People increasingly read their email — and their email newsletters — on mobile devices. Our research into the general usability of phones and tablets shows that small mobile phone screens present big usability challenges. We thus focused on email newsletter usability on those screens in our new research.
Diary Study: A Week of Mobile Newsletters
Our last study of newsletter usability already included a series of lab tests of people reading newsletters on their phones. For our recent study, however, we wanted to move beyond the lab and assess how people read newsletters on their own.
To do this, we conducted a diary study for 5 business days, asking users to note every time they read an email newsletter on their phone. Study participants also snapped a screenshot of each newsletter, which they emailed to us so that we could see how the newsletters appeared on actual phones around the world. Finally, users answered an online survey about each newsletter.
We also interviewed participants about their general email use. For example, we asked about where, when, and how often they checked their email on their phones, and whether there were any circumstances in which they were particularly likely to read newsletters on their phones.
We recruited test users in Australia, the U.K., and the U.S.; because no real differences emerged among users in these countries, I've lumped all of them together in the following analysis.
Of our participants, 57% were women and 43% were men. Users ranged in age from 20 to 50. It's always important to include a wide age distribution for mobile studies as younger people sometimes exhibit different behaviors; having middle-aged users was also particularly important for us because we wanted a strong representation of B2B newsletters in this study. Occupations ranged broadly, including advertising executive, electrical engineer, pharmacist, and TV producer.
In all, 14 users completed the full diary study period, during which they opened 191 email newsletters.
No True "Mobile Newsletters"
A major research finding? It's a misnomer to talk about "mobile newsletters." For each of the 191 newsletters that people read on their phones, we asked whether they would have sometimes opened or read that newsletter on their desktop or laptop computers. Participants said yes in 93% of cases, so only 7% of newsletters would have been read only on a phone.
So, in the vast majority of cases, users would have read other issues of that same newsletter on a computer (which usually — though not always — entails different usability issues). Thus, the predominant usage is cross-platform subscriptions, where people sometimes consume a newsletter on the computer and sometimes on mobile.
In fact, people sometimes do both with a single edition of a newsletter: one-third of the time, users told us that their reason for also reading a newsletter on the computer was to reread the content or complete an action on the bigger screen. In other words, you might record sales or other conversions as coming from desktop users in cases where the behaviors were actually prompted by mobile reading of the same newsletter. One more reason to dig deeper than a surface reading of analytics reports.
Given this dual-platform reading, we don't recommend offering subscribers the choice between desktop and mobile versions of an email newsletter. Basically, you don't know where users will be reading each issue of a newsletter, and they probably can't predict that either.
So, instead of having two newsletters, it's better to use responsive design and other techniques to adapt a single newsletter to various platforms. This is in contrast to websites; because they're interactive, you can let users switch between mobile and full sites as their needs dictate. In email, everything has already left your control once the message is sent.
In our latest study, a Pinterest newsletter offered a good example of responsive design: It displayed in 3 columns when opened on a desktop computer, and in 1 column when opened on a mobile phone.
A responsive newsletter implementation should also change the link destinations depending on the user's current platform. If a user is reading the email on a phone, links should point to mobile-friendly pages. It's deadly to dump people into the full site when they come from a (presumably) mobile-optimized newsletter reading experience. Conversely, if a user is reading the message on a computer, links should point to the full site so that users will see desktop-optimized pages.
If you can't use responsive design for your email template, consider staying within a single-column layout. It might look a bit primitive on desktop computers, but it will work well on phones.
Mobile Reading Changes Newsletter Influence
Over the decade since our first newsletter usability study, users have continued to cite the same reasons for subscribing to newsletters despite overflowing inboxes:
As one user said, "Keep me informed about things that I wouldn't otherwise research. Remind me of things I would otherwise forget. Teach me new things I'd otherwise pass over."
Effortless ... The newsletter comes to you, with no need for further action once you've signed up.
Easy to ignore ... If you're not interested in a newsletter issue, just don't open it and it'll soon scroll off the front page of your email program. Or, if you want to read something later, simply let it sit in the inbox until you're ready.
Timely ... Email is a fast medium.
Act as a reminder ... Newsletters are the main way of driving users to return to a website because they remind them of things to do.
Increased productivity ... Business-related newsletters help people do their jobs better.
Social ... Email is extremely easy to share, and newsletters provide tidbits that make for good small talk in both social and business situations.
Mobile reading of email newsletters reinforces all of these benefits by adding one more super-benefit: the newsletters are always available. Furthermore, on a phone, interaction mechanics are substantially easier for email messages than for websites: scrolling through a newsletter is less work than navigating a website to acquire the same information.
Mobile use thus makes email newsletters today an even more important way to stay connected with customers than they were in the past. This is particularly true because people sometimes have time to kill while using their phones. One user said: "I tend to look at a lot more marketing material on my phone. It's because at home I wouldn't sit and give them the time. But if I'm on the move and have the spare time, I do it. If I was at work or home, I just delete it if it's unsolicited."
At the same time, mobile devices have introduced a new source of competing information: highly targeted and specialized apps. A doctor in our latest study, for example, said that he'd rather use the Medscape app on his phone to get medical updates than read the equivalent newsletter.
Defending Your Place on the Internet
The most important reason to publish an email newsletter might be this: It's one of the few remaining ways to reach your customers without the tolls, fees, and restrictive rules imposed by the gatekeepers — search engines, social media sites, application stores, and the like.
The newsletter goes right into each individual user's inbox, right in their pocket. You bypass all the third-party intermediaries and can remind your own customers of your website at the time of your choosing. Just remember to respect users' inalienable right to good user experience and interesting content so that they don't unsubscribe.
The full report on email newsletter usability with 221 design guidelines for newsletters is available for download.
See also the separate report about our research into non-email mobile UX, with actionable design guidelines for mobile sites and apps.