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Note: I am not talking about reading experience, I am focusing on the experience of composing email.

I am very aware of this issue since it happens to me all the time, and I am pretty sure that it happens to everyone else. Whenever I type an email, the Subject field appears before the Body field. This forces me to first think of a good subject that summarizes the email, always breaking the context. What happens next? Here are my few common observations:

  • If you are frustrated or you are emailing something urgent you put in a subject saying urgent, important, FYI and what not!
  • You skip over to the body write your email, and at the very end you figure out the subject and fill it in.
  • You send the email without the subject, and do an extra click for OK to get rid of the email client's complaint dialogue warning you that you forgot the subject.
  • (Most common with me) You write a complete sentence in the subject, write the body, come back and realize the subject is not good, and modify the subject before sending.
  • If it's a one-line email you put it in subject with no body! FTW!

Here is my question/complaint (and a probably suggested fix in this UX): In my 10 years of computer usage, why has nobody thought about putting the subject field after the email body? Is there anything that I am missing, or is it not natural that you have a summary of anything in your head once you have written it down?

If I mailed a letter, I would not have a subject on the envelope before writing the letter.

Would it be correct to put the subject field after the message body field? If no, why not?

Edit 5/25/2013 07:74 PM Here is the interface for what I think is very basic prototype UI for compose. Please keep the edits in same URL and keep posting.

P.S. I changed the subject of this post after I wrote all this.

Edit 5/25/2013 11:42 AM So instead of complaining I've taken prototype one step further and tried to make one on Phone! Kept the looks flat since it requires lesser CSS efforts :P here is how it looks right now

iPhone concept

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I think this is a result of a particular thinking style. In contrast, if I need to first summarize my message to a one liner, it helps me focus my message and better understand what I want to convey. The result - more concise and better understood messages. –  Dvir Adler May 23 '13 at 7:29
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When you wrote this question, you have filled the title field or the message field as first thing? –  chumkiu May 23 '13 at 9:22
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+1. I like the provocative nature of this question. It questions convention, and I for sure never considered the issue even though I do find myself updating subject lines after writing the body. –  André May 23 '13 at 9:23
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For modern email (web)applications that autosave drafts, having a subject first helps you differentiate drafts that you might have started but not yet finished. (commenting because question is locked) –  Gary S. Weaver May 23 '13 at 15:01
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+1 this looked like a rant to begin with, but I actually quite like your demo. I usually fill out the "To:" field last aswell, to avoid accidentally sending an unfinished email .. –  wim May 24 '13 at 3:56

13 Answers 13

It does not really matter.

See Google Mail.

Screenshot of Google Mail composer

It is easy to jump back to the Subject field. Just click inside the field or hit Shift-Tab.

And why did Google Mail put the Subject field above the body? Because everybody else does it. Other have explained already why. The subject is a header coming before the body text (see RFC822). Or that this sequence forces the user to think about what he wants to convey. And so on. And it's true that the order of the steps changes the way users do the task.

But this does not really matter.

Since it is easy to jump back, I often skip the Subject field and start with the body.

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As a reader, I want to know "Why are you sending me this email?" so I know whether it is worth my while reading it now, instead of doing all those other important things on my to-do list.

As a reader, I expect the writer to know why they are sending me the email, and more to the point, I hope they will know why they are sending me the email before they start dumping stream-of-consciousness stuff into a large white space.

If they want me to invest my time reading, I hope they will have done me the courtesy of first stopping to consider whether anything they are about to write will have any value at all to me - or whether I'll be wasting my time by reading it.

So as the author, please think about "what triggered me to click the 'compose message' button". I'd consider "Thoughts after our phone chat" to be sufficient as a subject, if that is what the content is going to be, for example. If you have no idea why you are sending me a message, then I don't know why I should read it!

So as a developer, I'd like to force encourage anyone who might be thinking of sending me an email to think about why they are choosing to do so, before they actually start bashing keys on the keyboard.

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This many be true, but display order for a reader can be different to display order for the sender. –  ChrisF May 24 '13 at 14:48
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Yes. But if, as a developer, I can encourage the sender to think about things before starting typing, then I'm ahead of the game. –  Bill Michell May 24 '13 at 17:39
    
The question is specific to the writer and not the reader. –  Anna Rouben Jun 12 '13 at 19:25
    
Yes. The idea is to force the writer into considering what the reader might want to get out of the communication. –  Bill Michell Jun 13 '13 at 14:25

This is a question of task performance. How do people write emails? The interface should support task performance.

