up directions, Handoff broadcasts your activity to your other devices via Bluetooth.  If you, say, start writing an email on your iPhone, then realize you’d rather use the keyboard on your Mac, you simply walk over to your Mac, click the Mail Handoff icon on the dock, and your draft is magically transferred.  Handoff won’t work on the Mac until OS X Yosemite is released next month, but for now I tested it between my two iOS 8 devices.  I started an email on my iPod, then picked up my iPad, and a mail icon appeared both on the lock screen and in the multitasking menu.  Swiping up on the lock screen icon or tapping the page in the multitasking menu brought the draft up on the iPad.  Pretty neat!


The final feature I mentioned last summer was the possibility that the iPad could run two apps at the same time, side by side.  This was never announced by Apple as a feature, but someone digging through the iOS 8 beta found the code required to do it.  There’s been no mention of this feature in iOS 8 so far, but it’s possible that Apple will release an iOS 8.1 later on, maybe after the new iPad models come out next month.  If this becomes a feature, the iPad’s usefulness, especially as a productivity tool, will go through the roof, and I know there are many people who will be very, very happy about that.  ••