Keep HTML and CSS out of my inbox. Please.

I wholeheartedly agree with what Jeffrey Zeldman says in E-mail is not a platform for design:

But when I say HTML mail still sucks, I don’t mean it sucks because support for design in e-mail today is like support for standards in web browsers in 1998.

I mean it sucks because nobody needs it. It impedes rather than aids communication.

HTML e-mail means having to put up with things like:

  • E-mail messages that are designed to look good to the designer or the designer’s client, not to you
  • Unreadable text that overrides your preferred font family and size
  • Unreadable plain text alternatives
  • No plain text alternatives at all
  • “If you can’t read this message, click here to open it in a web browser.”
  • Massive amounts of wasted bandwidth

Before you start comparing e-mail with the Web, noting that there was no design in the early days of the Web, consider that an e-mail message is not a website. E-mail is much more intrusive. It arrives in your inbox when it has been sent, while it is up to you to decide when or if to visit a website. That is a big difference.

Sending me HTML-based e-mail messages without a clearly formatted plain text alternative is like calling me on the phone and refusing to speak clearly. It’s as annoying as the phone salespeople who like to call when you’re having dinner. It is also a great way of making messages get caught in my spam filters.

And for the record, this is just my personal opinion, which you are free to agree or disagree with. And yes, I know you sometimes just have to do what the client asks for. It doesn’t matter. I still want to keep HTML and CSS out of my inbox.

Update (2007-06-12): Jeffrey has posted a follow-up to his article: Eight points for better e-mail relationships.

My favourite is Consider making text mail the default, and HTML mail the optional opt-in.. That would be a very refreshing move, and it would be extremely interesting to find out how many people would actively choose to receive HTML e-mail.

Posted on June 11, 2007 in (X)HTML, CSS, Rants

Comments

  1. June 11, 2007 by Chris

    agreed.

  2. Bit of mixed view on this. I hate most HTML-mails, but I really like to get the Apple one and a few others I specificly signed up for.

  3. I understand you, and, on the whole, I agree with you.

    However, if HTML email worked fine in all browsers and didn’t cause problems, would you still say it sucks because there is no need for it?

    The reason I ask this is because there are a lot of other things that impede communication and that we don’t absolutely need. HTML websites for example: over the last few years, a general obsession with fancy HTML designs and javascript tricks and so on have impeded communication and detracted from what the webmasters have been trying to say.

    Similarly, many mobile web users and dialup internet users (like myself) experience slow loading sites which also, in their own way, impede communication and enjoyment. So we could equally say, just as you do about HTML email: ‘Broadband sucks. Is it really necessary?’

    I wonder though, if we got rid of everything that was not really needed on the Internet, how much would be left?

  4. The marketers commenting on Zeldman’s post say HTML e-mails (i.e. ones with shinier design) get more people clicking through than text e-mails.

    I assume that’s in the context of sending speculative e-mails. If I had a relationship with a company, I’d expect to be able to pick my format. But for speculative e-mails, I’ll delete them whether they’re text, HTML, or pure sugar.

  5. Agreed, but… clients are clients and are not very receptive to the points you made (fonts, bandwidth etc…). What would really help convincing them is a comparison between the effectiveness of a text campaign vs an HTML one. Is anyone aware of such a study?

  6. Oh, I read the post from Zeldman few days ago… you know what I do? I click the unsubscribe link on the bottom!

  7. June 11, 2007 by Roy Anger

    @Chris: The big difference is choice. Most companies don’t offer you a choice between HTML or plain text emails. If you want the newsletter then you have to get the HTML version. Or its unsolicited, which also means you get no choice.

    When talking about mobile users, slow websites and so on, at least you, the user, have the choice. Do you want to take the time to load that website? Maybe the choices are always great, but at least they exist.

    If the sender offers the choice, then I’m fine with an HTML option. I’ll probably select the plain text most of the time myself, but from time to time I might choose an HTML version. However, in general, I’d prefer to do any with HTML and CSS emails unless the rendering support gets much better.

