Understanding How Push Notifications Work

The world of mobile app development is ever-evolving, with new updates and technologies released every day. One such technology that has significantly revolutionized the B2C marketing is the push notifications.

How Does Push Notifications Work?

Push notifications are instant alerts that are sent to mobile devices, informing users about new updates, news, or offers from an application. They're customizable and can be tailored to suit user behavior and preferences. They serve as an efficient communication channel, enhancing customer experiences and increasing app user engagement rates.

Let's break down their working with an illustration.

Server FCM/APNs Mobile App (1)Content---> | (2)Request---> | (3) Message---> | (4)Display
  1. Content creation: The server (app server or third-party server) creates the content for the notification.
  2. Request sent: The server sends a request to the cloud messaging service, i.e., Firebase Cloud Messaging (FCM) for Android and Apple push Notification service (APNs) for iOS.
  3. Message delivered: FCM/APNs deliver the message to the mobile app associated with the device token.
  4. Display: The mobile app displays the notification to the user on receiving the incoming notification.

Role of Operating Systems in Push Notifications

Operating Systems play an essential role in the lifecycle of push notifications. Let's dive into the process with an diagram:

Server Cloud Messaging Service Operating System Mobile App Content ---> | Message ---> | Notification ---> | Display
  1. Content creation: The app or third-party server formulates the notification content.
  2. Cloud Messaging: The server interacts with the Cloud Messaging service, like FCM or APNs, sending the notification content.
  3. OS Intervention: The Cloud Messaging Service communicates with the Operating System to signal an incoming notification.
  4. App Display: Finally, the Operating System pushes the notification to the mobile app, which then displays the notification to the user.

Operating Systems, therefore, play a crucial part in routing the notifications correctly and allowing push notification services to function correctly.

The Lifecycle of a Push Notification

The life cycle of a push notification can be outlined as follows:

  1. Trigger: A certain event, action, or time triggers the creation of a push notification.
  2. Creation: The content for the notification is created by the server.
  3. Send: This content or message is then sent to the push notification service like FCM or APNs
  4. Delivery: Once the service receives the message, it delivers it to the relevant app on the user's device.
  5. Display: Finally, this notification is displayed on the user's device.

Here's showing the life cycle:

Trigger -> Creation -> Send -> Delivery -> Display

Varieties of Push Notifications

There's no one-size-fits-all when it comes to push notifications. They can be customized based on multiple factors including their source, purpose, and the type of device they are sent to.

Web-Based versus App-Based Push Notifications

Web-based push notifications, as you may have inferred, are delivered directly to the user's web browser. They emerge as a result of an active network connection between a sender, typically a remote server, and a receiver - the web browser, without the necessity of a dedicated mobile application. E-commerce sites make ample use of such notifications, alerting users about sales and cart actions that have been left incomplete.

On the other hand, App-based notifications are sent from a server to handheld devices through the medium of an application. They are beneficial in a sense that even when the app is not in active use or is running as background processes, notifications can be delivered, nudging user attention back to the app.

Different Push Notifications by Business Cases and Purposes

Various business contexts and objectives define the types of push notifications used. For instance:

  • Informative Notifications: These are used to convey some kind of information or news to the user. Common in news and charity apps.
  • Alert Notifications: Alerts are generated when an application requires user’s immediate attention. These could be warning alerts, reminder alerts, or a call to action.
  • Geo-based Notifications: These are primarily fruitful for local businesses as they send notifications to users based on their geographical territory.
  • Promotional Notifications: Used primarily by marketers to inform users about ongoing promotions, discounts, or offers.

Each type fulfills a different purpose and is crucial in the respective user engagement strategy.

Push Notifications for Different Devices: iOS and Android

Push notifications work differently for iOS and Android due to their distinguishing mobile operating systems.

For iOS devices, the Apple Push Notification Service (APNs) channels push notifications. It maintains a constant IP connection with the device and delivers the notification through it.

Meanwhile, Android uses Google Firebase Cloud Messaging (FCM) where the app server sends a message to FCM, which then sends the message to the user's device.

