Notifications at Meetup

Note: This post was originally published as part of my portfolio in December of 2014. I moved it to the blog because it seemed more like a blog post.


The internet has always been good at connecting people and creating meaningful interactions. Meetup has been a part of that narrative since 2002. In fact, while working on the new messaging feature, we found code for a email messaging tool that pre-dated gmail. Thank goodness we weren't using that code, but it was time we thought beyond email.

There is a big push at the company to reevaluate these aspects of the product in light of a more modern approach. Email isn’t always the best way to communicate anymore. With mobile we have a new set of tools in front of us. Messaging apps are a great way to communicate, does that fit into the context at Meetup? We decided yes. What about notifications?

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about how notifications are the future of mobile. Apps can run in the background and surface information exactly when it’s needed. Users can act on notifications right from the notification center. There's no need to open the app. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it compliments my mobile lifestyle.

Companies have been using this to their advantage and making their apps more useful. Foursquare’s app recognizes when I’m at a restaurant and notifies me of the most popular things to order. Later, as I’m leaving, they might recommend a place for drinks nearby. It's catered specifically to me and where I am right now. The way that foursquare uses notifications, it acts as my guide for all the best places to check out in the city.

That’s a good notification. I would just as eagerly open a text from a friend offering a similar recommendation. These notifications are non-intrusive and relevant to me. However, they also illustrate the system that is foursquare. Foursquare takes an input, a location mapped to a restaurant, and produces an output, recommendations. I can open the app for more information, but the value of the app is the real-time service they provide, not the static destination on my home screen.

So, where do notifications fit in at Meetup? Well if foursquare helps you find your place, then Meetup helps you find your people. For one of our internal hackathons, I decided to play with this idea. Maybe we could send a notification when like-minded people were nearby. It sounds great, but there are some complications here.

Many agreed that this was interesting and relevant information, but there isn’t an obvious time to send this notification to users. The input to our system is not as obvious as someone walking into a restaurant.

The solution was to send a notification when a certain threshold was crossed. For example, maybe there aren’t a whole lot of astronomy enthusiasts in Park Slope. However, once 25 people have indicated interest in astronomy, suddenly there may be a much greater desire for a fellow enthusiast to create a group. Maybe not perfect, but a good theory.

The notification would say something along the lines of, “Park Slope now has more than 25 people interested in astronomy.” That sounds compelling, especially for someone who lives in Park Slope and is interested in astronomy. They want to know more. With this kind of input, what kind of output can users expect? They’re curious so they tap through for more information.

Naturally, it would make sense to see and connect with these people. However, in order to meet these people, users would have to create a Meetup group first. (For this thought experiment I decided not to pivot the company’s business model. Meetup is in the business of creating community, not one-off, spur of the moment connections.)

It’s a lot to ask someone to create a Meetup group. Even with the newly launched price points, it’s a big responsibility. I wanted to be sensitive to that. Besides, acting on a notification is supposed to be quick and easy. If a user is going to create a group, I want them to take a little more time and put some thought into it.

But throw all that away. Suppose it’s a highly motivated segment and they’re ready to create a group, name it, write a description, enter their credit card information, and pay for it. Right now. On their phone. It’s mighty presumptuous of me to think that they want to create an astronomy group. Even if they’re interested in astronomy, maybe they would rather start a Double Dutch group. It seems unlikely that I could get that right the first time.

While thinking about this, I stumbled upon Janel Torkington’s article Small Data: Why Tinder-like apps are the way of the future. He argues that cards are a great container for content and the interface Tinder made famous is ideal for making quick decisions. More importantly, these decisions build up over time and that data gives you better insight into what your users actually care about.

I thought I’d give it a shot. When users tap on my notification, they will be taken to the Meetup app where they can see the people in their neighborhood laid out on a card. Rather than asking them if they want to create a group, I ask if they would be interested in bringing these people together. If they say no, we now know a lot more about them. Maybe astronomy isn’t one of their primary interests. If they say no to more than one topic, maybe they don’t want to organize any kind of group. That’s good to know, we’ll stop bothering them. This notification should be relevant.

If they say yes, it still doesn't mean they want to create a group, but they have demonstrated more interest in meeting up. We can track that and follow up later.

They have to make a decision before they can consume any other content in the app. Either way we get a helpful data point. The cost is one tap, or even a swipe. This is the kind of quick and easy decision making that compliments the qualities of a good notification.

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You may not see this as part of any future product launch, but I believe it addresses the constraints of the platform well. It sure was a fun hackathon project.

The team at Meetup is working hard to create great notifications. In the next few years an app will only be as good as the underlying system and notifications will allow users to react on any shape screen imaginable. If you want to help craft the future and work for a fantastic company that brings people together, Meetup is hiring!