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I am working on a site that will have a "send to email" feature for semi-personalized content (think something like a short shopping list). We already will have a print-friendly view of this content available on the site. We are having an internal debate about what the user should receive in their email if they use the "send to email" feature, and have come up with two options:

  1. The email includes a PDF of the print-friendly view as an attachment, as well as a link to the web page that will include pass any dynamic info with it.

  2. The email itself is specially formatted to be visually similar to the web page and include all the same content that also exists on the page. (No PDF attachment.)

I am having trouble finding any studies about email usability in this regard, but anecdotally it seems that the majority of the time sites that have this functionality are just sending you a link, unless it is for something like a receipt.

We have concerns about how different email clients will render content, as the client wants a highly stylized page as opposed to simple text, and are leaning toward option 1, but I'd love to know if anyone has any data to back this up. Our gut is that using a PDF is nice because it also allows the user to save the info locally, and it is also much more predictable how it will be rendered.

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I'm realizing I may not have made the UX aspect of this very clear -- basically, is it more useful to have a PDF or a formatted email? – Michael Histen May 12 '11 at 14:51
If you have to choose between the two, then go for formatted email since the user would have all the information upfront. – Marian May 12 '11 at 15:41
When I want email, I just want email. No HTML. No PDFs. So, this may not be a feature aimed at everyone. – DA01 May 9 '13 at 4:57
up vote 16 down vote accepted

Michael - I spent a couple of years working for one of the larger email marketing firms, and from their excellent design (and deliverability) teams I learnt a couple of things about this issue:

--attachments are a turnoff. We are telling users more and more to be wary of attachments as they can be harmful. Even when received from known sources, users are reluctant to open them.

--html emails that are providing feedback to users (in your case, "these are the selections that you made") work well. Users in Outlook don't even need to open the email if using the reading pane.

--html should not be your only format. You really should provide a plain text version for two reasons - 1. not all users read email as html, 2. it reduces the email message's spam rating score.

Regardless, my gut-level response is "why are you sending me an attachment when you could put the info in the email body?" PDF seems so 1990s.

Edit: Just saw Matt's answer regarding links. Strongly agree that there should be a link so users can see this info on your site if they want to.

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+1 for "attachments are a turnoff". Additional click required = lower conversion. – Phil May 12 '11 at 15:09
I think this answer probably covers the bases, although I must admit I was hoping to hear something different, although in my gut I know you're right. Unfortunately I'm often in a position where the ideal experience is impossible, either due to tech limitations or client pushback. But this was really helpful! Thank you. – Michael Histen May 12 '11 at 17:42

Keep in mind that not all people have the PDF reader, or use a Mac to open it with Preview. So here you might hit a wall.

Anyway, as you mentioned, most of the services out there send a link to that specific product just because it is easier and because this way you get the customer back to your website.

If the user sends it to himself, then it's more like a bookmark, maybe he is at the office and wants to check it when he's at home. If he sends it to a friend, then it's more like a recommendation and that friend should get to the website to find all the information he needs.

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Mental Models in this case are important. If you decide to go for sending the PDF file, make sure that is very clear for the user that when he clicks on "send via e-mail" he understands that a file will be attached. Other wise the user will not expect the file and interpret that it is a virus or an error.

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