Different templates and features are available on iOS and Android, offering a diverse range of possibilities. For instance, Android supports rich notifications that include action buttons, while iOS supports interactive buttons.

A simplified representation of both is given below:

iOS: Server ---> APNs ---> iOS device Android: Server ---> FCM ---> Android device

Understanding these different varieties and how they function across different platforms is key in developing successful push notification campaigns. With this knowledge, developers can craft appropriate and compelling notifications, aimed at both informing the user and driving different user behaviors.

Notable Services and Tools in Push Notifications

To manage and send push notifications, several services and tools have been developed. These tools provide the necessary infrastructure for the delivery of push notifications, offering robust features that enhance the overall process. Firebase Cloud Messaging and Apple Push Notification Service are among the most prominent ones.

Role of Firebase Cloud Messaging in Push Notifications

Firebase Cloud Messaging (FCM) is a cross-platform messaging solution developed by Google. It allows you to send messages and notifications to users across Android, iOS, and the web, all for free.

FCM streamlines the process of sending notifications by providing a serverless infrastructure. You are allowed to define your client logic that specifies the user interactions with your notifications.

Here is a simple example of how to use the FCM service for sending a push notification:

var message = { data: { score: "850", time: "2:45", }, token: registrationToken, }; // Send the message to FCM admin .messaging() .send(message) .then((response) => { // Notification sent successfully console.log("Push notification sent:", response); }) .catch((error) => { // Notification delivery failed console.log("Push notification delivery failed:", error); });

This example demonstrates the simplicity and efficiency of using Firebase in managing push notifications for your app.

Understanding Apple Push Notification Service

Apple Push Notification Service (APNs) is Apple's robust platform that allows third-party servers to send push notifications to iOS devices.

APNs allow the apps to communicate and engage with the users by delivering the notifications directly to the iOS device even when the app isn't active.

Here's a simple example code to help you understand how to use APNs:

from apns import APNs, Frame, Payload apns = APNs(use_sandbox=True, cert_file='cert.pem', key_file='key.pem') # Create a notification payload to send payload = Payload(alert="Hello, world!", sound="default", badge=42) # Send it to the device with a specific id apns.gateway_server.send_notification('abcd1234', payload)

This example shows how the APNs service enables developers to send notifications to their iOS users.

Choosing the Right Push Notification Provider

Choosing the right push notification provider depends on an array of factors specific to your app: the features you need, budget considerations, supported platforms, and more. Some popular push notification providers are Firebase for Android, APNs for iOS, Amazon Simple Notification Service (SNS) for cross-platform services, OneSignal, and many more.

While Firebase and APNs are free to use, other paid services offer more advanced features, including extensive tracking and analytics, A/B testing of notifications, and automation of campaigns. The right provider should align with your app's requirements and deliver an optimal user experience. When choosing, take into consideration reviews and the community for developers, as support and documentation can be a deciding factor.

Understanding these notable services and making a strategic choice of the provider will aid in managing push notifications effectively. Detailed knowledge of their operations can help developers in ensuring higher deliverability and maximizing user interaction with the notifications.

Designing Effective Push Notifications

Designing effective push notifications that capture attention, drive engagement and improve conversion funnel is a skill that requires careful thought and strategic planning. Following industry best practices, understanding what to do and what not to do, and integrating modern-day technologies like location, can all play a significant part in amplifying the effectiveness of your push notifications.

Best Practices for Push Notification Campaigns

It's essential to consider a few best practices when devising a push notification strategy. Here's a rundown of best practices to boost the success of your push notification campaigns:

  1. Segmentation: Segment your audience based on various factors like, age, gender, interests, purchase history, and provide personalized notifications rather than mass messaging everyone.
  2. Timing: Schedule your push notifications at a time when your audience is likely to engage.
  3. Rich Media: Enhance user interaction by integrating rich media into notifications, including images, videos, action buttons, and emojis.
  4. Relevance & Context: Make your notifications relevant and context-specific. They should add value to the user.
  5. A/B Testing: Regular A/B testing is crucial to understand what resonates with your audience and what doesn't. Test different content, CTAs, timing, frequency, and more.

