Boxed in – the great email tragedy

By Charles Ash, Senior Front-End Developer at G&G Digital

In the current great creative explosion of our time, I’m all for freedom, bucking the system and doing the unconventional. When it comes to the really big things though, one quickly realises that unbridled freedom can be a major bugbear in getting even the simplest things done.

Heck, I’m even losing my faith in humanity ever agreeing on the big, really important things, like achieving consensus on matters of the environment, objective morality and global justice, when we can’t even all agree to drive on the same side of the road.

World Wide Web or Wild Wild West?
If you’re in the web development world, you’ll have an even greater appreciation for the global adherence to standards. Not too long ago, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the WWW in your favourite URL stood for Wild Wild West. The browser market was dominated by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and standards and methods of rendering data on your screen differed wildly from browser to browser.

The greatest villain in this technological sham was Microsoft with their divergence from any semblance of technological sanity. The result was the birth of the Firefox browser and the Mozilla Foundation which sought to bring technological consistency and sanity to the world’s browser market.

Almost immediately, Firefox started eating away at the Internet Explorer fiefdom and Microsoft was brought to heel through market loss and other players (including Google Chrome) taking a more co-operative, rational approach to the enforcement and adherence to web standards.

The email challenge
The email market now finds itself at the same nexus the browser market found itself in 10 years ago. The market is fractured and wildly inconsistent. With the rendering of HTML in email clients varying so wildly, it’s enough to bring even the most accomplished web developers to their knees.

You see, while the world races ahead technologically, the market for email clients and the rendering of HTML emails has remained obstinately stuck in the past. Even the lowly animated GIF and transparent PNG enjoy very spotty support (at best) in email clients.

That jaw-dropping design your creative team produced for the next award-winning mailer? You may want to rethink those background images, paddings, margins and CSS3 effects. Unless you’re planning on emailing a link for people to see your creative wizardry in their browser.

The case for simplicity
So how does one distill sanity and send out functional, viewable mailers that don’t bring the design team to tears; alienate the client and don’t cause your developers to want to immigrate to Antarctica? You can start by taking a back-to-basics approach.

Uppermost in your mind is that most of your end users will likely be viewing your emails on their mobile phones, so it makes sense to target this particular segment first and scale up your design to cater for users who may be accessing your emails in Outlook, Apple Mail, Thunderbird and heaven-forbid, Lotus Notes or Groupwise.

Only one click away
Until the technology underpinning the rendering of email gets dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, we need to shed the notion that the HTML email must be as creatively expressive as the website you’re trying to lead the end user to.

This isn’t 1999, where only a select group of people had access to the web and so it made sense that the email touch point be as flashy as the website you hoped to lead them to. Don’t lose sight of the fact that almost every recipient of your email in the world today, is just one click away from the website you’re trying to lead them to.

Be realistic. Save time. Save tears. There’s wisdom in simplicity.

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