"Automated email can improve customer service, strengthen relationships, and help websites bypass search engines. But most messages fared poorly in user testing and didn't fulfill this potential.
Email is one of a website's most powerful tools for strengthening customer service and increasing user confidence and trust in both the site and the company. Confirmation messages and transactional email can complete the user experience. They do this by reaching out to customers in ways that are otherwise impossible for websites, which must sit and await the user's approach.
For email to fulfill its potential, however, messages must be designed for optimal usability. They must have a user interface that both works in a crowded inbox and accounts for most people's typically hectic approach to reading mail.
Unfortunately, most companies don't seem to view email creation as a user interface design activity, possibly because messages are often text-only, and thus don't seem "designy."
Judging by many of the messages we tested, email design often seems to be a side effect of the software implementation and consists of copy written by the programmer late at night. Alternatively (and even worse), some messages are hard-hitting, written by aggressive sales people without a true understanding of Internet marketing's emphasis on relationship building.
In our latest research, we asked users to rate a wide range of transactional email on 6 criteria. Sure enough, "design" was the quality that received the lowest ratings.
User Research: Two Studies
We tested 92 transactional email messages for usability, observing users as they interacted with email in the inbox view and read individual messages. We conducted this research in two rounds, with 5 years between the two studies, allowing us to assess trends in users' email-related behavior.
In both studies, most of the messages were order and service confirmations or shipment notifications, but we also tested reservation confirmations and e-tickets; available-now notices; billing and payment notices; cancellations, returns, refunds, rebates, and bonuses; information request responses; government responses; customer service messages; failure notices; and registration and account information.
Study 2 included all of these message types, as well as newer uses of transactional email, such as social networking updates, information posting notifications, meeting confirmations, and recommendations from friends (sent through the now-common website feature that lets users "tell a friend" about a product or article). As the many message types show, transactional email offers abundant opportunities for enhancing a site's relationship with its customers.
A striking conclusion from the studies is that processing email is stressful. Users frequently told us that they were too busy to deal with certain email messages, and that they considered any fluff in messages a waste of time. When they check their email, users are typically dealing with multiple requests for their time — whether from their boss, colleagues, or family. People just want to be done with most email, and quickly move past anything that is not absolutely essential.
It has long been a strong usability guideline to be brief when writing for the Web; email writers must be even briefer.
Surviving Spam-Filled Inboxes
Transactional email has three goals:
1. Avoid being mistaken for spam. Email must survive users' ruthless pruning of inbox messages.
2. Be a customer service ambassador. Email should enhance a company's reputation for customer service and increase users' confidence in their dealings with the company.
3. Prevent customers from calling in. Telephone call centers are expensive. However, rather than simply eliminating contact information (which undermines the previous goal), ensure that your email answers all common questions in easily understandable terms.
All three goals are important, but if an email message fails the first goal, it also automatically fails the other two simply because people won't read it." (Continued via Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox) [Usability Resources]