  8. “If you can’t read this message, click here to open it in a web browser.”

    The single most annoying sentence in email today!

    Having said that, I actually prefer emails with a bit of colour, I use GMail to read them, so don’t have problems with formatting (though I don’t remember having problems when using Thunderbird) and bandwidth isn’t a problem for me.

    Obviously we have to think of everyone, so a good text alternative should be mandatory, then everyone can be happy.

  9. June 11, 2007 by Ryan

    I disagree, when done thoughtfully html emails can be much better.

    As an example example I get product updates and suggestions from Amazon. Read through a text version of these emails is nothing short of horrible and annoying. The html versions are far better, allowing me to scan the email for the info I need without having to scroll or read to much crap.

    I could say the same for many other companies I receive emails from. I’d rather keep email letters as simple text though.

  10. June 11, 2007 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Chris (comment #3):

    I wonder though, if we got rid of everything that was not really needed on the Internet, how much would be left?

    I see your point. I’m not saying that is what we should do though ;-).

    Ryan:

    I disagree, when done thoughtfully html emails can be much better.

    I have never seen an example of that, so we’ll have to agree to disagree.

    I can live with people sending HTML e-mail as long as I don’t have to deal with it though. Give me a properly formatted, well-crafted plain text alternative and I’ll shut up :-).

  11. June 12, 2007 by Evan

    How about limiting people to the text, hypertext, bi-directional text, and ruby modules of XHTML? Actually, I wouldn’t mind lists or tables, either.

  12. The problem is spam in general, not the format you receive it in. It happens that HTML spam appears more intrusive than text based. Spam is spam, marketing is marketing, and badly designed HTML looks bad anywhere!

    Have a look at a Dell, Apple, or Veer HTML email and you’ll quickly change your mind about both their usefulness and the ability to make them look good in all email clients.

    I’ve had the opportunity to work for a couple companies which do this sort of email, both HTML and plain text. The click through rate was (2-3 years ago) much higher for HTML email. It’s good for marketing, and I can’t see it going away any time soon.

  13. Oh boy, having followed your link to Zeldman’s thread, and then continued down this one, I see the familiar battle lines are drawn. My take on it is…

    Choice

    Sending me HTML-based e-mail messages without a clearly formatted plain text alternative is like calling me on the phone and refusing to speak clearly.

    Absolutely.

    Permissions

    If one is going to send a marketing oriented HTMl email, then at least have the courtesy to make sure it’s asked for. Personally, I don’t mind HTML emails, but I respect the opinion of those who do - we’re back to ‘choice’.

    RTF style - a grey area?

    For me, I think the clarity of many email messages can benefit from a semantic mark-up approach, which strays into HTML territory, though regrettably with most mail clients I guess we’re a long way off XHTML. And I must admit that of late, as a relatively recent convert to Basecamp, I’m loving the fact that my RTF style correspondence instead now ends up as decent HTML online thanks to Textile.

    Bandwidth

    Massive amounts of wasted bandwidth

    Sure, but when compared against spam in general (both the HTML and plain text varieties), let’s get that in perspective.

    The future?

    It would be nice to think that the uptake of RSS will mitigate the need for the spammier uses of HTML email, but I’m not holding my breath.

    For now

    When asked to generate HTML email for clients, I’ll encourage them to use the approach advocated by Campaign Monitor.

  14. Have to agree like usual.

    I was before a bit skeptic about only text based emails but then I had the joys of working at a place that only allowed text based emails without any attachments and then I saw the light and now always sign up for text based instead…

  15. June 12, 2007 by Patek Philippe

    Generally I agree, but I can see the need for it sometimes too. I’ve got a client where the html-version really enhances the usability (for most users that is) since the content needs to be structured very well to be easy to grasp.

    We have done some investigations of what the end users likes too and it showed that almost everyone preferred the html-version.

