Is Your Email Aesthetic Hurting Your Clicks?

The digital aesthetic, especially for email, has changed drastically over the last 10 years. Technology has improved, consumers are increasingly savvy and designing for online consumption has become an artform. Across digital channels, we’ve seen a progression from crowded and clunky to sleek and minimalist. In our effort to produce creative with a modern aesthetic, are we depriving our audiences of a positive user experience? Is our creative contributing to tune-out and abandonment?
While the flat design approach has been around for quite some time, I’ve noticed that it is picking up a great deal of momentum in the email space. Essentially, flat design focuses on two dimensional, minimalist designs. In addition, it emphasizes a purely digital experience as opposed to one that echoes aspects of the analog world.
As an example, the call to action button on left is designed to mimic an actual button that one may find on an analog control panel. In contrast, the flat design button on the right provides a place to click but does not attempt to replicate a physical object.Email submit call-to-action buttonsBoth button designs signify to recipients that this is a place within the email they can take action. Beyond buttons, signifiers can include navigation bars, hyperlinked text, footer callouts and even images. As Web and email design has evolved, the audience has learned which design elements signify clickable elements. And while humans are generally very adaptable, too steep of a learning curve can disrupt performance.
It’s important to keep in mind that both the marketer and subscriber play important roles when it comes to email functionality and successful clickthrough behavior. The marketer and design team determine what elements are clickable and how they convey that to the subscriber. This part of the process can be likened to an invitation to engage.
If subscribers don’t recognize which elements are clickable, the invitation to interact will be far less effective. With each email design, we need subscribers to digest information, find value and identify how to take the next steps. If the clickability cues are too subtle, this can cause doubt, confusion and abandonment. It’s up to marketers to design for their audience and map the evolution of their designs to the understanding and tolerance of their subscribers.
As shown below, the inbox is seeing the full spectrum when it comes to the signifiers that are included across emails. Brands such as & Other Stories use weak signifiers in their approach, while others like Brookstone leverage buttons and design elements that convey depth.
Email CreativeEmail creative is an important part of the overall email strategy. In addition to supporting the brand story and augmenting the aesthetic, the creative needs to be functional and create a path for engagement. Emails can be used educate, inform, and raise awareness, but more often than not, they need to drive action to be successful.
As marketers, we need to make sure that our content and creative look good and pique interest, but if we fail to convey clear next steps and motivate action, our email program will always under-perform.
In a recent study on websites and UIs, the Nielsen Norman Group highlighted a vulnerability in flat design’s minimalist approach: the clickability signifiers that users skim for were more difficult to identify. They found that for designs that included weak signifiers, “participants struggled to locate the element they wanted, or weren’t confident when they first saw it.”
When a call to action looks like a button, there is minimal processing and deliberation required in determining where we need to click to take action. As designs move further away from signifiers that are traditionally associated with clickable elements, users have to spend more time determining how to take the next step. In the email space, this can be fatal to ROI.
As we’re all aware, the human attention span is very short; we only have about eight seconds to capture attention. When subscribers are processing information within the inbox, they are making split second value judgments and determinations on whether to click through to further explore content. If we require further investment and focus from them, the likelihood that we’ll lose them increases.
So how can your brand balance a clean, minimalist style while providing a clear path of engagement? Here are some tips to keep in mind:

As a Senior Email Strategist with Return Path, Casey specializes in driving increased engagement and boosting deliverability. Casey has a healthy fixation with helping marketers realize the potential of their email programs by addressing human needs, building better relationships, and ultimately driving improved results for the business. Her nine years of experience and obsession with evolving the email space helped land her a spot on ExpertSender’s list of “25 Email Geeks to Help You Get Your Geek On.”