Design Better Email Campaigns Using a Human-Centered Approach

Human Centered Design is no new concept to practitioners of User Experience and Human Computer Interaction. There are dozens of blogs discussing the benefits, and necessity, of incorporating user experience protocols into email marketing initiatives; and some are extremely helpful. Unfortunately, the term user experience has been used as a cliché, catch-all, overarching solution to a complex problem. Where the overall user experience of email marketing is essential to a company’s thriving marketing endeavors, human-centered design is the impetus of user experience.

For decades, the computing industry has recognized the need to focus the development of interactive systems around the human-operator’s abilities, needs, and motivations. Over 17 years ago, the International Organization for Standardization instantiated ISO 13407:1999 to define human-centered design processes for interactive systems (later updated/reissued as ISO 9241–210:2010 in 2010, and revised in 2015). With the increased focus on segmentation, personalization, and behavior-based messaging, emails are solidifying their presence as an interactive system now more than ever; especially in eCommerce.

Unfortunately, web standards in email html have stagnated, and so have corresponding design methodologies. With little support for styling in messages, and providers like Gmail stripping out head, body, and style tags in emails, it is increasingly difficult to personalize the user’s experience. Conversely, the definition of human-centered design has matured with time and exercise while the concept of interactive systems has not adequately integrated email; the most used digital communication medium.

Incorporating human-centered design into email marketing endeavors can be a game-changer, but will require a shift from traditional thought. Here are a few key points to take into consideration:

Participatory design is the practice of involving all people that touch, or are touched, by a system, to participate in the development of said system. The act of involving many-to-all subsets of stakeholders ensures the experience addresses the unique needs of each group. Understanding what customer’s want from a company is important, but understanding what they can stomach from the short time you have with them in an email is crucial to ensuring maximal value within that first 8 seconds. With the amount of open/click/conversion data collected by email marketers, it’s incredibly easy to assemble a focus group of the most-to-least engaged subscribers and ask for their thoughts (don’t forget to sweeten the deal by including a nice discount for their time). Run ideas by them to keep the incentives grounded, and the content meaningful.

While participatory design is the act of bringing stakeholders into the design process, don’t hesitate to participate in the designs of other’s as a customer! Explore consuming other vendors to identify what you do-and-don’t like as a consumer; remember, to be good designers, we must first be good users.

Affordances, Signifiers, and Constraints are the three most fundamental principles of human-centered design. Designing emails to enhance these HCD traits will benefit the user’s experience by emphasizing the user’s needs and motivations.

An affordance is the inherent manifestation of an object’s capabilities as a property of it’s system. Affordances exist in both the physical and virtual space; however, due to constraints on email development, affordances are a bit more restricted. The main ones that come to mind are to click, take a screenshot, scroll down/up, and copy (think coupon code).

Notice the “Book Now” button on the left entices the user to click far less than the “Learn More” button o the right.

A signifier is the cue that communicates an action to take upon an object in a system. This can manifest itself in email as a button that looks clickable, right angles at corners of an object to entice a screenshot, arrows/chevrons to suggest a scroll to view items below the fold, and shaded text to highlight/copy. Usually a signifier is used to indicate the action that an object affords, therefore pairing signifiers with affordances in most cases.

A constraint is an intentionally-designed hindrance of use to guide the user towards an object’s intended purpose. Due to the flat nature of html email-design, many of these constraints are placed via the email provider (or are simply nonexistent). Designer’s can force a screenshot of a coupon code by applying it as an image — thus forcing the user to save the image, or take a screenshot. Another popular example of a constraint in email marketing is the incorporation of a QR code (or barcode). By opting not to link the QR code to a hyperlink, you ensure they user acts upon the QR code as it was intended; to be scanned.

Testing and Feedback mechanisms, deeply engrained in the design process, allow a grounded, and iterative approach to creating that highly-engaging email. By testing on the most-and-least engaged openers, you have an opportunity to explore the needs of each group, and iteratively change your design to address the respective group. If there’s a drop in open rates from the most loyal fans, but an increase from the least-engaged fans, what emerges is a template of design for future re-engagement campaigns. A/B testing is great for ad hoc human-centered testing, but HCD starts before this; before declaring a winner from 20% of your base. It happens during the design of your email. Gathering feedback from clients is too often overlooked by many marketers. Whether it’s ego or ignorance, many tend to think they need to interpret intent and motivation from open rates; go straight to the horse’s mouth and find out what your clients want to see! The intuitive ability to identify trends from empirical open rates is crucial for a marketer; but not for design — rely on the data.

Email design is a craft that requires an elementary level of skill to implement, but an extremely tenured, and professional, background to implement correctly. With an average of roughly 25% (and growing) of overall revenue being attributed to email, it’s increasingly more important for your email to stand-out and be something a user can interpret meaningfully, as designed for their needs and motivations. Incorporating human-centered design into the development of an email campaign will improve the overall experience of a user’s interaction with an email, and lead to a smooth segue into increased click-throughs and conversions.

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