Give HTML e-mail a chance

Ten years into the web standards revolution, e-mail client support for standards remains sketchy. A new group is doing something about it. Launched today, The Email Standards Project “works with email client developers and the design community to improve web standards support and accessibility in email.”

Brainchild of Mathew Patterson of the Campaign Monitor, the newly launched site, like any good advocacy site, explains why web standards matter for e-mail.

But it does much more. Already the project uses a WaSP-style CSS test to judge the standards compliance of major e-mail clients from AOL to Yahoo! Mail and report on how they did. There’s also a blog and a list of things you can do to help promote standards awareness and persuade e-mail software makers to improve their support.

I started out hating HTML e-mail, but now I am a believer. I support The Email Standards Project.

[tags]email, e-mail, standards, webstandards, advocacy[/tags]

When is e-mail like a bad website?

Nokia sent a friend an HTML e-mail message. I’ve broken it into five screen shots, because it won’t fit on one:

  1. Nokia “e-mail” part 1
  2. Nokia “e-mail” part 2
  3. Nokia “e-mail” part 3
  4. Nokia “e-mail” part 4
  5. Nokia “e-mail” part 5

A word about the fonts. These are not my default settings. They are controlled by Nokia, on the assumption that 9px Arial is universally legible and attractive.

A word about the layout: I can reconfigure it by changing the width of my e-mail client’s message window, but no matter how I play with the width, I never get the layout the sender intended.

Nokia is trying to cram a bad web page—the kind of web page that is all graphics and almost no textual content—into a container that can’t hold it. It’s like pouring wine into a sieve. I’m not saying the graphic designers who created this message lack talent; from what I can tell, they are gifted indeed, and able to do nice work under what must be harsh production deadlines.

I’m not saying the layout is broken for everyone, or that there couldn’t possibly be an MF Doom fan who also digs Fall Out Boy. Clearly the layout must work correctly in some applications; doubtless, too, there must be some users who enjoy getting craploads of musician photos in their e-mail in-box. Nokia wouldn’t do this if it didn’t work for somebody. Responding to this post by saying, “Funny, it looks okay in my e-mail client” will miss the point that e-mail, as a medium, really doesn’t want to carry all this freight.

Related posts

Eight points for better e-mail relationships

Okay, so under the right circumstances, when people have requested it, e-mail can be a platform for design. Here are eight ways to make it work better (and avoid pissing off people who hate HTML mail).

E-mail is not a platform for design

ASCII means never having to say you’re sorry.

[tags]HTML mail, e-mail, marketing, internet marketing, design[/tags]

Eight points for better e-mail relationships

Campaign Monitor has taken me to task, and I find it hard to dispute their primary contention:

To say as a blanket statement that HTML email impedes communication is an extraordinary generalisation. There are many times when a well designed, and well laid out HTML email can be a lot clearer, easier to scan and overall better experience than the equivalent in plain text.

They’re got a point. Having read and considered Campaign Monitor’s comment and other sensible responses to my 8 June post, I agree that my brush was too broad.

A few well-designed, well-considered, communicating visual elements, in the context of a well-written, time-respecting, communicating HTML e-mail message, sent only to people who have asked to receive it, and formatted to work across applications and platforms, can indeed enhance communication.

Yet unsolicited mail, as all internet users know, makes it hard to use e-mail to communicate with friends, family, and work mates. Trying to defeat spam, we miss messages from business partners and loved ones. Add unsolicited graphics and broken formatting to that mix; send tons of it to a business person who is trying to check e-mail while out of the office, and you have a recipe for road rage on the information superhighway.

Perhaps reasonable people could agree to the eight notions put forward below.

Note: As in my previous post, I’m about to preach to the choir. Designers reading my site and using Campaign Monitor or other fine mail services (such as Deck advertiser MailChimp, cough) already know and practice ’most everything I’m about to recommend. The following is not a pledge. Pledges don’t work. People don’t change their behavior or business practices because someone with a blog asks them to be nice. Okay? So this is not directed at my readers or Campaign Monitor’s customers, who, I believe, will agree:

