At the Crossroads of Email and UX: Five Optimization Factors Beyond Design


The Nielsen Norman defines User Experience (UX) as “encompassing all aspects of the end-user's interaction with the company, its services, and its products”. They sum it up with this kernel of wisdom: “the first requirement for an exemplary user experience is to meet the exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother”.

While UX is an across-the board-discipline applicable to both product and systems design, those of us in digital marketing are most familiar with it relative to online (web and mobile) site usability. Too often email is entirely left out of UX considerations, and this is a huge oversight. With email an integral pre- and post-conversion stop on countless web and mobile customer journeys, it deserves a seat at the UX table.

As yourself: Is the user experience of your email marketing campaigns “seamlessly merged” with where emails lead? Or the interactions that trigger them in the first place?

Last week I came across yet another instance of a major global brand that recently underwent a complete site overhaul. They agonized for months on UI, architecture and organization, blog integration, content blocks, modules and matrices, and so on. Nowhere in the process was email marketing considered. Now there’s an overabundance of content on the site with no clear strategy for how, if, and when to integrate it in email campaigns, nor any thought to what audiences actually want.

In short: the experience of how their email subscribers will have access to and consume that treasure trove of site content is a mystery – and total afterthought.

Including email in the UX optimization process promotes better open and click rates and boosts subscriber engagement. It’s not about optimizing web site User Interface, such as re-designing tabs or browsing improvements. Email-based UX is part of your customers’ overall brand experience.

Yes, a positive inbox experience rests largely on good email design and proper rendering which most of us already know the basics of (i.e., subject line optimization, mobile-responsiveness, CTA button placement, color choices, etc.). But if you want truly experience-driven email marketing, it’s about more than design UX. It’s time for a bigger-picture view.

Here are five email UX considerations beyond design that you can’t afford to ignore:

  1. Navigation
  2. Easily scanning, skimming and getting around your email messages is one thing, but go beyond in-message navigation to consider meta-navigation: how does your email seamlessly connect to your web site, mobile apps, social media, and even other destinations like calendars (“add to calendar” links, for example)? Is your site navigation reflected in your email template? Does it need to be?

    Get back to basics! What are you asking people to do and how easy are you making it for them to do it from within your email messages? How easily do follow-up emails make it for people to complete actions they’ve already started? How does email streamline or accelerate the customer journey?

  3. Segmentation, Personalization & Automation
  4. Modern email marketing is data-driven. Segmenting subscribers into different groups or personas enables the delivery of more specific content which naturally improves relevancy and correlates to better user experience. Language, structure and layout should be segment- if not subscriber-specific. Today’s ability to dynamically-customize content by subscriber attributes, behavior, place, and time only adds to a personalized, higher-value experience.

    Automation enhances email UX by providing messages and content in tune with interests, requests and expectations. The wide swath of familiar automated email campaigns - from browse and cart abandonment, to back-in-stock, to lead nurturing, to reminders and alerts, to welcome/onboarding campaigns - all take the big picture into account by acknowledging a subscriber’s place on the customer journey and streamlining it for them. Thinking beyond email, recognize existing customers and account holders when they click from email to your site or mobile app by making log-in and transaction seamless; remembering and recognizing your most valued audiences goes a long way.

  5. Choice & Control
  6. With channels and message volume both on the rise subscribers want choice and control over message content, frequency and type more than ever before. It’s easy to understand why and we’re all feespanling it: sheer overwhelm!

    This means any change or update of their profile data and preferences should be near effortless, and that profile/preferences centers need to continually evolve and be synchronized across channels. Ensure links to log-in, account and preferences centers from within email messages are taking subscribers straight to the proper destinations. The same goes for opt-out links or social share icons. Remember, seamless transitions are the name of the game in good UX, even if it means having an extra link or two in an email (i.e., link to log-in page separate from a link to update preferences) template or footer.

  7. Design Consistency
  8. Think of email as part of a multichannel marketing continuum. Complicating things is the fact that both online and offline channels may be in play. But even if you’re just considering your digital ecosystem, it’s paramount to implement consistent branding across all channels so that overly-stimulated subscribers recognize you at a glance and feel a familiar landscape. With a consistent look and feel, subscribers will be comfortable with your brand context and recognize how to get around your territory. Design consistency may requires intentional redundancy of graphical elements, such as logo or typography, to help users easily orient themselves in the marketing “multiverse”.  Your challenge? Check all parts of your brand “territory” for design consistency and establish procedures for ensuring that when updates happen, changes flow through the entire landscape

  9.  The Omni-Channel Journey
  10. Channel proliferation has resulted in increasingly complex customer journeys and purchase consideration paths. In today’s omni-channel world, we can’t fathom all the possible pathways subscribers and customers will take when engaging or transacting. As you’re designing, concepting or dissecting customer journeys, thing “neural net” vs. straight line or even curvy path. Some customers will make leaps and take shortcuts you can’t anticipate or didn’t know were possible, and email may play a role in aiding or influencing their “quantum leaps”.

I’ve highlighted five factors to help you optimize email’s role in overall user experience. Certainly there are more, but this should gave you a solid start for evaluating the impact your email programs are having on overall UX.

Nielsen Norman sums it up well: “In order to achieve high-quality user experience in a company's offerings there must be a seamless merging of the services of multiple disciplines, including engineering, marketing, graphical and industrial design, and interface design.”

Today online channels should be interconnected and interdependent. With email as the “connective tissue” of the digital marketing ecosystem, it plays a more important role in positive UX than it’s often given credit. Exclude it at your peril.

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