Better Email with Usability and A/B Testing

Dutch HollisI am a bit of a nerd when it comes to usability. I really get excited about the idea of tweaking a page to get just the right response… and learning why it works. When I overheard someone here at Knotice talking about an eye track study and heat maps, my ears perked up. Turns out this was an older study and specific to news media websites, but it got me thinking about how customers view the creative that is worked so diligently to perfect.

There are a lot of good studies that use eye tracking from the biggest names in usability. And there are a bunch that reveal what shape is made when the heat map is complete – an “F,” a “Z,” something that looks like the “solution” without the maze, etc. But there are also a few places where all the different studies tend to be in agreement. Most of these studies are centered on how we all read text.

Usually we scan. Customers are very adept at reading email and making quick decisions on it. A longer publication like a newsletter may get less than a minute’s attention from the most engaged readers. Email, unsurprisingly, competes for a limited – usually fixed – amount of time with everyone else’s email. Readers do not add to their email time budget for each new subscription.

So what can be done? Here are a few standards I always strive for when reviewing email copy and layout:

  • Clearly all the shapes created by these heat maps put emphasis on the top left. That is how we in the West read, left to right and top to bottom, so this comes naturally. Put the goods there.
  • Some studies will show that the best length for a text link is 7-10 words. Often eye trackers guide us to make the first few words count. That may be all that is read (or scanned) before a decision is made to click or move on.
  • The same principles apply with headlines. The first few words matter the most.
  • Text links are best and buttons are second for getting clicks. Anything that looks like an “ad” in the content, regardless of how well it actually supports the content, will likely be ignored.

It may not be possible to get the budget, time, or desire to do an eye track study, but it does not mean improving the content is impossible. Besides taking my word for what works, do some A/B testing. Conduct a focus group with a few customers. If something new and different is learned, let us all know.

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One Comment

  1. amandamcneill
    Posted November 13, 2009 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    Hi Dutch,

    Great topic. I’ve done a lot of email marketing and typically I have 2 versions designed before the first blast. I then send out both to 1/3 of the list and wait for the best metrics. Then go with the most popular. Of course, they have to have the same subject line if you’re testing the content of the email.

    You may like this article from Web Site Magazine that reviews usability tools

    I am affiliated with but the article covers several other tools as well.


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