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The Usability of Blinking Patterns

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This is not about LED blinking patterns of BIOS or blinking patterns of humans. It's about notification blinking patterns of mobile devices. Modern smartphones try to notify their owners using different methods. Besides acoustic sounds, display content, and vibration alarms there are LEDs who try to get their owners attention.

You might be wondering, why this subtle issue is worth a blog entry. Well, read this and then judge me afterward. :-)

The Keep-Staring-at-Your-Phone-Forever Pattern

Imagine following situation: your smartphone gets a new message and LED notification is configured that way, that there is a blue flash for about two hundred milliseconds followed by two seconds of darkness. Sadly, this is a typical default blinking pattern for many smartphone apps.

So if you are looking at your smartphone after taking it out of your pockets, you actually have to look on its LED for over two seconds, in order to know if there is a new message waiting for you or not. If you take Shannon into account, you'll need at least four seconds. ;-)

One short LED signal followed by two seconds of nothing is a very bad ratio between "information" and "no information".

I personally don't like this blinking pattern at all because I want to know instantly, if there is a new message waiting or not.

My Favorite Blinking Pattern

Whenever a smartphone app allows the user to set a personal pattern, I set it to constantly show a specific color on the LED. When I do have to set a pause as well, I keep it at minimum.

Some might want to argue that the two hundred milliseconds flash gets better attention than a constantly shining LED. On the one hand side, this is true but it is also true for a pattern like two hundred milliseconds flashing light and (only) two hundred milliseconds darkness. Or even two seconds of light followed by a short pause of two hundred milliseconds.

On the other hand side, I personally don't want notifications that constantly tries to get my attention. I want notifications I can recognize instantly and - at the same time - I am able to ignore until I take my time to take a closer look. I can hardly ignore a nervous blinking LED. However, I can decide to ignore a constantly shining LED without losing its notification purpose.

My General Notification Habit

My personal favorite is a combination of a one-time strong/long vibration pattern followed by a constantly shining LED. I try to distinguish the type of message using different colors. I also keep the set of events very small, where notifications are launched: basically only missed calls or a new text message. I disabled notifications for emails, Tweets, and so forth.

What are your thoughts on this? I can imagine that your preference on this is different when you, e.g., keep your phone in a bag. Comment below!

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