Tackling selective attention in email design

If you thought designing email for your subscribers' ultra-short attention spans was limiting, then usability stalwart Jakob Nielsen has some more bad news for you. Not only do you have just mere seconds to convey your message, but your readers are likely to 'overlook things outside their area of interest'.

As Jakob explains in his recent Alertbox, selective attention is a common problem. Simply put:

"Users don't look around much. They often stay highly focused on the screen section that they're engaging with or that they assume contains the answer to their problem."'Tunnel Vision and Selective Attention', Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox, August 27, 2012

For email designers, the challenge is in creating campaigns that are as 'highly focused' as the subscribers that read them. For example, if you're announcing the launch of a new site, your best bet is to stick to focus on providing obvious links and buttons to the site itself. At best, secondary content like mission statements and special offers will be ignored. At worst, they could draw attention from what really matters.

Example of a brief, focused message for Vtalk, by Zero Hour and Co.

Pairing related information

In a similar vein, Mr Nielsen warns that separating related information or design elements can result in vital parts of your message being misunderstood, or missed. While the closeness gestalt principle is generally applied to user interface design, it's relevant to email copy, too. For example, try skim-reading the following two paragraphs:

  1. If you purchase from our store today and enter the code "20OFF" at checkout, we'll take 20% off your order total. Buy now.
  2. Receive 20% off your order total today only by entering the code "20OFF" at checkout. Today only: Take 20% off with "20OFF"

Now, if a subscriber is strictly fixating on prominent links like you probably did, are they more likely to realize that they will receive a discount in Example 1, where this information is aside from the link, or in Example 2? Likewise, if a product description is placed away from an attention-grabbing image, will it be read at all?

Let others test your designs

Jakob Nielsen ends his Alertbox with this little pearl:

It's only human: focus on a few things and ignore the rest... designers don't have the same problem. They know which information is important — in our example, the year — and thus focus on it when analyzing the layout. This is why you should test with real users.

By real users, Jakob doesn't mean that you should recruit your barista or best friend to provide their opinions on your email design prior to sending - although you're more than welcome to. Running A/B tests on your email content can reveal which of two designs has a more focused message. Plunk can be used to observe how people respond to simple tasks when your email is viewed on a mobile device. Finally, previous email overlay reports can be mined to see what people are really clicking on in your newsletters - it may not be what you think.

Do you subscribe to, or have you designed a newsletter that clearly commands your attention? Kindly share it with us below - we'd love to take a look!

Posted by Ros Hodgekiss

2 Comments

  • Karl
    25th September

    Nice article! Never really thought about pairing related information in links like that, very simple but often overlooked in favour of more visual elements. I quite like App Sumo’s newsletters - they don’t muck around and use really clear calls to action via their buttons and imagery.

  • George
    12th January

    You showed here one of the reasons I prefer very simple designs for my newsletters. For one site I don’t even send the message at all. I just give a notification, inviting subscribers to click on a link to read the message the client prepared for them. It works.

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