Top-down: subject first influences body

Bottom-up: body first influences subject

Both processes are at work and when to use what approach is driven by context. So support both approaches without breaking the flow of either by giving effortless opportunities to either do nothing or enter/edit a subject (and other fields), at all points of the task.

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I've just had another thought, and that is to do with how you use the keyboard.

I habitually Tab between fields in a form. However, once in the body, the Tab key ought to become captured, so you can enter a tab character as an indent.

If the Subject comes after the Body in the Tab order, I can't actually get to it without switching to a mouse or using some kind of modifier key.

In the normal flow of things, that would be pretty disruptive.

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We can instead introduce a flow in which you write on a plain textarea once done press Ctrl+Ender and a your focus is shifted to whom and subject. Sounds interesting? –  MaX May 24 '13 at 18:33

This may be similar to the question Why don't ATMs give you cash before your card?:

Users follow the tasks in sequence, but regard the task as completed once they have achieved their goal. Subsidiary steps are easy to abandon at this point.

The goal of writing an email is conveying information. Once the message body is complete that goal is supposedly achieved and adding a subject is merely a convenience thing (for both the recipient and the sender who may later want to quickly find that email again) - so users are more likely to hit send without entering a subject after the body than vice versa.

Putting the "to" field beneath the message body on the other hand sounds actually quite good - in a typical letter one writes the address on the envelope after having written the letter itself, and it also prevents an incomplete message from reaching the intended recipient. The only advantage I see in the usual implementation is the requirement of making sure one actually knows the recipient's address, since if the easiest way to obtain it were phoning them one could drop the mail and directly discuss the matter vocally...

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FWIW, Bank Of America ATMs in San Francisco give you your card back immediately after inserting it (so simulating the experience of inserting/'dipping' it into the machine). –  Luke Bornheimer May 25 '13 at 23:40
    
This begs the question, is the canonical order how the task is actually performed? –  uxzapper May 26 '13 at 2:03
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Your answer also provoked the thought: Whose UX are we designing for here, the writer or the reader? –  uxzapper May 26 '13 at 2:04
    
@LukeBornheimer That's actually even better, wish my bank did this; or at least ejecting the card while the money is prepared for release instead of afterwards, effectively wasting everyone's time... –  Tobias Kienzler May 26 '13 at 9:28
    
@uxzapper Good points! I guess we're looking for a compromise - forcing the writer to add a subject before the message is supposed to make sure (but often enough fails) that the reader doesn't have to read/skim whole paragraphs to learn that "Re: coffee" is actually about "Admin login on server 7 not working"; on the other hand the writer will also profit from it later on since they may end up in a "come on, I sent this to you last month, here I'll resend you the mail - was it "Re: cute little kitten" or "Re: Re: cute little kitten"?" discussion, also wasting everyone's time –  Tobias Kienzler May 26 '13 at 9:33

Whenever you are communicating via printed media, it is an unwritten norm of sorts to include a title/header. The function of the header is to summarize the following content (in a single line). You see it in the newspapers, magazines, posters, presentations, etc.

Imagine magazine and news articles without titles. How do you even decide what you want to read? A person who gets 100s of email needs some way to filter emails without reading them. Titles provide a good mechanism for doing this. Get the crux of the communication out first and then ramble on about the details.

On you point of including a header on a letter; yes you do that, especially, on formal letters like job applications and stuff.

Regarding the placement of the header input box in compose email. I actually think it might not be a bad idea to look into moving the header below the body. BUT, for the recipient, the header needs to be at the top because of the aforementioned reasons.

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I'd like to approach this question from a bit of a different perspective than that of other answers.

What's In An Order

The essential question posed is questioning the philosophy and methodology of ordering form fields.

On the one hand, one might wish to order them in the order that the author would be expected to write them. This is a perfectly sensible mental model of how a form might be laid out. You might call this an author-centric layout, or perhaps a Stream Of Consciousness Ordering.

However, the cultural reality is that this is not how forms are laid out online or offline, and this in fact is entirely unrelated to any file format or transfer protocol that has been published.

In the beginning there was Bureaucracy,
And the Paper was with Bureaucracy,
And the Paper was Bureaucracy.

