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Email is User Experience

People always want to believe that their creation speaks for itself.

Thanks to this Field of Dreams “build it and they will come” mentality (plus an irrational fear of coming off as spammy), there’s often a startling disconnect between how much thought and investment goes into building a product — and how little goes into emails about it.

Yet emails are part of your product. From sign-up through every other moment in a user lifecycle, email serves as the timely yet asynchronous glue that connects you to customers on their turf.

“Don’t make the mistake of thinking emails about your product are not part of the product,” as Sunir Shah, President of Cloud Software Association warns. “The most important emails are part of the product experience.”

Email is User Experience, Too

The cost of thinking that your product is so good, it speaks for itself is a self-centered and insular point of view.

That disregard of the perspective of your customers — who have lives of their own, whose worlds do not revolve around your product — leads to treating email communication like business bolt-ons rather than elements. Your world shouldn’t revolve around just the bits and bytes of your product. “The product is not just the web app or a mobile app. It’s the entire flow the end user needs to go through to complete their goal,” Sunir explains.

Consider Peter Morville’s famous user experience honeycomb, which lays out what facets of user experience actually help people complete their goals. You’ll see that all types of emails can make a sweet difference in every honeycomb cell:

Peter Morville's user experience honeycomb

  • Useful: Is your product ultimately useful? Are you helping people get something done or make progress towards a goal?
  • Usable: Is your product easy to use?
  • Desirable: Does your product build emotional affinity? Is it likable?
  • Findable: Is your product easy to navigate?
  • Accessible: Morville defines accessibility in regards to people with disabilities, there are other access considerations, such as language barriers, stress levels, perception of safety, and low confidence.
  • Credible: Does your product build trust?
  • Valuable: Does your product deliver value and advance a mission?

All your emails should serve a clear purpose, not only to nudge users to do what you want them to do, but to drive their user experience forward. Then they play an incredibly powerful and vital role in your business — bridging UX gaps in your product and addressing the UX of basic everyday life, where busy people won’t remember to return to your site or app.

Fighting Against the Fragmented Customer Experience

A customer’s encounter with your product or service extends beyond the bounds of a device or website, whether it’s figuring out a refund, getting urgent questions answered in a live chat, tracking a package ordered online, or reading a helpful case study or blog post. That’s the “whole customer experience.” And when you’re looking at this more holistic view, Peep Laja says, “Every single customer experience is your moment of truth.

Emails are more than underutilized return tickets to your site or app — they’re opportunities to improve your customer’s whole experience, from teaching with helpful onboarding emails and newsletters to providing valuable insight with digest emails and beyond.

Email has become even more of an explicit interface for people to complete relevant actions without leaving the inbox. In Gmail, for example, you can perform tasks like confirming subscriptions, RSVPing for an event, and adding items to your queue.

Instacart provides a great example of whole customer experience that builds on the understanding that users won’t (and shouldn’t) stay glued to their site or app. They use all kinds of messages (email, SMS, and even phone calls) to build that whole experience, aiming beyond delivering groceries to making the interaction flow make the most sense for the customer. Otherwise, they could have turned grocery delivery into something just as frustrating as waiting for the cable guy.

After placing an order, Instacart sends these email messages:

  • Your Instacart Order Confirmation (order and delivery details, the ability to update the order)
  • Instacart Delivery Reminder (especially useful when the delivery is not set to the same day)
  • Instacart is on the way! (expected arrival time — great to know because I should be home to get my groceries!)
  • Your Order with Instacart (provides order summary and finalized total charged)

Note this last email in this interaction. There’s a “Review” button that appears in the inbox. Clicking on that allows you to send a review and rating without ever leaving the inbox or even opening the email.

Instacart review from inbox

If you do open this email to check out your order, you can still publish a review without leaving the email client:

Instacart review form email

With your fridge freshly stocked, chances are lowest that you’ll want to go back to the site just to leave a review. By incorporating email messages into the whole user journey, Instacart is able to build towards both customer and business happiness.

If every email is an opportunity to improve user experience, then you’re forced to be relevant by always considering your customer’s specific context and situation in every communication. It’s one more gigantic nail in the coffin on annoying, tone-deaf batch-and-blast messages.

Yet even today, only 20% of marketers use behavioral marketing based on web activity, according to a survey from Econsultancy. That’s a lot of room to surprise, delight, and help your customers  — and really stand out amongst the radio silence approach on one hand and the sea of spray and spam, on the other.

The mere existence of your product isn’t enough for success. Whether people experience empathy, service, and value – both inside and outside of your app — will be what defines you.

Header photo: Chris Beckett/Flickr