  16. I have been following your site for quite some time, and usually agree with you in everything about standards, accessibility and so on. But I think you miss the point a bit here. So here’s my rant, just a point in case first.

    HTML mails are very VERY valuable for businesses. I’m working on a system for it as we speak, and what I have done is I’ve made a system that makes it watchable in clients like Gmail, works perfectly in Outlook with added CSS, and you can watch it on the web if you prefer. I decided to not automatically input images, so that’s user choice. I think that’s the “nicest” way of doing it.

    The reason that I find this ok now, but annoying a year ago, is that more people are doing it properly like that now. Getting a HTML email for something you like is great. I am getting for instance Man. United newsletter with images and news, newsletter from a carshop I shop a lot at, with images of products with a good price that week, etc. And once it’s actually mails you want, I think HTML mails are a big plus in many cases.

    But like you, I prefer most mails as plain text. But that’s because they haven’t got anything more to give me, and many mails haven’t got a reason to have a single picture. I don’t think that’s HTMLs fault though :)

    Just my 5 cents. Love your site, keep it up!

  17. June 12, 2007 by Robert Johnston

    Agree 1000%. As designers we need to try to educate clients more about this. For people who use email pretty much constantly (which I think would include most working designers), it’s completely clear that html email and unsolicited attachments are nothing but an irritation and a fast track to the spam bin — no exceptions. If your message isn’t loud and clear in plain text, then most likely it’s a message I simply don’t need to hear.

    Try telling this to clients, though. If I had a £100 for every time I’ve been asked to produce an ‘e-flyer’ (the very term curls my toes) … I’ve explained to clients that if they insist on doing this, they’re heading for the spamlists, but usually to no avail. Some of them seem to understand, but then insist on attaching a PDF or JPEG version of a print flyer to their mailshot … gahh!

    In future I’m going to refer clients directly to this and Zeldman’s article. Thanks!

    Robert

  18. There is just one problem. Statistics show that HTML e-mail works. So saying that it doesn’t isn’t going to cut it. So the issue is more how should we work with HTML e-mail. There are things that work and things that don’t. Zeldmans statement ‘E-mail is not a platform for design’ is misleading. Any communication with text requires some kind of design, even if it doesn’t use HTML.

    The bottom line is how do users respond to the email. Can they identify the sender? How do they connect with the content. In most cases the fall out over HTML defects is less than plain text only e-mail. In one test I reviewed for a client even a badly made HTML e-mail had a higher conversion than the plain text version. People may say it sucks bit it still works. Just like those washing detergent ads.

    Oh and by the way, Slashdot does plain text e-mail and it sucks. Why? Bad design. The truth, as always is somewhere in the middle.

  19. June 12, 2007 by Paul S

    I tend to get annoyed at the same things. The one thing that really gets on my nerves is the HTML emails that insist on attaching the images etc. that are required by the email. Why can’t they just host them somewhere and save on the size of the email? It’d benefit everyone.

  20. E-mail messages that are designed to look good to the designer or the designer’s client, not to you

    Zeldman put it a little more bluntly:

    Your uncle thinks 18pt bright red Comic Sans looks great, so he sends e-mail messages formatted that way.

    Either way, I agree.

    One of the main reasons for the unnecessary use of HTML e-mail by ordinary users is because a lot of people don’t like the default font that is used to display plain text e-mail in the most popular e-mail clients. e.g. Outlook 2003, uses Courier 10pt by default and it’s much easier to switch to using HTML than to dig deep into Tools -> Options -> Preferences -> Mail Format -> Stationery and Fonts -> Fonts -> Message Fonts

  21. “However, if HTML email worked fine in all browsers and didn’t cause problems, would you still say it sucks because there is no need for it?”

    precisely. Besides, I find it difficult to read HTML email in gmail.

    “Read through a text version of these emails is nothing short of horrible”

    It shows that the webmaster has not thought enough before just pushing a webpage to my e-mail client. More thinking and planning goes into text version and that’s what everyone likes to avoid.