At some point someone had to decide what order to lay out form fields, and two general sort orders come into play (based on my former experience as a professional printer - I spent many, many hours copying, modifying, and designing forms):

Sort By Immediacy of Importance and Sort By Processing Order

If you want more examples than you can stand, visit IRS Forms and Publications

In every case, the standard form order goes like this:

  1. Implicit, who is this form for. In government settings this is omitted as obvious, as IRS forms are for the IRS, legal filings are for the courts, etc.
  2. What is this regarding - form number, title, etc.
  3. Tell us what we need to know - your information, complaints, "message body", etc, goes here.
  4. Sign Here - or "tell us who you are again - this time, with feeling!"

In general the goal of the form is to impose order on a set of data, including categorization, standardization, completeness, and so forth. This is generally for everyone's benefit as a letter that provides insufficient information, or takes longer to process, slows response times and makes more work for everyone involved.

Author-Centricity

With the advent of the computer it became possible to present forms in ways that were not dependent on how a form was to be used after it was filled out. This invention has mostly been applied to auto-fill and hidden form fields (you don't have to fill out "from" in your email client, for instance, even though the electronic mail protocols require that information).

The ordering of fields, however, has largely remained unchanged from printed form. The general question here is "why do it differently?" Here one has to violate user expectations, and this must only be done when there is a clear, popular, and compelling reason to do so.

To Title, Or Not

The concept of a "subject" and a "title" are very particular cultural constructs; in fact, in some cultures and contexts titles were completely omitted, for example in the works of Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī Coleman Barks (a popular translator) usually adds titles to particular poems, but notes that the titles are entirely his own. In 13th century Persia, poets considered a poem sufficient to itself within the context of a volume/book/manuscript, and if referring to a particular poem the first few words or line were often used as a tag.

In modern western culture, however, this practice is unheard of - a title of a written work has special meaning and is considered to be of special importance. The importance of a title - or subject - extends so far that now regular written correspondence of any more weight than an "instant message", social status update, or tweet, has it's very own title. Heck, you can hardly make it through 10 pages of a book anymore without there being not only a new chapter, but the chapter itself often has a title, sub-title, and a dozen sub-headings in between chapters.

Which Came First: The Subject, or The Body

On written works, whether it be a quick email or a leviathan manuscript, the relationship between the body of a missive, the subject(s) it deals with, and an ideal title or short summary, is neither universal nor unidirectional.

This reality caused the creation of the concept, "working title". And which comes first often varies by person, mood, and topic. Perhaps you know you want to wish someone a happy birthday, and so the subject of an email is rather obvious and is the first thing written; the same would be true of a meeting announcement, release of an earnings report, etc.

Sometimes, however, one knows one needs to say something before one knows what needs to be said or even who to say it to. As such there should be no strictly enforced order that a form should be filled out, as this is a simple reflection of the reality of how people use email.

With other forms it might also be expected that someone might go through and fill out certain information, then go back and fill out other fields as other information is found. Again this is fine, though to re-order a form based upon assumed availability of data would be onerous and confusing, at best.

What's a Good User Experience Designer To Do?

If everyone fills out a form in different, unpredictable order, what order should the fields be placed in? Well, in email programs as in digital forms, the old standard ordering system is used to conform to existing user expectations. To provide the best user experience one must not attempt to enforce a specific ordering, such as by creating a multi-step wizard that insists that that To, Subject, and Message are discrete transactions that are not to be filled out in any other order.

The other question is, what's the downside in the OP's case of preferring to fill out the body first and skip the subject completely? Well, an extra button press (Tab), or a mouse-click. If there is no foolish use of form validation that freaks out if someone doesn't type in a subject first, then there should be no problem - One Form To Displease Them All. Oh yeah, lets not forget that Humans Really Hate Forms; they just do. So with common forms there is rarely a way to more quickly annoy people than to move things around to make them think more about a routine task they'd rather avoid anyway.

As for having to scroll back up or down to edit/add a Subject, many (most?) email clients have moved to a system where To, CC, BCC, and Subject are all afixed to the top of the document while the body itself has it's own scroll bar - so adding/removing/editing recipients and subject is never more than a click away. Why? Because, hey, sometimes you don't know what you are talking about until after you are done, or you realize you'd better CC your boss just incase.

(Referencing 13th century Persian spiritual poetry regarding email clients? Yes, I went there. It's just how I roll.)

