Email Newsletters: Surviving Inbox Congestion

by Jakob Nielsen on June 12, 2006

Summary: Newsletter usability has increased since our last study, but the competition for users' attention has also grown with the ever-increasing glut of information.

Only two years have passed since our last study of email newsletter usability . For almost any other topic, conducting a new study so soon would be a waste of time. Usability guidelines change extremely slowly because they depend on human nature, which tends to change at a rather glacial pace. Newsletters are one of the few exceptions to this rule because their environment — the inbox — grows ever more crowded each year.

To assess email newsletters' current usability, we conducted a new round of user research (described below). As it turned out, all of our original findings continue to hold . The 127 design guidelines from our previous newsletter report are still valid, though we refined some in light of the new research. The main change is in volume: we added more guidelines based on additional insights derived from eyetracking studies of how users process their inbox and read their newsletters. We now have 149 guidelines  for email newsletter usability.

Our main conclusion remains the same: Email newsletters are the best way to maintain customer relationships on the Internet.

User Research

We conducted our new study using an eyetracker with 42 participants. Using eyetracking technology , we recorded where users looked on websites as they subscribed or unsubscribed to email newsletters. We also recorded how users looked at their inboxes and how they read individual newsletters.

We tested 117 email newsletters, as follows:

  • We tested 12 newsletters systematically (using a controlled methodology to ensure that all newsletters were used evenly).
  • We tested 40 newsletters in a less controlled manner (users picked newsletters that most interested them from an inbox, and some newsletters were read much more than others).
  • We tracked users' eye movements as they read a total of 65 newsletters from their personal inboxes. By definition, each of these newsletters was read by a single user.

Finally, we included a field study component wherein we observed users in their offices during a typical workday. This ethnographic approach allowed us to study how participants used newsletters and news feeds in an environment with many competing information sources and demands on their time.

Improvements in Measured Usability

Relative to our first study four years ago, we recorded strong advances in user interfaces' ability to support users in getting on or off mailing lists.

  • Subscribe: The average time it took users to subscribe to newsletters decreased from 5:04 minutes four years ago to 4:03 minutes in the new study, for a productivity gain of 25% .
  • Unsubscribe: The average time it took users to unsubscribe from newsletters decreased from 3:05 minutes four years ago to 1:38 minutes in the new study, for an impressive productivity gain of 89% .

Four years is a very short amount of time, so it's heartening to observe that companies have invested enough in user experience quality to win improvements in the 25-89% range. Such investment is evidence of the email newsletter's importance to the bottom line.

Despite the improvements, however, much remains to be done. Users should be able to subscribe to a newsletter in less than a minute, for example.

Also, in the latest study, the success rate  for subscribing to newsletters was 81% . While higher than the 66% we found when testing a broad range of websites , a success rate of 81% implies that a newsletter with 50,000 subscribers could gain an additional 11,700 subscribers by improving the usability of its subscription process.

Scanning Text, Skipping Intros

One of the chief benefits of eyetracking is to study users' reading behavior  in great detail. We found that users are extremely fast at both processing their inboxes and reading newsletters: the average time allocated to a newsletter after opening it was only 51 seconds . "Reading" is not even the right word, since participants fully read only 19% of newsletters . The predominant user behavior was scanning. Often, users didn't even scan the entire newsletter: 35% of the time, participants only skimmed a small part of the newsletter or glanced at the content.

People were highly inclined to skip the introductory blah-blah text in newsletters. Although this text was only three lines long on average, our eyetracking recordings revealed that 67% of users had zero fixations within newsletter introductions.

Eyetracking heatmap of users reading an email newsletter.
Eyetracking heatmap of users reading a newsletter. Notice the emphasis on reading the first two words of the headlines.
The areas where users looked the most are colored red; the yellow areas indicate fewer views, followed by the least-viewed blue areas.

Changing Behaviors

Compared with previous newsletter studies, the biggest change we found in our new research was that users are even more flooded with information than in the past. As a result, people are getting extremely choosy about which newsletters they'll allow into their overflowing inboxes. Of course, this again increases the need for publishers to pay attention to their newsletters' usability and to design for scannability and fast access.

Users often deliberately trade off newsletters against each other to reduce their email volume. A good newsletter might be booted if a better one comes along. People are conscious of the need to protect their time, and they try to identify the best newsletters for their various information needs.

Many users are getting quite skilled at managing email , since it's such an important tool for both business and personal use. (Email is the Internet's true killer app — websites are a poor second as far as most users are concerned.) On average, users maintained 3.1 email accounts each, using different accounts for different purposes.

As time passes, users are also accumulating "old" email accounts that they rarely use but might check sporadically. If your newsletter arrives in such an account, users might not see it while it's fresh, so you could see a " slow tail " of clicks and orders coming in from such users. There's not much you can do about this, other than to ensure that your newsletter's links and special offers don't expire too soon.

Several participants used special accounts to sign up for things that they feared might be spam or be generally less useful. It's imperative to convince users that your newsletter belongs in a higher-priority account. You can accomplish this by following the guidelines for giving a credible impression in the subscription interface of your newsletter's value and publication frequency.

Now that most email services provide gigabyte-sized storage, users are archiving more newsletters than they used to. On the one hand, doing this adds to their information overload. On the other hand, it enhances the long-term value of newsletters compared to other Internet media forms. The reason for this is that stored newsletters become part of users' personal information spaces and thus will be found when they search their own environments. Although your newsletters don't need full-fledged SEO (search engine optimization), you should consider how users might want to retrieve old issues in the months or years to come.

Old Usability Problems Remain

Our new research also found many well-established usability problems. On one website, for example, users subscribed to the wrong newsletter format because of the way the choice was presented:


First, the labels obviously violate the guideline established in our very first report on email newsletters in 2002 . It's extremely well documented how to phrase the two options so that mainstream users will understand them. There's really no excuse for the geeky labels seen here.

Second, as we reported in 2004, the horizontal layout of the radio buttons is simply begging users to select the wrong one (as detailed in guideline #6 for checkboxes and radio buttons ). Sure enough, this is exactly what happened in our study: several users who were technical enough to understand the difference between "HTML" and "Text" thought the "HTML" label applied to the circle to its right, and selected accordingly.

Actually, "thought" is the wrong word: clicking happens so fast that people don't really think. If users thoroughly analyzed these radio buttons, they'd probably use them correctly. However, nobody ranks "understanding radio buttons" as a main goal in life. People would rather spend time with their kids, so they click website features as fast as possible, meaning that designers need to prevent errors by avoiding error-prone designs like the one above.

Full Report

The full report on email newsletter usability with 221 design guidelines for newsletters is available for download.

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