The most broken part of your user experience is email / by Gavin Lau

Email isn’t broken but the companies that abuse it are

The UX of email sours customer relationships. I subscribe to nearly 300 email newsletters. Some I receive by signing up to get deals, offers, and updates, explicitly. Others I’ve been opted into after creating an account somewhere, making a purchase, or giving my email address to a company who then sold or shared the information with “trusted partners.”

Looking through these thousands of messages, it’s easy to see that email is the most broken part of any product’s experience.

I refresh my inbox for relevant things: shipping confirmations, receipts, personal correspondence, etc. Marketing emails get tucked in between all of the stuff I’m excited to see. I don’t mean to say all of these newsletters are negative; in fact I’m regularly excited to receive a handful of relevant things like my Medium digest. Whole companies have been built around newsletters that people want. But those newsletters arrive because I’ve chosen to receive them based on the value they provide. The rest fall into one of two categories: poorly designed or spammy.

Spammy emails are so named because of the content they contain, who they’re from, or how they arrive. I’m going to focus on this type of email here and leave the design limitations for another discussion.

Three things that make emails a poor contributor to your product’s overall experience. Email can benefit from toning some practices down while making an effort to care about parts that are currently neglected. We should take the same considerations into account when designing email communications as we do when designing the rest of the product.


Automatic opt-in to everything

A ton of websites, mostly social, sign you up for all emails by default. Some have a slimmed down email “recommended” opt-in, but still don’t make emails apart of the on-boarding process. Email has the power to be incredibly personal. Abusing the subscriber-company relationship foments immediate distrust. Imagine making a friend at a conference. That friend asks for your phone number. You think this person might be someone you could hang out with in the future, so you oblige. Then the next day this friend starts sending you updates of everything she’s doing. “Hey some people who are also friends with me just liked a bunch of Kardashian pics,” or “Hey, I’m speaking at this, this, and this event next week you should come or share with your friends that I’m speaking!”

Most services can eliminate this frustration by asking the user up front about his or her preferences. NewCo does this quite well, asking explicitly if/how the user wants to receive email communications when signing up while giving users clear language around intentions and frequency, as well as a sample email.

Simple, concise signup

Simple, concise signup

Retail brands are often the worst offenders, asking cryptically for an email at a retail store checkout and then signing the customer up for spam. On the other hand, retail brands tend to be brands that customers want to receive ads from. People are interested in getting sale notifications and coupons. These brands can improve the experience by being up front about what the email address will be used for and by giving the customer a simple way to customize the communications to their preferences. This can be done as part of a journey of introductory emails, by using the data the company already has on purchase history and frequency, or ideally, a combination of the two.


Blasting your users/customers/prospects

How much communication is there between marketing, sales, and product regarding email in your company? Emails are not display ads, print ads, or billboards. These are 1:1 messages delivered to people under the banner of your brand. To your user, these emails come from the same place as all your transactional messages (password resets, receipts, notifications, etc.). If members of your team use the term “e-blast” or simply “blast” to refer to email messages or the act of sending such messages, your users are not lacking the respect they need.


When was the last time you received a valuable email from a company?

Fitbit is one of the few products that sends out super-relevant emails. Email is ingrained into the vision of their product, sometimes even as a feature. The particular device I use doesn’t have on onscreen battery meter. The only way to know the status of a battery is to open the app, sync the device with the app, and wait to see if it’s low or not. Fitbit takes care of this through push notifications, but also through email to let me know when the battery needs recharging. Similarly, achievements, like badges, arrive in the inbox, motivating me to keep working towards my goals. They use the data I provide them wisely to show me relevant activities nearby as well.

Earning badges and getting local

Earning badges and getting local

These are valuable messages. Providing something useful or making the experience of your product simpler, faster, or better, makes your users happier and more willing to spend time with your brand. Using email primarily as a tool to push sales hinders a seamless user experience. The best way to tell the difference between the two is to listen to your users. Why are they primarily signing up for emails? When do people stop engaging with emails? Are the people sending the emails getting the results they want? If so, are these results achieved from a minority of users? How are other users affected? Remember, spammers keep sending because they only need a very tiny fraction of people to give them money, but annoy and spam millions of others in the process.

Walgreens uses the one thing it knows about me (I wear contacts) and uses it to spam me with 20% off contact offers.

Often, business needs require that you send marketing messages. Even Fitbit sends these. Start by building inbox equity.

Inbox equity grows when you build a stable, respectful relationship with your users. Sending relevant, timely messages communicates your interest in your user's’ feelings and needs. This relationship can counteract the negative impact of a marketing message and can even give it a positive twist. Users who know a brand is looking out for them rather than trying to extract delicious cash from their pockets may look at a sale notification or free shipping offer as a personal benefit, something to get excited about. Isn’t that exactly the emotion those types of offers aim to elicit?


No way out

No matter how useful all of your emails are, people are still going to want to stop receiving them.

Whether the user changes his or her mind, doesn’t remember or never actually signed up for communications, users who want a way out should have one. You’re not getting value from continuing to send to people who are annoyed, angry, or disinterested. Worse, it contributes to graymail — the gelatinous mass of unwanted, spammy but technically legal email that makes up the majority of your users’ inboxes.

No matter the reason, if a user wants to get away from your emails, it should be quite simple to adjust the settings. The Bernie Sanders campaign did an okay job of this in-message, providing a quick way to receive fewer emails without having to sort through a confusing and archaic preference center.

However, those emails contain the massive chunk of text that nobody reads ever that provides a technically legal but really unfriendly way to unsubscribe or access preferences. These blocks provide valuable tools and yet they appear in the least user-friendly format possible: a tiny paragraph. People hate to read long blocks of boring-looking text, especially when they’re angry. This knowledge is of course why unsubscribe links get shoved into these sorts of footers. The people who decided to hide those links are the people who “blast” their customers for cash and want to trick people into staying on their email lists.

Make it simple to unsubscribe. You should be sending one or more emails to on-board your users to your email experience. Make fine-tuning these communications a key part of that on-boarding process. This process can be done in your app, on your website, in person, or via these emails. Make some large buttons letting a user choose with 1-click how often she wants to receive messages, if he prefers getting emails about yoga or cycling, if she wants to get sale reminders or just account critical emails. Similarly, add a big button at the bottom of every email letting a user adjust preferences or stop emails altogether. The user shouldn’t have to login to an account to take any of these actions either. Most email service providers allow these types of preferences to be updated based on the user’s email address alone, and communications handled in-house through your product can be configured likewise.


Whole user experience

Companies place an ever-increasing amount of focus on providing a seamless, enjoyable experience for their users. Product design teams create modern, accessible interfaces and conduct usability tests. They make products and experiences that are enjoyable and intensely crafted. Too often, email is left out of those design processes or quickly tacked on as an afterthought. Email is intensely personal and incredibly powerful. It’s more than just a communication channel: it’s an extension of your product.

Let’s focus on the whole user experience. Don’t stop at the app.