  1. Unsolicited HTML mail (like unsolicited mail generally) is an abuse. Send HTML formatted mails only to those who’ve opted in. Always offer a text mail version.
  2. Consider making text mail the default, and HTML mail the optional opt-in. Typically, where choice is provided, the HTML option is checked by default. Many users—because they assume the experts who created the web service are looking out for their best interests—don’t change defaults. This doesn’t mean they all actually want HTML mail. If the default switches to text, then you can be reasonably sure that those who opted for HTML mail probably want it.
  3. On your website, provide a sample of your HTML newsletter so people can judge for themselves if it’s something they want to receive.
  4. As in all design, consider every element before adding it. Remove everything that does not help you communicate.
  5. Test. I can’t count the number of banks, e-commerce and travel services that send me HTML-formatted transaction records, receipts, itineraries, and other jim-jams that do not work in my mail platform. These businesses never offer a plain-text version, let alone an opt-in choice with a test link to see if I like what they have to offer and verify that my mail client likes it, too. Broken mail doesn’t win friends and influence customers (except to change vendors). I am likelier to switch travel services than e-mail clients.
  6. Never send bulk e-mail to a list of people who haven’t agreed to receive messages from you. (This, of course, will never happen, but it belongs in the list anyway.)
  7. E-mail blaster product providers, please offer a streamlined option for those who choose to send their subscribers text-only. Don’t make us design HTML mail templates we have no intention of using, and jump through hoops to make sure our users never see the dummy HTML mail format you asked us to create. (Not directed at any company in particular; suggested as a product differentiator slash best practice.)
  8. Learn how HTML mail works (or doesn’t) across as many platforms as possible, and work with the manufacturers to improve support for web standards. This is not my job. I did my job where web standards are concerned (you’re welcome!), and turned over The Web Standards Project to a new generation of leadership. And as I never send HTML formatted mails, not only is it not my job, I wouldn’t even be qualified to do it. But standardistas who are compelled by their clients to create HTML mails (or who choose to do so) are gently urged to do their part in diminishing wasted bandwidth and enhancing semantics.

Related posts

When is e-mail like a bad website?

Nokia sent a friend an HTML e-mail message. I’ve broken it into five screen shots, because it won’t fit on one. E-mail, as a medium, really doesn’t want to carry all this freight.

E-mail is not a platform for design

ASCII means never having to say you’re sorry.

[tags]HTML mail, e-mail, marketing, internet marketing, design[/tags]

E-mail is not a platform for design

All these years of internet use later, HTML mail still sucks. You may think I mean “HTML mail doesn’t work properly in some e-mail clients.” And that statement is certainly true. Companies spend hours crafting layouts that may not work in Eudora or Gmail, or may no longer work in Outlook.

Even in programs that support the crap code used to create these layouts, all that hard visual work will go unseen if the user has unchecked “View HTML Mail” in their preferences.

As for CSS, it is partially supported in some e-mail applications and in web apps like Gmail, but only if you author in nonsemantic table layouts and bandwidth-wasting inline CSS. Which is like using a broken refrigerator to store food at room temperature.

But when I say HTML mail still sucks, I don’t mean it sucks because support for design in e-mail today is like support for standards in web browsers in 1998.

I mean it sucks because nobody needs it. It impedes rather than aids communication.

E-mail was invented so people could quickly exchange text messages over fast or slow or really slow connections, using simple, non-processor-intensive applications on any computing platform, or using phones, or hand-held devices, or almost anything else that can display text and permits typing.

That’s what e-mail is for. That’s why it’s great.

E-mail is not a platform for design. Unlike the web, which also started as an exchange medium for text messages but which benefited from the inclusion of images and other media, e-mail works best when used for its original purpose, as the most basic of content exchange systems.

“Designed” e-mail is just a slightly more polished version of those messages your uncle sends you. Your uncle thinks 18pt bright red Comic Sans looks great, so he sends e-mail messages formatted that way. You cluck your tongue, or sigh, or run de-formatting scripts on every message you receive from him. When your uncle is the “designer,” you “get” why styled mail sucks. It sucks just as much when you design it, even if it looks better than your uncle’s work in the two e-mail programs that support it correctly.

Even though it doesn’t work right in many e-mail applications, and even though many users dislike it, HTML appeals to clients because it’s another place to stick their logo. And it appeals to the kind of designer who thinks everything, even a bullet hurtling toward his own skull, would improve if decorated. I hate that kind of designer almost as much as I hate people who hate design. That kind of designer gives all designers a bad name, and is chiefly responsible for the slightly amused contempt with which many business people view designers, art directors, and “creative” people generally.

Say it with me: HTML is for websites. CSS is for websites. GIFs and JPEGs are for websites.

ASCII means never having to say you’re sorry.

Discussion closed

The conversation has moved on. Feel free to contribute to the follow-up posts.

Related posts

When is e-mail like a bad website?

Nokia sent a friend an HTML e-mail message. I’ve broken it into five screen shots, because it won’t fit on one. E-mail, as a medium, really doesn’t want to carry all this freight.

Eight points for better e-mail relationships

Okay, so under the right circumstances, when people have requested it, e-mail can be a platform for design. Here are eight ways to make it work better (and avoid pissing off people who hate HTML mail).

[tags]HTML mail, e-mail, marketing, internet marketing, design[/tags]