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+1 for pointing out that it is not a linear task –  uxzapper May 26 '13 at 1:40
    
+1 Perhaps it's as simple as changing the label 'subject' to something else like 'working title'? :) Writers tend to title books after they are read. However, logically, at the end when you review your work of art be it novel or email, you want to see that title at the beginning because it offers a basic synopsis or context to your piece... –  TheSaint May 28 '13 at 19:06

It's simple information hierarchy. Just as a paper has the author and title at the top, so does email.

Now, one could argue that that is only important for the reader, not the author. And I think that's a valid argument. That said, when we read emails, they have a particular hierarchy and an equally valid argument is that the template used to create the email should match the way we read it.

In the end, having the subject line above the body doesn't force a user to fill it out first. So it's likely not a major usability concern. It's also a small line of information so easy to fit in area that is visible (whereas putting it below the body might hide it leading to confusion)

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Why should the template used to create the email match the way we read it? Consistency between creation and usage is a problematic idea. I can't think of any product that is made the same way it is used. Where does this idea come from? –  uxzapper May 26 '13 at 1:41
    
@uxzapper I think equating an 'email' to 'a product' is a bit of a stretch. It's authoring, though--just as when you write a paper, you place the title at the top. Or how an address form typically is in the form of an address block. Etc. –  DA01 May 26 '13 at 3:01
    
My bad. To clarify, I use the term product in the wider sense of the result of constructive action(s), rather than just a consumer product (as seemed like in my comment). I also think you are conflating creation and final assembly (or formatting) with at least one of those examples. –  uxzapper May 26 '13 at 3:20
    
@uxzapper I guess in the context of authoring text-based content, I don't see a huge difference between 'creation' and 'formatting'. In either case, I'm entering text. There are plenty of examples where the content creation/formatting ends up looking like the consumed content. It certainly doesn't have to be that way, but there is precedence in and in light of a strong argument to purposefully make it difference, it seems like an acceptable default approach to take. –  DA01 May 26 '13 at 3:40

I suspect that people write e-mail applications this way because other people have written e-mail applications that way and everyone is used to it. Users expect that when they are confronted by a completely unfamiliar e-mail application, it will prompt them for a subject at the top of the entry form, and a body below. Users get what they expect and don't think about a parallel world in which it's different. Users will even be annoyed if software is inconsistent with their expectations. ("Sheesh, where do I put my subject line in this darn thing?") So changes to the user experience for composing e-mail have to be very carefully designed for "backward compatibility" with user expectations.

A nice idea, if executed well, might be a checkbox to have the subject automatically generated from a gloss of the message body, subject to the user's final approval. Or perhaps three different subject line choices to pick from. This could even suggest improvement's to the user's own subject, if the user entered one:

For this message, "me" might be a more descriptive subject than "you". [Accept] [Reject]."

:)

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MS Word has some sort of feature to generate default file names for the lazy. I found it singularly useless which makes me dubious about your idea. –  Dan Neely May 23 '13 at 20:53

Emails were never intended as a form of chat type messaging. Remember that they are electronic versions of mail, so trying to modify them to be something they weren't designed for is a mistake.

As to the reasons why we write the subject line first:

  1. The subject line is part of the header of an email (see the original RFC822 and the newer RFC5322), and since early email systems displayed the header before the body, it made sense for consistency to also write the header before the body.
  2. The logical flow is think about what an email is about before you write it. And so it makes sense to have the subject line before the body of the message.

The original reasons aside, if you were to have the body before the subject, you are likely going to run into many UX issues and gain very little from it. Keep to what has been proven to work and what people are used to.


If you want to create a program that uses email for chat type messaging, you can always leave the subject field out entirely as it isn't required. I would still however make it optional, and if it were available, I would have it before the body.

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Subjects on emails are shown in a list, one per line, in all the earliest email clients. the subject is what you read so you can figure out if you want to actually read the rest of the message. This habit goes back to the early days of email on a big old glass VT100 terminal, or even email on the old teletypes. Even in the 1970s email subjects were important. This is a relatively OLD convention, and a worthy one. Thus who the email is from and the subject are presented first both when composing and when receiving email. –  Warren P May 23 '13 at 11:37
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It might be worthy to note that he says in his question: "Note I am not talking about reading experience, I am focusing on COMPOSE experience of email." –  Tom.Bowen89 May 23 '13 at 11:50
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@Tom.Bowen89 you can't separate the two without breaking consistency and expectation. –  JohnGB May 23 '13 at 12:01
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That's right. Humans organize information spatially, and conventions about spatial organization (once established) become VERY firm conventions. –  Warren P May 23 '13 at 12:25
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I have to -1 this because it's shortsighted and does not actually answer the question from a UI point of view, and especially for "modifying them to be something they weren't designed for is a mistake". With that point of view, nothing would ever improve. Requirements change. Not changing our technology to suit our changing needs is the bigger mistake here. –  devios May 23 '13 at 21:08

For readers: You need to know what the stuff is all about.

