Why reminders need to be more relevant

We all mentally set reminders, but the digital ones need to be as or more helpful

Reminders have always been a great way to, well, remind us about things. The first form of reminder was probably genetic – “don’t get killed, survive, reproduce…“. But as mankind progressed and invented technology, the reminders began forming a central part of our lives. When writing and paper were introduced, having a list of things called 'to-do' became a tradition that is still largely followed today. As computers evolved into laptops and smartphones, this simple to-do list became the way most of us still remember things. Little pieces of paper, called notes, exist everywhere from the fridge to your homescreen (on the phone). But with technology leaping bounds ahead, reminders are still a little behind in terms of innovation. Let’s think of how we set reminders –

  • Task – we think of a task that we want to be reminded about
  • Context – how / when / where should we be reminded about it
  • Content - what should the reminder contain and what are we going to do with it

So these three components determine how reminders are set by us everyday.  Take the example of grocery shopping. We want to be reminded about buying grocery or milk. It should probably be executed when we are leaving for home, or are near a place where we get grocery or milk. Once we get the items, the reminder should be set as completed, or in case we couldn’t get the items, should be re-allocated to a different context.

Sounds pretty much what smartphone apps try to do these days, right? They remind you at specific locations (mall, work, home, etc.). They can even remind you when you are connected to a particular network (wi-fi, perhaps in your home or office). All these are ways of determining where you are. So you can set reminders based on places, networks, and of course, the traditional date/time. There are even apps (Shifu) that remind you when someone calls you. I think that’s pretty smart. So you can set reminders like “ask mom the recipe next time she calls“. Google Now (now on tap) has jumped leaps and bounds into setting reminders. Last time I checked, they allowed users to set reminders for the train station they want to get down at. Now that’s innovation!!!

But where everything falls apart, is when we come to realize that there is simply nothing that can remind us in social situations. Sure, Shifu can remind you the next time you call your best friend, but chances are high that you’re chatting with them on facebook or whatsapp rather than calling them. And that’s exactly where all these approaches fall apart. There is simply no way to uniformly detect or remind us when we interact with someone.

Picture the following scenario – There’s something you need to tell Kathy in person the next time you chat or meet. Just say you’re both busy people. Sometimes phone calls or emails just don’t happen in personal life. So anyways, you and Kathy talk on facebook, whatsapp, or you go to an event together, or you just bump into her somewhere. How are you going to remember (or reminded) that you need to tell Kathy something?

Another example – The bread and eggs at home are over, you’ve just finished eating them in a delicious breakfast. You need to buy some more, probably in a day or two. The thing is, you forget to add it to your shopping list or app. Happens all the time, that grocery items are the most forgotten reminder items in the world [citation implied]. Well, so when you come back from shopping, you realize you forgot the eggs. So now you need to set a reminder to buy some eggs, but adding them into the shopping list is pointless. Because you aren’t going shopping anytime soon. You’re just buying some eggs. So you set an alarm for the next day, only now you’re busy at that time. So you snooze it, or forget it. If you set an alarm for a particular location, say your local grocery store, then what happens when you happen to stop by a store before that particular one? The app never reminds you.

So this, and several other examples, particularly the social ones, are expressive of the way technology in general views things from the other side. The side of what’s possible, rather than what’s needed. At the startup weekend in June, I pitched an idea called Remind me when… which was about creating and handling contextual reminders on the smartphone. Something that you can use as easily as you think about reminders. Remind me to tell Dave about this the next time I talk to him. Whether that be by any means. Remind me to check for new Magazines when I stop by a bookstore. Could very well be a bookstore on the other side of the globe. Remind me to search for last months bill when I’m looking at emails. Which I probably do on my laptop, desktop, phone. So remind me anytime I do that. This, and so many more, each a unique facet of the things that we actually do, rather than things that are possible because there are apps for it out there.

The apps are out there because the user has demand for them. But there has to be a certain amount of innovation that must constantly push things forward. Everyone wants to wait for the next simple idea that is destined to be great. What’s actually needed is the next smart thing that everyone wants to use. One of my favorite quotes about software development is – “Focus on the User, and everything else willfollow***“. So in this case, focus on doing the things the user wants to get done. Innovate, evolve, be ready for tomorrow. Today is already saturated with tens of thousands of people who have the same idea for an app as you do.