Increasing Usability for E-mail Newsletters

• 9 minutes READ

E-mail marketing has been very popular in the past ten years and it still is, most likely because of its relatively reduced costs, low amount of work required and quite large potential audience. E-mail marketing is a direct way of sending commercial messages to a group of people by using the e-mail as the main and only channel.

E-mail newsletters are not always sent because a company needs to sell a product, sell ads or request donations, but is sometimes meant to build loyalty, trust and brand awareness.

There are many usability guidelines for e-mail marketers to follow and in the past couple of years the number of guidelines has actually increased, as users request more and more from providers and tend to ignore poorly designed layouts.

Time is also an important matter today; more important than it was ten years ago. Users have to be able to find information within less than three clicks. They will not spend too much time reading a large chunk of text – it has to be short and concise. Images only used for the sake of filling space are ignored. And on top of all these, e-mail is today quite a mainstream communication channel, alongside calls and messaging. Different studies show that a normal user has in his inbox with up to 350% more unread e-mails than four years ago.

Subject line

This shows users fall behind in keeping up with reading their e-mails and the old guideline of having a clear subject line is still one of the most important, if not the most important.

When users scroll through their 49 unread e-mails and try to decide which ones are the most important, it is very unlikely for your newsletter to be chosen unless you really come up with a concise and attractive subject line. Many users, with me being one of them, are so reluctant at reading all these spammy e-mails, that I don’t even click on them to see a preview. I delete them right away. Rarely an e-mail gets my attention and if it happens, it is because the sender is someone worthy of my time.

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What can you learn from here? Well, in order to deliver a successful e-mail newsletter, the subject line won’t be enough. It is a big deal, but it is just the first contact with potential readers. It doesn’t mean people will click on it.

E-mail marketing: when?

In my opinion the key to e-mail marketing is branding. If you have a powerful brand, people will probably give you the benefit of the doubt and will read your newsletter once or twice. If it is good, they will probably keep it in their inbox to read when they have time. If it is bad, they will mark it as junk – and there is a potential customer you will never get back.

E-mail marketing is not to be done though when you are a small company. Don’t get me wrong, you are able to do whatever you want. For all I care you can send hundreds of e-mails per day. But you will waste your time regardless of how good your e-mail newsletter is from design and usability standpoint. In this fast-paced world, branding is still one of the very few concepts that will make people slow down and listen.

Let’s say you have an e-mail in the Inbox from someone called WatchMaker (totally random name) and from Pepsi, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines or Amazon. Which one are you more inclined to read first (or at all?). This simple example emphasizes how important brand awareness is when sending an e-mail newsletter.


If you have a newly founded company that nobody knows about, don’t spend money on e-mail marketing, because it will most likely not pay off. You might argue that creating and sending an e-mail newsletter is not expensive and should be done anyway due to its price, but the problem with unknown companies that send e-mail newsletters is that they are more often than not marked as spam. Sending such an e-mail will most of the time, instead of raising awareness over your brand or helping you sell your product, hurt your brand. People don’t even need to read the e-mail. They just see you company name and it gets stuck in their head as a negative term or a spammy company they don’t want to have anything to do with.

Therefore I believe e-mail newsletters can make and break a company, so be careful when using it. Be aware of where you stand and how powerful your brand is and only after this start sending out newsletters.

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Scanning, not reading

Different researches notice how users are today better at scanning their inbox and especially newsletters instead of reading them word-by-word. This means people will only briefly take a look at your site and they might or might not catch the most important element. Therefore you need to be better than others at emphasizing what really is important in your newsletter.

Sometimes users don’t even scan throughout the whole newsletter, with most of the time only glancing at content and images for a few seconds, then moving away. Introductions and conclusions are also something you can leave out. Less and less people spend time reading them not only in e-mail newsletters, but also in articles like this one. You will often notice in my articles how short the introduction and conclusions are – and sometimes the content is not even that important. This is because people just want to jump to the point.

In order to keep the users interested, you need to emphasize the important elements in your newsletter. You can do this by making them bigger or more powerful visually by adding an image. The example below from Apple is a good one. The newsletter was sent out back in 2010 when the first iPad was released and it was a big hit – it was most definitely the cherry on top of the other products they had in that period. It was what they needed to sell. It was what they emphasized.


If you try to look at how Apple and its premium retailers generally design their newsletters, you will notice a pattern of using less text and more images for visual impact. Their newsletters are straight to the point and don’t waste the reader’s time.

Moreover, they don’t need to be read word-by-word. If we look at the example above, you know what the whole newsletter is about in less than five seconds. The message is: Buy the iPad, we have accessories for it, we can help you with the setup and we also have the great Apple Store. That’s the message sent by the newsletter in a matter of seconds. Now that’s effective!

Responsive (again)

I feel like there is no article I write without having a section on responsive layouts. It is extremely important your newsletter fits every device it is showed on.

