The Importance of Email Design & Testing

February 1, 2014

The death of email as a form of message or communication is about as likely as the death of newspaper … it needs to evolve to survive.

Personally, I’ve had some form of an email account for the better part of 16 years, which is by no means a record. But I can still remember the days of “You’ve Got Mail” which was a signal to connections in the digital cyberspace world. 

Email hasn’t disappeared, in fact it’s only continued to be a pervasive influence in our growing interconnected lives. Whether you have email for work, personal, or education, chances are you check at least one account daily. In fact, the number of email accounts around the world is expected to grow by at least 6% each year for the next four years.

So how are marketers levering email beyond send frequency, open rates, clicks, revenue, etc? You might be surprised to learn simple strategies can improve your email effectiveness.

I’ve been a Gmail email user since 2004 when it was invitation only; so nearly 10 years. It’s been my exclusive personal provider for almost the entire decade. Recently, I noticed in my Gmail App on my iPhone messages, esp. those marked as “Promotions” were truncated automatically. This wasn’t entirely new to me, as I’d always seen the “Download entire message” button at the bottom of some messages. However, now more and more messages were nearly blank with this bottom button displayed. How come?

Several factors can lead to why a message is shortened, from length of content, number of images, quality of SPAM score, etc. This is why testing your messages across multiple platforms and devices is important, even beyond open and click rates.

Here are some quick, simple steps that you can use to help refine the design of your emails:

1. Do an analysis of your current email opt-ins. By this, I mean, check to see how many of your addresses are “” or specific email addresses. B2B companies will likely see a greater share of @companyname, whereas B2C marketers will likely see common free email accounts, like,, or taking the majority of account. Determine what the top 3-5 account types are for your list, and this will help you focus your design and testing parameters.

2. Determine how consumers are opening/reviewing your current messages. Simple coding into your current messages by tracking companies, like, can provide user engagement data such as device type, application, time of message open, etc. All of these data points can help you shape your design settings. For example, if more than half your consumers are reading your messages on a mobile device, you might want to ensure your messages are responsive in design.

3. Build your design and testing parameters. With these data points, you can now provide design instruction and testing parameters. Let’s say 25 percent of your users are on and a majority are using an iPhone to open their messages in the iOS native Mail app/client. You can build your design around testing primarily with a Internet email client, what these messages look like in Apple’s Mail app, and also that for the most part, all your images will display on message load (by default, if the user doesn’t change any settings).

4. Don’t forget about the next top email accounts and formats for content digestion. The 80/20 rule applies really well here. Focus your testing and design efforts on tackling the majority of your fans. Also, don’t forget to measure these changes by documenting whenyou made the change and see if it has had any positive – or hopefully not – negative impact on your primary KPIs.

5. Don’t complete this exercise once and then forget about it. Even once a year might not be enough. Say is your primary client for your fans, if Yahoo! announces a big change in service, you might want to consider retesting. Furthermore, if you add a huge new list of email opt-ins, the original analysis might be worth repeating to see if you’re data points have changed/shifted at all. Essentially, regularly repeat steps 1 through 4.

Last year, Google rolled out their “tabbed” email client browsing format and the number of companies that sent out “don’t miss our message” emails to Gmail users was almost an industry first. We chose not to send a similar message, as our performance metrics show little or no decline in user interactives; esp. Gmail users. Therefore, I find it interesting these same companies are not looking at the design of their emails, esp. within the Gmail app.

Here are a few examples of what I do and don’t like about their design within the Gmail App:

American Express Credit Card Email

American Express Credit Card
Other than the sender’s name, I have no idea who this message is from. None of their content shows in the pre-”download entire message” state. Without an extra step by me, I would have no idea what I’m supposed to do. The subject line doesn’t even lend itself to any strong direction of what to do.






Gilt ShoppingGilt
I like shopping their website and app, but their emails are lacking design clarity. Because they leverage a 2-column layout with the navigational elements on the left, their message loads left to right and therefore no product details show without another click by me. For a site that is about selling products online, their design should support selling products first.



I like this design. While the message is more operational in nature (points entered/redeemed for the past month), it manages to get all the important information into the pre-download dialogue. Very good design work.







Best BuyBest Buy
Okay, here’s where I get surprised because you would think a company that prides and market’s itself on knowing technology would design their emails for technology. All I know about this message is it’s from Best Buy. Not even all the navigation loads.







SeaWorld Orlando

SeaWorld Orlando
Because I have to illustrate what we’ve designed for my parks, here’s the most recent message we sent out announcing our first weekend of talent. Because the email is light in code, and this is in fact a standard template modified for the campaign, all but the final footer/copyright loads at the bottom. Not bad 🙂







I should GREATLY point out that user behavior is a factor in Google’s algorithms (shocking). Therefore, it’s even more important to design for your most actively engaged consumers.

Thinking back to Step 1 above, make sure you’re looking not only at your whole database, but also specifically those that Open/click, but also those that don’t or haven’t opened. Are there any trends in your data that indicate you’re missing a huge part of your fans? Outlook, for example, by Administrative default does not load images automatically. If you’re a B2B marketer, it’s very likely your consumers/fans are using this tool. A balance of images/text can be huge in garnering and retaining opt-ins, while also increasing sales and revenue.

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Email, Email Design, Functionality, Testing,