20 Dec 2018
Learn how to Optimize the Usability of Your Email Design
Jordan Schneider, VP of Marketing, DePalma Studios

Author: Jordan Schneider, the VP of Marketing at DePalma Studios.


Throughout his career, Jordan has lead the marketing strategy for startups in the music, technology, and UX design industries.

In this guest post, Jordan shares his insights on newsletter and marketing email usability.



How (And Why) to Optimize the Usability of Your Email Marketing

When you think about how long it’s been around, email marketing seems immortal in tech years.

The basic technology is over 50 years old, but instead of being left in the dust by innovation, email has adapted elegantly to trends like mobility and smart devices.

In fact, email is thriving. A recent study found that 73% of millenials prefer to receive email communications from brands.

But like every other digital marketing channel, email is overcrowded. That means execution is more important than ever.

Obviously, content strategy plays a critical role, but there’s another important consideration that often goes overlooked: usability.

What is usability?

Usability describes how easy a piece of technology is to use. For example, when someone opens your latest newsletter, how easy is it for them to find the content they want to read?

Usability is a combination of how an interface (email in this case) is designed and how the content is worded in that interface.

The usability of a design is typically measured in three ways:

  1. How easy it is for someone to become familiar with the design on first use
  2. How easily someone can complete their objectives using the design
  3. The ease with which someone recalls the design during later uses.

Why should marketers care?

You should care about usability because it directly affects the performance of your creative.

Whenever any experience is confusing — reading an email, navigating a website, using a mobile app — people will more often than not stop engaging with that design. That’s bad for your campaigns, which is bad for your ROI, which is bad for your job as a marketer.

If you need more convincing, there’s an ever-growing body of research about the ROI of UX design, of which usability plays a starring role.

So, how do you optimize the usability of your emails? Glad you asked. Here are 4 techniques you can use today.

1. Focus on clarity first

Look, I’ve worked with multiple copywriters in my career, and I know there’s a temptation to be clever in your writing. But from an email usability perspective, you want to make sure things are easy to understand for your audience.

Emphasizing clarity in your copy is important throughout your email, but it’s particularly important in the subject line, preview text, and sender address.

Subject lines need to provide context for what the reader can expect in the email. While they’re only a few words, subject lines are powerful framing mechanisms. They set the tone for how the reader experiences the rest of the email.

Likewise, preview text should expand on the subject line to supply extra details to the reader. If you opt to be clever with your subject, writing clear preview text is a must.

Finally, make sure to put some thought into your sender address. People tend to open emails that are sent from a person’s name, rather than a company.

UX Design Weekly follows two of these three principles very well.

Clear preview text and subject line contribute to user experience with emails.

 

In this example, you can clearly see the emails are coming from a real person (the editor of the newsletter) and the subject lines immediately tell you what the email is about. In fact, the title of the publication as the first words in every subject.

The preview text could improve, but we’ll give them a pass because of their clear subject lines.

2. Create a logical messaging hierarchy

Good usability makes it simple for your readers to accomplish their goals. In the case of email usability, your readers’ main goal is very likely to find the content you mention in the subject line.

The order in which content appears on the page is called a messaging hierarchy, and you should always put the most relevant content, i.e., whatever your subject line focuses on, at the top of the email.

When someone opens an email and they’re immediately shown the content they’re looking for, they feel validated for investing their mental energy in the first place. They’ve almost accomplished their goal in a matter of seconds. That’s the core of good usability.

Here’s an example:

Example of a neatly organized messaging hierarchy.

 

The subject line in the upper left hand corner references Black Friday, a huge day for consumer shopping, and as soon as I open the email, I’m presented with a huge graphic about Black Friday.

I’m never confused, and the next logical step is for me to click on that content.

3. Use lots of whitespace

People without much design experience think the best way to emphasize content is to make everything bigger. This concept most often manifests itself as, „Can we make the logo bigger?“

In most cases, making certain elements bigger just makes them look worse or amatuer.

Research has shown us that the judicious use of whitespace is the best method to emphasize the importance of each piece of content in the design.

Whitespace, or negative space, refers to the blank area around each element in a design. Seasoned designers know that whitespace reduces the amount of mental energy people need to use to understand a design, which makes it easier for them to use.

Some studies have found well-placed whitespace can increase reader comprehension by as much as 20%.
Well-placed whitespace improves email readability

This newsletter from Invision is a perfect example of usable marketing email. The whitespace between the copy and design elements gives emphasize to each section without adding additional complexity.

The lesson is simple: don’t crowd your emails. People don’t mind scrolling, and they will scan an email to search for relevant information, like they would on a webpage. The easier people can comprehend your message, the more likely they are to engage with it.

4. Don’t ignore conventions

Marketers are often under pressure to innovate, to do something new or creative. But when it comes to design and usability, you have to balance innovation with understanding.

People bring a preconception to every interaction, called a mental model. They have an expectation for how a website or email will work based on their past experiences with websites and emails.

UX designers refer to this preconception as a mental model. Because design is so prevalent in our lives, we have mental models for most things, like elevators, cars, and even cash registers.

So when you’re crafting an email design, don’t think too far out of the box. Make it easy for everyone to understand how things work in the email, i.e., links are all the same color (blue is usually best, but people recognize other colors, too) and images can be clicked like links.

Be sure to make your emails easy to read and interact with.

In Sumo’s email above, it’s immediately obvious how to use every element in the email. The links are clearly denoted by color, the button is easy to spot at the bottom of the email, and extra links to social are emphasized with negative space.

These are examples of design conventions, and they’re integral to increasing the usability of your emails. Conventions hide in plain sight, but look closely and you’ll notice certain patterns that most emails adhere to.

The best way is to adhere to conventions is to stick with what you know. If something seems natural to you, it’s probably because it’s a convention.

***

Despite playing an integral part in conversions, usability is chronically overlooked in email. This is good news for you. Ask anyone who’s ever worked at a UX firm about usability, and they’ll tell you it’s the secret to increasing conversions.

So if you following the tenets I’ve outlined above, you’ll add a serious dose of usability to your email marketing and improve your conversions as a result.

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