Here’s a simple example explaining how to do A/B Testing with Firebase for your notifications:

notification_a = Message( notification=Notification( title="Try our new feature", body="You're going to love it!") data={'test_id': 'Test A'}, topic='all', ) notification_b = Message( notification=Notification( title="Have you seen our new feature?", body="Check it out now!") data={'test_id': 'Test B'}, topic='all', ) response_a = messaging.send(notification_a) response_b = messaging.send(notification_b) print('Successfully sent notification A:', response_a) print('Successfully sent notification B:', response_b)

Push Notifications Dos and Don'ts


  • Respect User Preferences: Allow users to customize notification settings, they should have control over what they want to receive.
  • Engage, Don't Annoy: Keep the frequency of notifications balanced, you don't want to annoy users with too many notifications.
  • Measure Success Metrics: Monitor key metrics to understand the performance of your campaign.


  • Don't Spam: Overwhelming your users with too many notifications will lead to them opting out from your notifications, or worse, uninstalling the app.
  • Avoid Generic Messages: Personalize your messages, generic text can disinterest your user.
  • Don't Ignore Feedback: If users report that they're receiving irrelevant notifications or too many of them, make sure you are addressing their concerns.

Integrating Location with Push Notifications

Geo-based push notifications are powerful tools for delivering context-specific notifications. They leverage information about a user's location to send timely and relevant messages. For example, a retail app might send a notification about an ongoing sale or offer to users who are close to their physical stores. To achieve this, your app will need to ask for permission to use location services and send notifications. Make sure to explain why you need these permissions to convince users why they should allow them.

From enhancing user engagement to increasing conversions, implementing these strategies when designing push notifications can bring a significant difference in overall user experience and the success of your notification campaigns. Remember to continuously learn, adapt, and evolve your strategies according to the changing user behaviors and needs.

Measuring Your Push Notification Campaigns

To measure and evaluate the success of your push notification campaigns, you need to track specific performance statistics and key metrics. That way, you’ll have better insights into how your push notifications impact user engagement and how they could be optimized for better results.

Understanding Push Notification Performance Statistics

Performance statistics provide insightful data about your notification campaign's effectiveness. This includes data on delivery rates, open rates, drop-off rates, conversion rates, and customer experiences. All these metrics combined present a clearer picture of the campaign’s performance, allowing you to make data-driven decisions to optimize your future campaigns.

For instance, checking the delivery rates and comparing them against the open rates can help identify if your push notifications are reaching the users appropriately and if they're efficient enough to prompt the users to open them.

Key Metrics: Conversion Rates, Open Rates, and Time Spent on the App

Focusing on these key metrics is essential:

  1. Conversion Rates: Conversion rate is the percentage of users who complete a desired action after receiving a push notification.
  2. Open Rates: This is a measure of how many users open a push notification.
  3. Time Spent on the App: This metric notes the duration for which a user interacts with the app after opening a push notification.

Analysing these metrics enables you to understand what content drives user engagement, the optimal time for sending notifications, and how to structure your push notifications for maximum impact.

The Impact of Push Notifications on User Engagement

Well-crafted push notifications significantly enhance user engagement. They encourage users to open the app, complete an action, or make a purchase, which ultimately benefits your app's overall revenue.

Moreover, personalized push notifications, based on user behavior and preferences, can significantly improve user retention. Increased engagement implies users finding value in your app, which ultimately leads to user loyalty.

To quantify engagement, measure metrics like session length, time-interval between two successive sessions, the frequency of opening the app, and the number of interactions within the app.

Understanding these aspects will help you better tailor your push notification campaigns, ensuring they not only reach your intended audience but also perform successfully in promoting user engagement and conversion. Remember, continuous evaluation and optimization are the roots of a successful push notification strategy.

Practical Aspects of Push Notifications

Understanding the practicalities of push notifications, from the user's perspective to the process of sending your own notifications, is crucial. Gaining this knowledge helps create a UX-centric notification system and curate the development process for the best results.

