Transactional emails can be useful for building trust and improving customer service, but many are not as user-friendly as they could be.

That's Jakob Nielsen's verdict in his latest Alertbox post, in which he details tests of a range of emails; customer service responses and order confirmations.

According to Nielsen, while website usability has improved in recent years, the same cannot be said for email:

"Transactional messages continue to exhibit the same amount of usability problems as we saw 5 years ago: vague subject lines continue to dominate, and the body text of many messages continues to be too long."

Nielsen outlines three goals for transactional emails - avoiding the spam trap, enhancing customer service and trust in the company, and avoiding needless calls by answering common queries.

Here are a few of his tips:  

  • 'From' field

    Internet users get plenty of email, so they are naturally cautious about what they will open. This means that they need to recognise the sender before they will click on a message. Make sure the company / brand name is in the from field.

  • Subject lines

    Also crucial, subject lines need to tell the user that it is not an advertising email in a succinct way. Therefore subject lines like 'order has shipped' work well, while 'important information' is too vague.

  • Don't send too many emails

    Customers like to be kept up to date with the progress of their orders, but still don't need too many emails. Nielsen recommends two: a confirmation of the transaction, and a shipping confirmation with tracking info. No need to send any more than this.

  • Keep to the point

    Start emails with the information customers are looking for. For instance, describe what was ordered and give tracking info in a confirmation email so that it can be easily scanned. Information about how to make contact in case of problems is also useful.

Patrick Oak blogged about this issue a couple of days ago, after Dell failed to send him a confirmation email after he placed an order on their website.

Not even confirming that an order has been placed will often have customers thinking that something has gone wrong, and will probably force a them to call in or email about it.

Keeping customers in the loop can therefore reduce the number of unnecessary inbound customer service queries.

Related research:
Email Marketing Platforms Buyer's Guide 2008
Email Marketing Roundtable Briefing - March 2008

Related articles:
69% of companies do not email checkout dropouts
Oddbins fails with email marketing strategy

Graham Charlton

Published 22 October, 2008 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is editor in chief at SaleCycle, and former editor at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin.

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Comments (1)


Will -

Good points by the man, but hardly rocket science!
Still, if he's done a survey I guess it'll be a fair reflection.
More fool those who don't think about these key comms.

After all, an order confirm, revised or complete email will stay in an inbox after the order is made and often long after it's an easy way of customers to get back to your site when they want to reorder...without clicking on your adwords in google and costing you money...we get a lot of traffic this way (we track it) as it makes perfect sense.

almost 10 years ago

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