How To Write Email People Will Read
Email is a part of everyday life. We are inundated. So how do you write an email that clients and co-workers will read?
Give them a good user experience.
UX and Email
People don't just read your email, they experience your email; the flow, the structure, the tone, etc. An email also sits inside of the chrome of the person's email client, webmail, browser chrome, etc. All of these things fight for visual attention.
Thus think of your reader as the user of your email, and concern yourself with their user experience. Scannability, readability, simplicity, gestalt principles and other UX concepts all apply.
Below are some UX tips for writing emails that people will actually read, based on my own experiments and experience.
Short Subject Lines
UX Principle: Scannability
Don't put too much information into the subject line. It's annoying. Huge subject lines suggest that the reader doesn't read email and needs to be beaten to open it. That just makes people want to scan the email and get out, not read it in detail.
Bad example: "Client called and needs update on meeting the deadline now!"
Good example: "Client update needed"
People scan email subject lines. Give a succinct, scannable subject line that explains the email without requiring too much cognitive or emotional processing. They will be more open to reading, not skimming.
UX Principle: Mental Models
Your email should have a thesis sentence; an opening sentence that describes the purpose of and structure of the email. People will scan your email from top to bottom, and a good thesis sentence gives them reason to read and sets the expectation of what they will learn.
Bad example: "We are almost ready on this phase of the project, but we're going to need to talk about some things."
Good example: "I am writing to update you on this phase of the project, and to layout some questions that need to be answered to complete it."
Give the reader a reason to continue reading in detail, as opposed to scanning for what they think is important. You want the reader's mental model of what the email's intent is to match reality.
Verbosity and Adjectives
UX Principle: Simplicity
Do not write like you talk. That's what texting is for. Keep things concise, and do not overuse adjectives. Unnecessarily long sentences, and overused or repeated adjectives will encourage skimming, not reading.
Bad example: "Getting this done is very, very, very important. I just can't overstress enough how important this is - so please, please work on this just as soon as you can."
Good example: "This is our highest priority."
Simple, clearly stated phrases are more likely to be read, recalled, and acted upon.
Emphasis and Calls to Action
UX Principle: Calls to Action
To draw attention to a particular phrase is a delicate balancing act. Draw too much attention and you encourage skimming, not enough and it may be missed.
To draw minor attention use italics.
When calling major attention (such as a 'call to action' - i.e. 'this is something you need to do') use bold. For cases where there are multiple points of emphasis, you may use bold italics for the point of greatest importance. Oh and…
Don't underline. It looks like a link.
Any other form of emphasis will be:
- offensive (all caps is yelling)
- annoying (multiple font sizes injure readability)
- output in an unexpected or less readable way (remember people are reading email on devices of varying size)
UX Principle: Accessibility
Color-dependency is an important usability heuristic. A degree of color-blindness is a common genetic trait in humans. Don't rely on color to get your message across. It is a false emphasizer.
Color also suffers from over-attention. An item of color draws an unequal amount of attention from other forms of emphasis, and can cause skimming or complete skipping of the surrounding black text.
Too much color is just annoying and hurts the eyes.
The lesson: Don't use color in your emails.*
If you can't properly emphasize and call the reader to action with plain text, bold, and italics, you need to rewrite your email.
*exception: your email client may use color when replying to an email inline to distinguish your words from the original email - this is ok, if consistent
Structure, Consistency, and Units of Information
UX Principle: Gestalt
Interface consistency is an important UX concept. The same for email. Don't give your reader (i.e. user) a stream of your current consciousness. Give them a structured set of information, delineated into concise units of information that share the same emphasis and call-to-action styles.
For example, your email may look like this:
Subject line: Concise and scannable
Thesis sentence explaining point of email
Details about point 1 with minor emphasis where needed. Here there may also be links, bullet points, questions, and other information.
Call to action: What the reader needs to do or understand
[Repeat the point/call-to-action structure above for each point, question, or subject in your email]
Through consistency and by respecting gestalt principles, you teach the reader how to parse your email. You lower the cognitive requirements for comprehension, and thus increase the likelihood they will read, appreciate, and act. (Note: Be sure to separate details into small paragraphs. A long paragraph may look fine on your desktop, but will be hard to parse on a small device.)
UX Principle: Negative Space
Good use of whitespace (or 'negative space', i.e. the lack of content) in an email allows for easier parsing of information and lowers the probability of a reader missing a piece of information.
As a complement to the structural approach discussed above, separate your headers, calls-to-action, and units of information with whitespace. Also long running paragraphs should be divided into separate paragraphs where each paragraph is a complete thought.
A run-on email is a cognitively exhausting one. Give your words room to breath, and your reader will be able to as well.
Email is an interface. Your reader is the user. Give them a good user experience and they will be more likely to read your email in it's entirety. Reading promotes comprehension. Comprehension promotes appropriate action. Make reading your emails a pleasant experience for your readers. They will be more likely to respond to your emails in a positive, forgiving, and appreciative way.
Remember the UX of email. You just might get read.