  22. June 12, 2007 by Stevie D

    I don’t like wading through long plain-text emails. I find the uniformity of the text monotonous and it’s harder to follow the thread. With HTML, you can highlight, emphasise or embolden important points; you can include relevant pictures, unobtrusive hyperlinks and other non-textual information (eg tables) - which you simply can’t do in plain text.

    It has been a slow process to get more people where I work using email rather than posting letters, and the only way to do it, in some cases, is by making the emails look more like letters - ie, using HTML. If all we could offer was plain text, there would be a lot more paper, envelopes and postage going on around here.

    If plain text is good enough for communication, why do you allow us to use Markdown formatting here?

  23. June 12, 2007 by Peter Uchytil

    I find it odd that designers (I am one, too) have very strong opinions about web site design and usability, but all the goes out the window when it comes to email. Email is another communication method, like a web site. As designers shouldn’t we be concerned with all communication methods? If text-only emails are so great, why don’t we have text-only web sites, text-only magazines and text-only newspapers?

    It seems like the approach Campaign Monitor takes is better: help educate people/clients as to best practices for email. I personally find well designed email the same as any other well designed communication. It directs and assists my comprehension of the intended message.

    Maybe the problem is that email styling is available to practically everyone so what we are really seeing is a lot more uneducated designs happening, which makes HTML email as a whole seem like a bad thing.

  24. I have to say I both agree and disagree. Yes I understand all your points, however, some of these points could be raised out web sites, so I ask the question, how many people would like plain text web sites? I’m not one of them although I agree there always has to be an alternative.

    Good article though.

  25. June 12, 2007 by pbear

    While I prefer plain text e-mail, I wonder if it would be possible to set up a subset of HTML that would be useful for communication but (near) useless for spamming? Such that mail clients could have a preference based on this standard to trash/not display/whatever wanton messages that try to sneak stuff in. So we toss out stuff that’s hidden, javascript, alternate encoding spoofing urls, and the like, but rules, text sizes, line-spacing would be allowed. This subset would be something that would easily degrade to readable plain text.

    It doesn’t remove the problem that such e-mails use more bandwidth by default than pure plaintext, but I think the bandwidth war is already lost. Most anything can be attached to an e-mail presently and there’s nothing you can do about it as the receiver. The bandwidth is already spent.

    Comic Sans should probably be excluded from the specification though… :)

  26. As Egor mentioned above (#18), HTML email works.

    Seeing as these emails are created for a business purpose, it stands to reason that the medium to be used should be the one with the highest conversion rate.

    So, let’s move beyond the HTML vs. plain text debate and talk about what designers can do to make HTML emails as usable as possible. That would be much more helpful.

  27. I completely agree with this post. I hate getting HTML anything in my inbox. At the very least, just send over one photo with a main statement… even that gets annoying at times. For the most part, email newsletters should be little more than teaser info or solid text and information. If you are trying to get your point accross or get someone to go to a certain website… stay away from the html/css emails. I tell my clients this all of the time, but they don’t listen.

  28. June 13, 2007 by pbear

    Another thing that would be a plus with HTML: quoting.

    Tags would keep the entire quote together. Who likes to rewrap text, or have to buy a program to do it (if your e-mail client doesn’t already handle it)?

  29. I must say, I completely agree.

    HTML mail really gets on my nerves, and wastes much of my time. I expecially hate when the main part of the message is an image, and I can’t read it because I have the display of remote images disabled. (eBay does this).

    Nicely formatted plain text e-mails are the best and the only way to go for me.

  30. June 13, 2007 by Imre

    I understand the message and I can understand the point of discussion. I am usually very focussed on usability as well as efficiency (like efficient use of bandwidth etc).

