CSS Support in Email Clients Still Pretty Poor | April 26, 2007

While speaking at web design world, one attendee asked me a question about styling emails with CSS. I gave my stock answer that as a technical person I had a strong dislike of HTML/CSS emails as I feel they were against the spirit of the medium. I really like the simplicity of text as a communication medium, so hate email messages that pretend to be web pages. If I want to read a web page, I’d much prefer to be sent a link.

To me, most HTML/CSS emails are the online equivalent of junk mail, so I have styling turned off by default. If one of these emails gets through my spam filters I have an almost Pavlovian reaction to hit the junk button, before even reading the mail. I’ve spoken to many technically savvy people, and this seems to be the common reaction.

However I did agree that from a purely marketing perspective, HTML/CSS emails do tend to produce slightly higher conversion rates than regular text emails. So if you want to bombard people with marketing offers they probably don’t want or need, I guess HTML/CSS is the way to go. However for the 0.2% of people who respond, you’ll probably end up pissing the other 99.8% of people off. Obviously I didn’t say that last part out loud, but you know what I mean.

Personal opinion aside, my understanding is that styling emails with HTML/CSS is incredibly difficult. This is due to the shear number of email clients out there, and their poor support of web standards. You would imagine that webmail clients would be better, but in many cases they are actually worse – disabling all CSS in emails to prevent clashes with their own style information. So my advise was simple. Avoid HTML/CSS emails if possible.

As a speaker, you occasionally get to see feedback from your presentations. I was pleased that my sessions were reasonably well rated, but amused by the following comment.

I hate that Andy was brought in as CSS expert and he totally balked at the html email question. Giving guidance to avoid html emails it’s too hard—doesn’t reflect the reality we face as marketers.

I have to admit that I’m no email expert. I also feel sorry for any reality that involves having to work HTML/CSS emails on a regular basis. However, if you want the low-down on current CSS email client support, the nice people over at Campaign Monitor have put together their latest finding on the subject. The bottom line seems to be, if you want your emails to work in Outlook, you need still to do table based layout.

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Hack Day | April 23, 2007

Inspired by JotSpot, Yahoo! have been running internal “Hack Days” for some time now. The idea is simple. You come up with an idea for a great app, hack or mash-up, get together in a small team, and then on the appointed day you build or prototype the app.

It’s a really nice idea as it allows people to be creative and come up with ideas that would never get built otherwise. So it could be anything from a serious business changing app, through to something more fun like mashing up news and astrology data. “Hack Days” are a great way of promoting team work and communication as the best apps are likely to come from a diverse team of designers, developers and user experience people.

The fact that the app needs to be built during a single day helps focus peoples attention. As such, the apps tend to be simple ideas free of the usual feature bloat. And if one of the apps is particularly good, it may eventually end up as a live project.

Yahoo! took the decision last year to open up hack day to the public, and the feedback was phenomenal. Now, in conjunction with backstage.bbc.co.uk, Hackday is coming to the UK.

Scheduled for the 17th of June, 500 developers will descend on Alexandra Palace in London for a day of hacking. There will be food, drinks and prizes for the best hacks. And if that’s not enough, rumour has it a big band (and I don’t mean of the brass variety) will be playing at the after party.

Registration has only been open a couple of days, but 300 people have already registered their interest. Clearleft will be representing, and I hope some of you will make it along as well.

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Conference Reflections | April 8, 2007

In the last month I’ve attended four conferences, and spoken at three of them. I’ve already talked about SXSWi 2007 in some detail, so though I’d give the other events a quick write-up.

First up was the IA Summit in Las Vegas. Despite going to a lot of standards based conferences, my interest has firmly been with IA and UX for the last couple of years. This is why at events like SouthBy, I’m more likely to be seen in a session by Peter Morholz than I am by Eric Meyer (sorry Eric). I’ve been looking for a good IA/UX event for a while, but they either seem to be ridiculously expensive, or painfully academic. This is why I was extremely pleased to see the schedule for the IA summit this year was very industry focused and shied away from the more theoretical discussions.

It was very interesting going to the IA summit for a number of reasons. Firstly I was attending a conference as a delegate rather than a speaker for the first time in ages. Secondly, apart from a couple of people, I knew practically nobody at the event. This allowed me to experience the conference as a relative newbie, something I really enjoyed.

