When I first took a look at the improved notifications in iOS 5, I was mostly pleased with their implementation. “By combining some of the best solutions and adding some ideas of [its] own, Apple has really created an awesome system here,” I wrote in my post on initial impressions. After using the 3 iOS 5 betas for a little over a month now, I have to retract my previous statement. The notification system is not as good at it could be, in fact, The iOS 5 notification system is a total mess, and needs some serious tweaking to reach its full potential.

Notification Center is Almost Useless

“Notification Center,” the pull-down menu similar to the Android feature, is a great idea in theory, and it works well in Android. In iOS 5, however, it’s not so useful. On Android, if you have a notification in the notifications area, you’ll see an icon corresponding to the app that’s sending a notification in the top left-hand corner of the status bar. This tells you that there’s a notification waiting for you. In iOS 5, there are no such icons.

Because there are no icons, that means that there is no way to tell that there are notifications waiting for you there, aside from the number of badges on the app icons themselves. There’s no visual clue that you need to look in notification center, so the result is that you forget it’s even there in the first place. This problem is compounded by the fact that apps don’t behave consistently in removing their notifications from this area — I could get a DM on Twitter, deal with it inside the app, even reply to the original sender, but the notification of the DM will still remain in the center.

Android lets you know when you need to look at a notification, and also makes it easy to clear them away with a Clear All button. iOS notifications also lack this button, so when you look at the Notifications Center after a day of forgetting to check it, it’s a mess of outdated information that you can only clear by tapping not once but twice on the “X” for each app, one by one. It’s a horrendous process that needs to be dealt with before this OS goes live to everyone.

Lockscreen Notifications Are Wildly Inconsistent

In Beta 1, when you got a new notification while your phone was locked, it appeared right underneath the clock in a nice list. In Beta 2, this behavior changed. Now, the most recent notification in the list comes in a “bubble” in the middle of the screen (right image) when you first see it, and then if you turn off your screen without dealing with the notification, it will be in a list with your others the next time your screen is turned on.

This behavior is confusing and counter-intuitive because the two different styles of notifications change the way that the standard unlock slider behaves. When you have the “bubble” style of notification, unlocking the phone in the usual way will jump you directly to the app that sent the notification. There’s no way to unlock to your homescreen in this case; the only place you can go is the app. If you want to go to the homescreen, you would have to tap the sleep button to sleep your phone, then turn it back on again to get the list rather than the bubble style. In the list style, you can unlock to the homescreen like usual, but to jump to the app you can slide the app’s icon across the length of the notification. This sliding is the ideal behavior, and changing it randomly depending on how recently the notification came in makes pretty much no sense to me.

While the notifications in iOS 5 are definitely an improvement over iOS 4, there are some serious issues with their usability and interfaces that really don’t reflect well on Apple’s reputation for effortless user interfaces. These definitely don’t “just work” for the average user, and I have a feeling some people are going to get mighty frustrated when things aren’t working like they expect them to. Lets hope some fixes can be put in place before the final release of the OS.