According to very recent statistics (reference at the bottom), 90% of smartphone owners have the e-mails on their desktop computers synced with their portable devices. More e-mails are read from portable devices than on desktop nowadays. Adobe recently published a staggering result to some of their statistics: 79% of the smartphone owners use their devices to read e-mail – that’s more than the percent of people using their smartphones for calling. Isn’t that amazing?


This should emphasize how important it is for people to be able to comfortably read their e-mails on their smartphones. Adaptive layouts should always be developed instead of full-size layouts working properly only on desktop computers. One of my favourite UX designers, former Yahoo! design architect Luke Wroblewski, wrote a book called “Mobile First” (reference at the bottom), in which he teaches designers to become better at creating solutions for mobile and focus more on interfaces for portable devices. If you have no idea where to start from, Luke’s book is amazing.

When asked why do they read e-mails from their smartphones, answers ranked as follows:

  1. Interesting subject line (38%)
  2. Help me keep on top of my mails (35%)
  3. Screen them to read later on desktop (33%)
  4. It is a company I like receiving mails from (30%)
  5. Keen to read what it says (25%)
  6. Not sure who they are from (23%)
  7. Read them to pass the time (23%)
  8. Saves time (23%)

As you can see, subject line ranks as the most important, while many of them actually save them to read later on their desktop devices. Branding, as mentioned earlier, is very important, as number four shows that 30% of the people questioned read e-mails because they like the sender.

“More than one-half (56%) of US consumers who have made at least one purchase using their smartphone have done so in response to a marketing message delivered via mobile e-mail – ExactTarget “Mobile Dependence” (2011).”

This clearly shows how important it is for e-mails to be responsive. People even bought advertised products using their smartphones if they were able to read the e-mail properly.

If that wasn’t enough, then remember that almost 70% of the people who get e-mails on their phone delete them if they don’t look good. Considering all these, you can probably see for yourself how important it is to design your e-mail newsletter with a responsive layout.

Keep video out

Some companies include video in their newsletters, but I do not advise you to do it, as people don’t expect it. When they see e-mails, they expect text, maybe images, but not anything else. Video is something that will surprise them and is not something many of them will be eager to see.

Don’t get me wrong, video is amazing. I worked with video for some time and even produced for different companies, so I love it, but its place is not in e-mail newsletters. Many people, as we already saw, read their e-mails on the go, and not all of them are on wireless connections. Some of them are on their limited broadband subscription and loading video would be something not many are likely to do. Several companies turn off their subscribers’ internet access if they go over some limits, while others just start billing them for every extra MB used. So be careful about introducing video in an e-mail newsletter; I recommend you to stick with text and images.


Why I think typography is very important in newsletters is because it differentiates you from others. People want to look at beautiful typography, even if they do it unconsciously. Most e-mails are sent with a default font and color, because nobody cares. But you do!

I am not asking you to create a marvelous piece of typography that will go into the hall of fame. But look a bit more into details, into line height, headings, emphasizing what is more important and so on.


An e-mail newsletter can have the same effect as a site and many times is understood by users as a site, with small differences. So why put so much emphasis on typography when creating a website, but not when creating a newsletter? I never understood why many e-mail newsletters are sent with plain text – it is simply so annoying especially when designers know what effect good typography can have over readers. Don’t be ignorant, make the newsletter look at least decent. Make it look like something you would like to stare at yourself.

E-mail marketing: how?

In my opinion, e-mail newsletters should be something you think of on long-term. They can have such good effects in several cases, such as when you send such an e-mail newsletter only because you just want to touch base with your customers. In case your appearance on the internet is not so large as the one of other companies, sending an e-mail newsletter from time to time would be a good way to remind your subscribers (or others) about the existence of your company. They might not have enough money to buy a certain product right then, but only the fact that you pinged them adds a specific value of itself.

Raising awareness over the fact that you “are still around” is sometimes more important than selling a few products. Moreover, keeping subscribers informed about new products you have and about the latest offers is a positive move because when they will want to buy a certain product that you have, they will most likely remember you when researching for the product online.

Keep in mind that e-mail newsletters do not always have to sell in order to be a success. Today the business world is much more complicated than just “sell your product”. Today is more about customer happiness, building relationships, raising awareness over your brand and selling a product – but doing it well rather than doing it in large quantities.


In my opinion e-mail newsletters can be seen from three different perspectives. If you are a small company, it is more probably a no-go and not something you should invest time and money into – there are other places where you can do that for now. If you are already established and have a decent number of customers, e-mails newsletters can be used for building customer relationships and raising awareness over your brand. In case you are a major player in the industry you compete in, then e-mail newsletters can be useful for both branding and selling.

However, I believe the purposes mentioned above can be better reached (not necessarily quicker) than with e-mail newsletters, especially branding. But about that, maybe another time…

Christian Vasile

Christian Vasile is an enthusiastic Romanian web designer currently living in Denmark. You can follow him on Twitter at @christianvasile or visit his web portfolio at

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