I had my attention drawn recently to Jakob Nielsen’s

latest post

on Alertbox, entitled ‘Transactional Email and Confirmation Messages’.

In his article, Nielsen reports on his findings from a research study into the usability of confirmation and basic trigger emails. 

His conclusion is that, from a usability perspective, they are, in general, shocking (my word, not his!). 

Nielsen raises some fantastic points, and I wanted to harp on about the five key ones from my perspective.

1) “Most companies don’t seem to view email creation as a user interface activity”.

No, they don’t. Most email marketing organisations treat email design as an extension of the design for either their above-the-line activity or, more usually, their direct marketing work. They get their design agency to do it because ‘they do design’.

RedEye first dabbled in design in order to fix the flagrant technical mistakes that agencies made in email construction, but in the last 18 months it has become our fastest growing area.

Simply put, good email design can increase customer engagement, as measured through open and click rates, and for any form of email, let alone triggers.

2) “Email design often seems to be a side effect of the software implementation”.

This is mainly due to the fact that confirmation and trigger emails are a built-in software facility in most CMS systems.

They are text only, and ignore the brand and customer in how they are structured. For that reason, marketing teams seem to ignore them and class them as ‘technical’.

3) “Processing Email [for the consumer] is stressful”.

Email has become both essential but also the bain of my own life, so I have to agree. Jakob Nielsen’s point here is absolutely spot on - make email a pleasure for the recipient and you will stand out in the inbox.

Indeed, Nielsen further states that “email lives in an ever-more hostile environment”. Creativity, quality and usability can help email stand out.

4) Brevity. Emails are too long. Simple short messages are the best, especially when you are asking for money rather than delivering content.

Give the recipient what they want, or at least make the message you want to get across to the individual clear and uncluttered.

Of course, this is predicated on the basis that the email marketing organisation has considered what the subscriber wants, rather than what they want to give them.

5) “Email should enhance a company’s reputation for customer service… Transactional email builds trust… poorly designed email can erode a company’s credibility”.

This, for me, is the stand out message here. But it is not like we haven’t proved this fact before.

Why is 99% of email now image-carrying html? Because people prefer to read it that way. Well, why do organisations stop there?

Nielsen ends his article with a simple statement:

“Email is a user interface. Design your messages accordingly, aiming for maximum usability”.

But in his usual style he veers clear of spelling out exactly why, maybe assuming that we will all get it. But, from experience, I am convinced that it must be spelt out and indeed shouted at some people! 

Email usability is essential because it is key in increasing engagement. So what? Increased engagement, put simply, makes customers happier and makes email marketers more money. 

What bigger reasons do you need?   

Matthew Kelleher is Commercial Director at RedEye.