    I have subscribed to Alienware insider, the techy hardware vendor’s newsletter which looks quite good in my Gmail. It’s mostly graphics but being a visual design type of guy, I like this better than long formatted texts. Granted, there is no text-based alternative for Alienware’s mailing, so it doesn’t fit the bill as stated in this article :-)

  31. Personally I do create HTML e-mail, for the reasons I already gave (#18). When using HTML I make sure it degrades well across e-mail clients. Nearly all clients support HTML to some degree. So basic mark-up is very doable. Veer.com does this very well with their multipart e-mails. It has a nice mix of very basic HTML 3.2 with tables and CSS. Even in Google it doesn’t look to strange.

    You can’t please everyone and your clients demand good conversion. Screwing them with plain text e-mail is just not on. HTML can deliver user friendly e-mails, as with everything, you just have to know how.

  32. That’s scary talk Roger. I use email for my clients because it’s a ligitmate marketing channel - it gets results. The things you say you hate putting up with are largely a result of bad design or bad implementation. Plus you’re claim about email being intrusive is kind of wrong too. I only campaign to opt-in lists - subscribers who want to hear from you. Anything else I call spam.

  33. How about a vote? HTML mail is…

  34. I avoid all this by getting all my emails as plain text. I do get those “click here if you can’t view this message” links which, of course, aren’t links at all because my email is plain text. Pretty foolish. Makes me laugh.

  35. I work for a company as a webdesigner, we are “guilty” of pushing out hundreds of thousands of opt-in email newsletters / advertisements to previous clients & people who have ordered brochures and the usual “register here for newsletter” group.

    Although the outdated support for email in most clients makes it an awkward difficult process at times, it is still an invaluable way of generating sales, brand awareness, and knowledge of deals.

    More importantly, although HTML emails may over-ride peoples choice of font, the majority seem to prefer them in the same format that they would receive a leaflet/flyer/catalogue. With tourism, photos are a big seller and a picture really does sell a property, so negating the use of HTML emails in favour of a text only email would be corporate suicide.

    We do provide text alternatives and we do have the “if this email doesn’t render click to view” link, but this is merely good practice to provide the same viewing experience for everyone.

    Personally I hate plain text emails, RTF wouldn’t bother me (unless its that idiot that emails in comic-sans), but for newsletter and marketing HTML is definitely king. Higher click-thru, more ROI and it keeps a load of third-party design companies in business, doing the design work that we don’t have time for.

    I still want to keep HTML and CSS out of my >inbox.

    Most email clients break email CSS if its not in-line, even then its use is restricted.

    Massive amounts of wasted bandwidth

    I could say that about most webpages, especially youtube.

    No plain text alternatives at all

    That’s just laziness, although we do spend quite a lot of time checking that the content is fitting to the html equivalently

    @Roy Anger

    The big difference is choice. Most companies don’t offer you a choice between HTML or plain text emails.

    We’re guilty of the same, its a job of sending out the HTML email with a plain-text alternative and expecting the choice not to be personal, but as a result of a client that can’t handle the html version. Noooothing to do with me ;o)

    When it comes down to is, ROI is going to be the stand point of any business that sends out newsletters/emails, and if html does that job better then a plain-text email then that’s the best choice for the company.

  36. The tone of this topic is a bit scary, including Jeffrey Zeldman’s position. In effect, the message is “I don’t want to receive poorly designed email, so turn off the tool that allows poor designers to do so.”

    Email is NOT about ASCII or HTML. It’s about communicating. When I took typing 40 years ago in high school I was taught how to nicely format letters and other documents with what we would consider a primitive tool, the typewriter. Yet early email systems did not even allow that degree of formatting! Now they provide the same formatting capabilities as any word processor.

    I say that’s progress.

    there will always be folks who never capitalize properly, WHO ENTER EVERYTHING IN UPPERCASE, or who canot speel. It is frustrating to receive such messages, but I don’t cut off such correspondents and I don’t blame email or, for that matter, the typewriter.

  37. i totally agree, html email is not a good idea

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