Why I Can’t Stand HTML Email

22:12 Thu 18 Jan 2007
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It’s not, as a co-worker claimed today, because I’m a Luddite. And, despite often feeling as if I’m against it, I’m not actually against the technological capability to send and received HTML-formatted messages via email.

I may be a software engineer, but I still appreciate good design. I think that typography is extremely important, and am certainly aware of the power of images. So why do I find HTML email so objectionable?

The primary reason is: because it’s usually awful. What I really object to is HTML email done badly, not HTML email per se, but it’s done badly so often that it feels as if the entire medium is tainted.

Before I continue, I want to distinguish between two kinds of HTML emails, those that are ‘fully-fledged’ and those that are essentially rich text emails, with markup for bold, header, italic, etc. The latter are rarely problematic, and in addition, along with plain-text email, make up the vast majority of the day-to-day emails that people actually read. But ‘fully-fledged HTML email’ is a different beast—a beast almost always done badly.

The main way in which it’s done badly? Forgetting or ignoring the fact that email, even more than the Web, is a user-controlled medium. Consider the difference between someone receiving a postcard and receiving an email. When they get the postcard, it is entirely self-contained. It is a physical artifact that the recipient has no choice but to deal with on its own terms.

Emails are not self-contained. They are digital, and require hardware and software in order for them to be read. Those machines, and this software, are both configurable by the user. In other words, the user controls their message-reading environment and sets it up so it suits them. This sounds obvious (is obvious), but most HTML email designs ignore it.

More or less the first thing an HTML email has, as opposed to a text email, is a layout. Not an order, not semantic organization, but visual layout. The clearest example? Dimension. HTML email designs tend very strongly to have width and height.

If you have set up your email interface so that it suits you, your viewing area for actual emails will be idosyncratically sized. It might be narrow or wide. It might show a couple of lines, or many. It’s quite unlikely that it will correspond to the dimensions desired by the HTML email designer, who probably envisaged a large viewing area that is taller than it is wide.

This doesn’t even account for the fact that you might be reading your email on any number of myriad devices, from phones to PDAs to text-only consoles.

The first thing that you the user have to do when you receive this message is alter your viewing environment to accommodate it.

Yes, it’s easy, all you have to do is grab a couple of bars around with the mouse, or maybe double-click, and there you go. You can see it. But it made you alter your preferred environment. And at some level you’re going to wonder why this email is different, and why its message cannot be contained in a convenient, malleable container like the vast majority of the email you read every day.

So the vast majority of your email—the email that contains work information, social plans, news from friends—all of that is in malleable text that you easily process, without even really thinking about doing so. HTML email refuses to act the same, insisting instead on its own dimensions.

At some level, you the user know that this awkwardness is unlikely to be for your benefit.

HTML email design starts with this awkwardness, generally without even being aware of it, and continues it. The next thing is images. If they’re contained within the email, they eat up the recipient’s storage. If they’re not contained within the email, then they take a moment or two to download—if the user allows images at all, an increasingly uncommon preference.

If the email is done well, the images will not be essential to the message, and the HTML will be carefully designed to work almost as well without the images as with them. More often than not, however, the email isn’t designed like this at all. And this is hardly surprising, given that the first stage of the design—layout—wilfully ignores the likely varied recipient environments and instead demands an environment suited to itself.

Again, the issue of varied clients comes up. Yes, it’s 2007, “everyone” can read HTML email—but how well can they read it? What flavor of HTML can they support? What weird bugs lurk in the myriad rendering engines? Most HTML email designs pay little attention to this, again assuming that they will end up in an environment ideally suited to their viewing.

This appears to be happening less and less often, given the explosion in mobile email-reading devices and the shift to images being off by default.

And so, the difference between what the designer presents to their customer and what the recipient sees is larger than in any other medium I can think of. This is generally papered over, because educating the customer is hard. Furthermore, there’s always another designer around willing to tailor their design to that customer’s particular email environment and assure the customer that all the ultimate recipients will see what they see (unlikely, to say the least).

On top of being demanding (often arrogantly so) in terms of its relationship with its recipients, HTML email tends to be fundamentally dishonest in its design, the lie being the claim that the design is what the recipients will actually see.

There are other problems with HTML email, but I think the above goes to the core of my dislike.

So, do I really want to do away with HTML email? No. I love HTML, after all, and the same goes for email. But I want HTML email that shows an appropriate humility, that demonstrates an understanding of its medium, that is malleable to my email environment (whatever that may be).

There are strong schools of Web design/development that embrace this approach, focusing on usability, accessibility, and progressive enhancement. Why not approach HTML email the same way?

7 Responses to “Why I Can’t Stand HTML Email”

  1. NiallM Says:

    Outlook is changing its HTML rendering engine from IE to the non-CSS compliant renderer they used to use in Outlook 2000… heh.

  2. kevintel Says:

    Tadhg, while on the one hand I understand the dislike of badly formatted HTML email, I also know that in your ideal world most information with graphic design applied would be supplied as a ‘user-configurable set of elements’; a pile of text paragraphs, a piece of backing card, some markers, spray-mount and a cutting knife. I spent 4 years studying why this is a bad approach. I’ll send you some books on it at some point (and a cutting knife, in case you don’t like how they laid it out).

  3. mollydot Says:

    Perhaps it’s the people sending those mails who are luddites – they can’t cope with the new fangled user controlled environments.

    Kevintel – can you give a quickie answer to why it’s a bad approach?

  4. Tadhg Says:

    NiallM: Yes, they’re using the Word rendering engine again, apparently. This was one of the spurs for writing the post, because my initial reaction was “good, maybe this will stop all the HTML email silliness”—and that reaction seemed dodgy.

    kevintel: Funny. That’s not my ideal world… but hopefully a big lesson from what you learned for four years was “design to the medium”, and that’s what is lacking in the vast majority of HTML emails. Whereas the books you refer to probably were designed for the book medium—a medium I don’t really want to spend time “configuring” with a cutting knife.

  5. Niall O'Higgins Says:

    HTML e-mail makes mutt cry. Although I can still read it with relatively little hassle through lynx, I generally find that HTML email is a good indication that the email isn’t worth reading in the first place.

    Usually people only employ it when they are trying to sell you something, thats why they require the use of images and fancy typography.

  6. What is HTML Email? Says:

    Maybe the whole medium is not tainted, but it’s well abused. Like putting metal in the microwave. It’s often better to say “don’t” than to teach people to do it properly.

  7. Tadhg Says:

    Sure, but I would argue that the motives driving most decisions to use HTML email mean that they’re likely to abuse it. HTML hyperlinks are really useful, and I’d love to be able to use them in text emails, just as I’d like to use italics, bold, and so on. But it rarely stops there…

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