How Push Notifications Appear to Users

Push notifications typically appear on the lock screen or the mobile home screen of your device. Depending on the configuration and the type of notification, they can display even when the device's screen is off or the app is not in active use.

Users have the option to interact directly with the notification from the home screen or the lock screen, without having to open the application. They can click on the notification to open the app or perform a specific action as prompted by the notification.

It's to be noted carefully that the aesthetics and the message displayed by the notifications play a key role in getting the user's attention and provoking them to interact with it.

Sending Your Own Push Notifications

When it comes to sending your own push notifications, there are several options. You can use a service like Google's FCM or Apple's APNs, which takes care of much of the heavy lifting for you.

Apart from these, other campaign management platforms like OneSignal, Firebase, and more allow you to schedule and automate push notification campaigns based on user behavior, time zones, and other metrics.

In most cases, sending a push notification involves creating the content, defining the audience, setting up the schedule (if any), and finally hitting 'send'. The platform takes care of delivering the notification to the designated users.

Development Process of Notifications

The development process of push notifications involves a few crucial steps:

  1. Defining the Purpose: Before anything else, you need to define the purpose of your push notification. This is usually related to your overall marketing strategy.
  2. Segmentation and Personalization: Next, you categorize your users based on different parameters to tailor your notifications as per their preferences and behavior.
  3. Content Creation: Craft a compelling, brief, and clear message that resonates with your audience.
  4. Scheduling and Sending: Decide the most suitable time to send the notification to maximize user interaction.
  5. Analyzing Performance: Lastly, always monitor the performance of your notifications, measure the KPIs, and tweak your strategy accordingly for future campaigns.

Understanding the practical aspects of push notifications, and approaching their creation and implementation tactically, can significantly enhance their effectiveness. Ensure to keep this advice in mind while going ahead with your own push notifications. By doing so, you'll be likely to see a substantial improvement in user engagement and app retention rates.

Key Takeaways

Push notifications offer an efficient means to keep your users engaged, improve user retention, and enhance overall user experience. The key to developing effective push notifications lies in a robust understanding of their functioning, the role of operating systems, and the appropriate use of messaging services like FCM and APNs.

Being well-informed about the variety of push notifications, and how they cater to distinct business cases and purposes allows you to design personalized and impactful notifications. Summarizing, best practices to adhere include respecting user preferences, testing and measuring effectiveness, and integrating modern-day technologies like location.

Finally, understanding the practical aspects of push notifications, from how they appear to users, to the process of creating and sending your own, provides a broader picture that can aid in optimizing your push notification strategy to maximize user engagement.

Remember, push notifications are a powerful tool, but their success hinges on an effective strategy that keeps the user at its core. All of these points combined will provide you with an understanding of how to optimize your push notifications for success.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

In conclusion, let's address some common questions about push notifications that you may have as a software developer.

What is a Push Notification Payload?

A push notification payload refers to the data sent along with the push notification. This data could include the notification message, URL to be opened, or any other interactive content. However, there are size limits to these payloads. For FCM, the payload limit is 4KB, whereas for APNs, it is 2KB for notification payloads and 4KB for data payloads.

What Role Does the Push Service Play?

The push service, such as FCM and APNs, plays a critical role in the delivery of push notifications. The responsibility of the push service is to maintain an active connection with the app on the user's device. When the server sends a notification to the push service, the service uses this connection to deliver the notification to the correct device.

How to Build an Android Push Notification System?

To build an Android push notification system, you would primarily need to use Google's FCM. Here are simplified steps to get you started:

  1. Register your app with the Firebase console and set up the Firebase SDK in your app.
  2. To send a message, your server communicates with the FCM server with the appropriate keys, and FCM does the job of sending the message to the user's device.
  3. Implement code in your app to handle incoming notifications and display them or perform a task as per the type of notification received.

Do keep in mind that this is just a simplified overview. Any real-world implementation would be more complex and would need thorough testing to ensure an optimal user experience.

Your understanding of push notifications should now be deeper and more practical, enabling you to utilize this tool effectively in your upcoming projects. Good luck with your journey in improving user engagement and loyalty with finely-crafted push notifications!