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I was just reading this article: How to send and reply to email. It's basically about the user interface and user experience of email. There are many good tips, but unfortunately the article doesn't establish any basis for its assertions. It just seems to be an expert opinion.

But it did make me wonder: do people usability test email? For instance, if your business mostly communicates through email (eg. sales/marketing), then it might be worth testing the emails you write to see how well they "convert".

Have any such studies been done? Or have you read about anyone usability testing email? What were their conclusions?

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Another interesting question would be 'has anyone usability tested email client software before ?' (particularly use of the 'cc' function) –  PhillipW May 30 '11 at 19:52
    
@PhilipW Well, I figured plenty of people have usability tested eg. Gmail and Outlook, since they are among the most used software in the world. But not many people view email itself as a user interface. –  Rahul May 30 '11 at 19:53
    
For corporate work I've always viewed the existence of the 'cc' button as a fundamental flaw. But you're right, the formatting of the content is also important. –  PhillipW May 30 '11 at 20:06
    
The CC and BCC fields need to be renamed. Many people don't even have a clue what they mean. I'm a software developer and have been using computers for 11 years and I only just realised BCC meant "blind" copy a few months ago! I'd always just ignored it. –  Nick Bedford May 30 '11 at 22:27
    
They're hang overs from the days of manual typewriters: cc = carbon copy, bcc = blind carbon copy. Having to put a sheet of carbon paper behind the typed on paper meant that one couldn't physically cc 20 people. It's an example of where copying the existing process into software causes problems. –  PhillipW May 31 '11 at 9:37
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4 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The Nielsen Norman group have done some thorough newsletter research and written a 600 pages report (not free) on the topic:

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Bah. I'd love to read it, but $500? :( –  Rahul May 31 '11 at 9:21
    
@Rahul. I agree that this is an expensive reading, but you should look at it as a good book and put it on your wish list as such. Good literature and continuous refill is important, and I hope that most professionals have room for literature in their budgeted. You can probably find a piracy, but I would strongly discourage that. These guys have contributed with so much good (and free) information, and they certainly deserve some payment now and then :-) –  Jørn E. Angeltveit May 31 '11 at 9:59
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If I read it, I'll pay for it, but a book that costs $500 is a bit over the top :) –  Rahul May 31 '11 at 10:45
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@Rahul: I bought the report on Store Locators (nngroup.com/reports/locators) a few months ago an it was really worth the money - but I have to admit that I didn't pay it (my company did) and it was only 98$. Still, if it's for a big project, 500$ should be worth it. Think of it in working hours: How much would you spend if you did the research? I guess a bit more than 500$ ;) –  Phil May 31 '11 at 12:09
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@Rahul: Hehe yep, that'd be an expensive random wondering - but if you end up buying it anyway, hand me a copy please ;)) –  Phil May 31 '11 at 12:17
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Although I personally work on a different set of products, my firm does consulting on email response. This may involve A/B testing the message or validating the design in various email clients. My limited understanding, is that it usually comes down user research. Did the user understand your "call to action"? Did you change your branding and now the users think you're a spammer, since you don't look familiar. Or, the user didn't even read the email due to it looking horrible on a mobile device, etc ...

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Your question seems to be related to the field of Service Design. Which is the practice of designing the "Holistic" approach of a service of an Organisation - including any communication methods. Designing all forms of communication or interaction from 'Point of Sale' to telephone or email communication is a great way of encapsulating the entire experience of a client or customer within any given Organisation to be the 'same' throughout, so that the user experience can then be optimised to suit the Organisation's goals or culture.

I haven't personally come across any studies on the usability of emails, but I'm sure as Service Design gets more widely used, Organisations will start to hire consultants to or conduct their own usability studies on their Email methods.

Another good source for service design is the Service Design Hub.

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You are interested in converting individually crafted emails, not 'newsletters'?

There are plenty of 'usability tests', but they are almost always subject or task specific. What are you trying to do, sell something, interest a member of the opposite sex or get yourself a job? There are plenty of studies of those types of emails/cover letters.

If you cannot find a study for your topic, do you really need someone to tell you that spelling, grammar, P+Q's and one's command of language matter?

Obviously txt speak with mishtakes is not a good idea and neither is over enthusiastic promulgation of big words. People get scared of people on many ends of the literacy scale. Less is more and a lot harder to write.

The most important thing to get right is that the email actually arrives in the first place, i.e. the inbox and not in the spam folder. This is the first hurdle and where emails are most likely to fail. Even people with SPF records, the correct reverse-DNS and/or DomainKeys implemented can still have it setup wrong, typically with their MS Exchange server (that they actually use for sending the hand-crafted emails) not being on the SPF record for their domain. Testing, testing and more testing is really important to make sure your emails get delivered to whomever and where-ever.

I am surprised that this is not given a mention in your linked article. The letter equivalent is 'writing the address on the envelope clearly, adding the correct postage and making sure the letter gets posted'.

From a customer service point of view the most important thing is to respond in a timely fashion. If you do not reply in 24 hours people will think bad things of you and the organisation you work for/represent. You can win them back with a really good, considered reply some days later, but, by then they may have had a response from another rival of yours. It would be nice to provide better than anecdotal evidence of this, however, you can do that yourself - write to half a dozen companies wanting help with whatever you need and see who gets your follow-up. The first impression from the person that writes back with a useful answer will invariably win.

As for A/B testing, this is well established in newsletter mailouts. It is also sophisticated in that you can test click throughs and find out who read what. If the delivery to a large group of people is first A/B tested on a random sample then you can get the right version sent out to the group as a whole.

If you want to have a go at learning from the newsletter 'best practice' have a go at civiCRM civiMail module.

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