6 Email Insights From Usability Research: All You Need To Know


There are several ways to learn and improve your newsletter. I am a big fan of A/B testing, because it can give you real, usable results based on data. Usability research is a completely different game (and more expensive). Usability research can give a brand insight into the expectations and opinions that users have. In case of email marketing, a marketer would be looking at their own subscribers. What can we learn from usability research in email marketing?

The Dutch Direct Marketing Association recently published a usability research they did amongst 14 brands, supported by some data from eye tracking with the same group. Here are key six learnings they uncovered. I added my own conclusions because the ones in the research were a bit on the “not as informative” side. Let us begin!


1. Indexes are valued, not always helpful

An index is often used in larger newsletters that include a lot of items. By having an index the subscribers can scan and quickly go through the content of your email. The participants in the research said they valued an index, but it should directly link to the landing page. Some newsletters use anchor text that would normally let you scroll to the article inside the newsletter. That is not what they expect to happen. If your newsletter is already at the height of that item, it seems like nothing is happening.

Insight: Users say they like indexes because it lets them easily scan the content. But does that mean you should add one it might as well decrease your particular conversions! If you do add one, make sure it is linked directly to the landing page


2. Subject lines and the natural order of things

The users in the research were pretty clear about this one, they expected the subject line to reflect what they would find in the first article at the top of the email,. In one of the newsletters it wasn’t, this is perceived as confusing. The users wanted to read about the topic mentioned in the subject line, but had to look for it.

The explanation of the brand was viable enough; the first topic (launch of their mobile app) was important to highlight, but didn’t have the highest news-value and they used a different subject line,  because it might appeal more and persuade people to open.

Insight: The top of your newsletter will always get the most attention. Users go through the hierarchy of your email. Subject line and content are heavily connected, this is why a winning subject line in opens, isn’t guaranteed to give you the most clicks (or conversions). Experiment with the order of your content, subject lines and see what it does to your CTO (click to open rate).


3. An introduction to Intro text

Have you ever seen these newsletters that have a big introduction text? Or one that starts off like “In this newsletter we have gathered interesting….. blablabla”. Users that participated in the this usability research mentioned that they did sometimes read the intro, but didn’t always see the (added) value of it.

Insight: think about the function of your intro text. A summary of items in the newsletter won’t cut it in my opinion, see the first point on indexes. But framing might do. Most of the time these intros should be cut, especially if there isn’t any value in them. If there is, see if you can dramatically decrease the size of your intro.

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4. Body needs back

Users said that they would like to see the content “framed” with a border or by using a background colour so they would (instantly) know where the email stopped, adding to structure and a better overview. The brand gave an explanation, un-bordered was is part of their brand guidelines.

Insight: Focus your readers attention. Although i wouldn’t put this on my top-things-to-test-and-change list, it might help your users to drive attention towards the content. “It is in our Brand guidelines”  is not a convincing argument for not testing your email, although I understand this is a daily reality for some marketers.


5. Sender name needs to connect

In one case in this usability study, the sender and the subject line didn’t match. It was from ‘HB Care Hairstyle’, while the subject line mentioned skin products too. The users found this to be confusing and unappealing, saying they would open it faster if these were aligned. The brand immediately took that as a quick win and changed their sender name to ‘HB Care’ for future mailings.

Insight: Never underestimate the power of the Sender name and form address. this is the first thing that users see in their inbox, even before subject line and pre-header or snippet. You are free to change this to better reflect the content of your ongoing email campaigns, or even change it to fit with individual email campaigns. For instance think about the difference between transactional mails, marketing automation and event driven mails or series of emails.


6. Link to Landing pages

The importance of linking to the landing page from your index page is undisputed. Now the users also said that with some emails, they couldn’t easily find what they were looking for on the landing page while it was there.

Insight: Make sure your landing page is what is expected and directly offers the assurance that the subscriber is in the right place. Sometimes though there are multiple items on one page, Adding an anchor in the link to your lengthy landing page can direct them and scroll the page so that the topic is presented front and center.

Adding an anchor text is quite simple: First you add a small piece of code on the page itself. Say your page has multiple items on email marketing 😉 And you wanted to get right to the part where you give tips on Sender name. You can add a little link inside the page looking like this:

<a name=”sendername”></a>

now you can link to that part directly by adding a hashtag and the name of your anchor at the end of your link. Try clicking on the link and you will see it works.


Use of usability research in email

Usability research just like other types of research needs to be used with care and seen in context. It is not an alternative to a professional email marketing audit or A/B testing. Remember your subscribers are not experts, that makes it both valuable and is a great tool for uncovering “hidden” insights. At the same time they are not experts, so what do they know beyond their own wants needs and experience? Simply taking what people (users) suggest and taking it as absolute truths, is not the way to go.

It is important to remember though that the research was a qualitative research; people were asked for their opinions and had more time to look at the emails inbox and landing pages. ). That is not the same situation as it is in real life of course. The outcomes for your own newsletter might be different, but very useful in adding new test and optimization ideas. In the comments below, share with us your insights and results!

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