For writer: You need to know what the stuff you are going to write about.

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Exactly. Readers need to know why they should read the mail; if writers don't know, they can click on the body to type that first, then fill in the subject line. –  Peter May 23 '13 at 7:40
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@Peter why not make users stop jumping back and forth? –  MaX May 23 '13 at 14:46
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-1: Reading is irrelevant, the question was about composing a message. The fields can be presented to the reader in any order. –  TMN May 23 '13 at 15:13
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Reading is not irrelevant. The two go hand in hand and it makes sense to compose in the order it's going to be read. @MaX the fact of composition is that you jump back and forth, even within the body. It's part of good writing. So it just makes sense to put the ordering of the composition roughly in order with how it's read: subject 1st. –  Frank B May 23 '13 at 16:31
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I think it's essentially convention. The format of an e-mail is essentially the same format as a paper memo from the '50's. People who were accustomed to writing memos could write e-mails because they had the same format. We're a half-century away from that now so you could change the interface. Personally, I wouldn't like it because I think that the subject helps me focus my e-mail. YMMV. –  Stephen Rasku May 24 '13 at 3:08

There are two perspectives here. You are talking about your (writers's) perspective and it appears that thinking about an appropriate title is slightly demanding but when you look at reader's perspective, it makes perfect sense for him to read the Heading (Title of the email) first before the Continent.

In your context, you seem to use EMAIL AS A MESSAGE and this is where idea of using a title seems to make less sense but still having a subject in an "email message" is not awkward.

In terms of usability, I see this is fine but this may not be according to your personal preference. Personalizing an interface is yet another layer on top of usability.

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I am totally not demanding to deprecate the subject, yet the order makes a mental distraction, that's what I am focusing on. –  MaX May 23 '13 at 6:51
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I think the extension of your first paragraph is: when you're trying to communicate with another person, it is their perspective that is important, not yours. Tools which force you to think in your audience's terms could therefore be better for communication. –  robertc May 23 '13 at 10:21

I can only think of two particular justifications for this:

  1. Back when this was not a standard convention, there was probably not a lot of difference between the length of the subject line and the body text (think back to the of the early days of text messaging, and even twitter). Given the ability and convenience to add a lot of things to emails now, one natural course of event is for people to add as much as they can to it. Unfortunately, this has meant that people now abuse the use of subject lines (e.g. sales and marketing people) as well as the body text (e.g. typical office chain mail).

  2. It is helpful to structure the input for the author in the same way that the reader might look at the information, and the principle of progressively disclosing information for people that want to find out more detail works better if the summary (i.e. subject line) is placed before the body text. Of course, this doesn't justify whether it is more user friendly for the author, but given that no one has provided another way to enter the information, nothing has been done about it.

As with all usability issues, the best way is to try it out and see what happens. If you put up a web page that accept input in a different way, please provide a link!

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I am already creating a page, that actually has body before subject. Email itself inspired from mail, and I think the order of reading the subject and writing it would be like a stack in real world (you write subject at end on envelop but you read it first when you receive it). –  MaX May 23 '13 at 6:53
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I think I will also try that with the contact forms in the next websites or applications that I am designing and see what the feedback is. –  Michael Lai May 23 '13 at 7:00
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@MaX - as a matter of fact, you don't write subject on the envelope. Subject lines appeared in snail mail when filing systems emerged in public and private offices. It was used for cross-referencing. –  Deer Hunter May 23 '13 at 7:21
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@MaX Even in snail mail, you write your headers (to address, from address, date) before the 'body'. –  robertc May 23 '13 at 10:25
    
+1 for your second point, which unlike many other answers here is actually touching upon UI and usability. –  devios May 23 '13 at 21:16

protected by Ben Brocka May 23 '13 at 14:01

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