The first thing that impressed me was the sense of community at the event. Some of the attendees had been going to the conference for years, and had built up a good network of friends. For others this was their first time. The organisers went out of their way to create an atmosphere designed to help people mingle; from a volunteer help booth, through to a social trading card game.

Most conferences I attend are fairly general, so it was nice to be able to immerse myself in a single subject for two whole days. There were some fantastic presentations and I came away feeling very inspired. Much more so than I did from SouthBy this year. One of the best presentations came from the architect Joshua Prince-Ramus, who gave an insight into his working practices and demonstrated the similarities between our profession. If you’re an Information Architect or User Experience Designer, or if you just have an interest in creating better online experiences, I’d highly recommend attending next year.

Unfortunately I had to miss the last day of the IA summit as I was speaking at Web Design World in San Francisco. In all honestly I had little or no expectations for this conference. I had never been to one before and knew nobody in my circle of friends who had. My understanding was that it was aimed at a more entry level audience, so didn’t expect the sessions to be of much interest to me. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised.

There were a couple of good sessions on Ajax, and while I disagreed with a lot of what was being said, it was interesting to hear other peoples opinions. I just wish all these back-end Ajax “experts” would stop promoting libraries that encouraged people to write their code in C++ or .Net, and have it automagicaly spit out JavaScript. I also wish they would stop confusing their over-relaiance on inaccessible libraries with the inability to create accessible Ajax sites. Thankfully Nate brought the sanity level back to normal with a couple of good presentations on the YUI.

Other good sessions included an interesting talk on SEO and landing page conversions, a good case study on Ajax usability from Steve Mulder (who incidentally wrote the Web Monkey article that got me into CSS in the first place) and a characteristically flamboyant presentation from usability maestro, Jared Spool. The main thing this conference lacked was a sense of community, but then again, it wasn’t really targeted at a community audience. All in all, a very interesting couple of days, and a good way for somebody to dip their toes in the conference merry-go-round.

I was back home for a few days, then flew up to Edinburgh for the inaugural Highland Fling conference. With so many things happening in the South of England, I was excited to see the first big conference north of the border. Not least because Edinburgh is a fantastic city and a great place to hang out for a few days. In fact, it’s one of the few cities in the UK outside Brighton and Manchester I could imagine myself living. So I’d like to extend a big “thank you” to Alan White for organising the event and looking after us while we were there.

I think the audiences lack of conference experience was evident, as all of the speakers I talked to found them to be a tough crowd. Many of the speakers jokes raised barely a titter and even pictures of fluffy kittens failed to get a reaction. Still, everybody I spoke to said they enjoyed the event and put their silence down to extreme concentration.

My session on the future of CSS seemed to go down well, and I hope it rattled a few cages. I’ll write up my thoughts when I have a spare moment, but you’ll get the drift of my argument from the slides. Hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to do the talk again as I think it raises some interesting questions.

The day after the conference saw the second Refresh Edinburgh take place. This was the first Refresh I’ve been to, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Like a big skillswap or a mini BarCamp, around 50 local designers and developers gathered together to discuss a variety of topics. It was great hearing local developers talk about their projects, and I hope some of these people will make it onto the bill of the next Highland Fling. The Refresh crowd were a lot more vocal, and the sense of community was evident. It’s great seeing the start of a burgeoning community and I hope everybody involved manages to keep the momentum going. If they haven’t done it already, I’d highly recommend setting up a local mailing list to make sure the conversation continues.

I’ve enjoyed attending these conferences for various different reasons. Some for the social side, others for the topics, but al have left me feeling very positive about the industry we work in and excited about what lies ahead.

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Mon Dieu, les Pirates | April 5, 2007

Some nice French chap likes the Clearleft website so much, he’s decied to take it as his own. Seems like there is a lot of this type of stuff going on at the moment. On one front it’s very flattering, but on the other it’s deeply disappointing.

