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We send out system email notifications for various things. I notice that the boilerplate text and the variable body text are a little hard to distinguish from each other. I want to add a divider to set off the body copy.

What are good ASCII text dividers that will properly distinguish the section without being too visually distracting? Can you point to examples, or provide your samples? Any research already done on this?


Here is the beginning of a sample email without dividers (note, we do use HTML in our emails, we just don't use images or headers):

Hi Taj M,

Kenneth Cole Outlet Store at Jersey Gardens posted a new deal:

This Week at Kenneth Cole!

Get 50% off Entire Store*

Valid 12/22 - 12/24/2011 (Thursday - Saturday) Only *Some exclusions may apply


This is subtle, but is it too subtle?

Hi Taj M,

Kenneth Cole Outlet Store at Jersey Gardens posted a new deal:

–––––

This Week at Kenneth Cole!

Get 50% off Entire Store*

Valid 12/22 - 12/24/2011 (Thursday - Saturday) Only *Some exclusions may apply


This looks too much to me:

Hi Taj M,

Kenneth Cole Outlet Store at Jersey Gardens posted a new deal:

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

This Week at Kenneth Cole!

Get 50% off Entire Store*

Valid 12/22 - 12/24/2011 (Thursday - Saturday) Only *Some exclusions may apply

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If you're already using HTML, then why are you using ASCII dividers? A plain-text-only email client wouldn't be able to read your HTML email properly anyway. –  Lèse majesté Dec 22 '11 at 17:38
    
The thinking goes like this: newsletters have fancy headers, lots of images, pull quotes, and all kinds of design-ey elements; system messages have very little HTML, with just some bold or italics, maybe a very simple header that includes just a logo, and that's about it. System-generated messages are meant to be scanned for the meaty bits, so I want it to be clear to people when they are receiving just a system message. And I want people to stay in the habit of looking at newsletters more carefully. So, closer to plaintext (including ASCII) maintains that visual cue. –  tajmo Dec 22 '11 at 19:01
    
OK, that makes sense. But I still think you can emulate the sparse look of typical ASCII emails while still making use of some HTML elements. For instance, you could use a monotype font and keep the message very minimalist (brief, good spacing, no graphics, and use a white background and primarily a single font color). So throwing a simple single pixel light grey HR in there should still keep the aesthetic of a system message. –  Lèse majesté Dec 24 '11 at 21:39
    
Well isnt it up to you to decide if you need to add all the extra fancy stuff? Why not take the opportunity to make the system message look a little friendly? Even if it is generated you could for example add a nice and friendly headline or maybe a small, smiley face to build trust and strenghten the relationship with your custumer? Apples Siri is all system generated but people think shes kinda funny. It could still be to the point. –  Tony Bolero Dec 26 '11 at 20:00
    
Good points @tonybolero (you, too, @Lèsemajesté). I will consider what touches can be added that will make it friendlier without looking too "precious." –  tajmo Dec 28 '11 at 21:41
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2 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Add an extra line break between logically separate blocks.

Whitespace is a divider, in plain text email anything else will look ugly; you can't know the width of the client, thus you can't know how many characters to use. Any character based solution will look "hacky" at best.

A line break is always of uniform "width" and you can't be less visually distracting than nothingness.

Remember whitespace is important!

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1  
+1 Go whitespace! –  Matt Rockwell Dec 22 '11 at 18:04
    
#TeamWhitespace –  Ben Brocka Dec 22 '11 at 19:29
1  
We followed your advice. Much, much better! –  tajmo Jan 24 '12 at 18:38
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I suggest you rely on an existing standard format for divided e-mail messages.

RFC 1153: Digest Message Format (April 1990) provides that the preamble of a message "must be separated from the remainder of the message by a line of 70 hyphens followed by a blank line". Furthermore, if the remainder is made up of multiple messages, "each enclosed message must be separated from the the remainder of the digest message by a blank line before and after a line of 30 hyphens".

E-mails formatted according to this standard will display correctly, because it is widely used and therefore any problems with the format will have been corrected by now.

Obviously your application is not identical; you are not sending out digest messages. So you would not try to apply the whole standard, just use the same formatting conventions such as the horizontal rules.

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1  
This is very outdated. I haven't seen this applied in a long time. –  Matt Rockwell Dec 22 '11 at 18:58
    
The RFC 1153 standard has been the de facto standard for digest message format for more than 20 years. That doesn't make it outdated. It makes it useful. A quick review of mailing list software would set you straight on that point. Mailman, for example, supports RFC 1153. Mailman, which was written to replace Majordomo, which in turn replaced LISTSERV, is widely deployed. –  MετάEd Dec 22 '11 at 19:15
    
I don't doubt that it is still supported, but I can't even remember receiving an email like this. –  Matt Rockwell Dec 22 '11 at 19:20
    
My point in bringing it up is just that, if you are going to consider putting horizontal rules in ASCII text e-mails, it's worth trying to it in a standard way. By doing so you're likely to avoid unexpected problems. "70" is kind of a magic number; it is likely to work with just about any mail reading software. –  MετάEd Dec 22 '11 at 19:31
    
To your point, though, I get frequent e-mails from RFC 1153 conformant remailers. It all depends on what business you're in, I guess. –  MετάEd Dec 22 '11 at 19:34
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