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Airport User Experience | April 5, 2007

Whenever I talk about designing navigation systems at conferences, I usually use the example of airports. Like surfing the web, when you navigate around an airport you are normally in a hurry and rarely devote your full attention on the job at hand. Instead, your senses are being availed from all sides; from security notifications and advertising, through to environmental factors like the noise and temperature. As an aside, that reminds me of something Jared Spool always says on the subject of design transparency. You only ever notice the air conditioning when it’s too hot or too cold, never when it is working just right. Anyway, I digress …

If airports were built like most modern websites, finding your way around would be a nightmare. In order to extract the most money from visitors, the airport would be littered with signs for shops and restaurants. These would take priority over less revenue generating signs for gates or toilets, which would be placed wherever there was space. The marketing department would insist on huge banners advertising their latest offers, and the maintenance men would hang them wherever it was easiest to reach, often covering up existing signage.

The problem is, this type of thinking is very short sighted. Travellers would start missing connections or get frustrated that they couldn’t find the bathroom after a long flight. People would start spending less time at the airports, or if the option was available. switch airports altogether. So by trying to increase revenue in the short term, you end up frustrating your users and potentially damaging future profitability.

Thankfully airports take a much more user-centerd approach in their design. Signs are big and occupy the most important real estate. The signage at airports is also very contextual and based on the needs of the user at that point in their journey. So when you get to departures, the most prominent signs are for the check-in desks. After checking in, the signs move you towards security. Once airside, they know you’re going to be around for a while, so will give you signs for shops and refreshments. However the gate information always takes priority, to make sure you get to the correct gate on time and don’t miss your flights.

The same is true the other way round. The designers know that when you get off a long international flight, there is a good chance you’ll need to take a bathroom stop, so they make sure there are liberal signs and facilities around the gate areas. They then funnel you towards immigration, baggage claim and then finally out of the airports towards the ground transportation. With such large and complicated spaces, I’m always amazed how airports managed to move hundreds of thousands of travellers around each day. There are definitely lessons to be learned here, so take note the next time you’re passing through an airport.

I’m flying up to Edinburgh today with my friend and colleague Jeremy Keith, to speak at the Highland Fling conference. While waiting at my gate, a woman came round with a PDA and asked if I’d mind answering some questions about finding my way around the airport. Being interested in both navigation systems and contextual enquiry, I jumped at the chance.

After the survey was finished I got chatting to the woman and asked how often they do these type of sessions and how long they last for. I was expecting her to say a couple of days or a week at most, so was surprised when she said that she’d been doing surveys full time at Gatwick for the last 6 years, and she wasn’t the only one! Rather than the one-off field studies that I’m used to, this showed the airport were committed to a long term program of research and contextual enquiry. Top marks Gatwick.

The surveys weren’t always the same. Sometimes they were objective studies around navigation like the one I’d taken. Other times they were subjective studies of peoples likes and dislikes. Asking if the surveys made any real difference, she said that McDonalds had been removed from the airport and replaced with healthier fare purely down to user research. I could personally tell that the quality of the shops and restaurants had improved over the years at Gatwick, and I imagine it has been largely due to these types of surveys. It just goes to show you the importance of talking to your users.

While I was at the airport, I decided to splash out on an expensive pair of noise cancelling headphones. I’ve been doing a lot of ravelling recently, so decided it was a sensible purchase. The shop I bought them from allowed you to test a range of models, obviously trying to tempt the busy executive to buy one for their trip. The irony was, when I opened up the package, the batteries were uncharged, rendering the headphones useless. Somebody realised that it would be a good idea to market noise cancelling headphones to distance travellers as a need was there. They just hadn’t thought about the post sales experience, and the fact that they were effectively useless without a pre-charged battery.

On a similar note, my colleague Jeremy bought some flash memory for his camera from this cool little vending machine. Kensington obviously realised that people never have enough memory for their holidays, so sensibly put a vending machine at the gate. Sadly, this thought didn’t extend to the after sales experience either. The memory came in the traditional blister packs used to stop people opening them up and stealing them in shops. The problem was, we were airside, and thus not allowed to have any sharp objects like a pair of scissors, making it it almost impossible to open the packaging.

If only both of these companies has spent a small amount of time doing contextual research or user testing, they would have witnessed these problems first hand and could have easily rectified them. Bose could have supplied pre-charged batteries while Kensington could have done away with the excess packaging. Neither of these things would have had a direct affect on their bottom line, but they would have made the purchasing experience much more pleasurable. You rarely notice good design, but bad design sticks out like a sore thumb.

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