Does consistency between email clients really matter?

When designing email newsletters, everyone has something that they hold sacred. For some, it's ensuring the email looks great in Gmail. For others, it's having punchy copy. But the aspiration that regularly catches me short is the desire to have an newsletter look exactly the same across the gamut of email clients.

In my previous life as a full-time email designer, I had a big-name client who used to make all sorts of cross-client comparisons when reviewing email campaigns. Rounds of amends would commonly begin with, "Wow, the spacing between paragraphs is different between Hotmail and Outlook" and "Why doesn't the newsletter look the same in both Outlook and Lotus Notes?"

Of course, the client had the right to question inconsistencies like this, and if anything, we should have caught them first. So we'd explain that there were rendering differences between email clients, then do our best to rope these differences in (generally with the help of lots of tables). After all, we both had a style guide to live up to.

Situations like this used to make me wonder whether designers are too hard on themselves in regards to cross-email client consistency, especially when they're not answering to a corporate style guide. Just like it is in browser land, each email client has its quirks, its things it does and doesn't support, hard-coded in. Would it be healthier to accept this variation and design for an optimal experience in the most sophisticated clients, while ensuring any bells and whistles degrade gracefully for everyone else? After all, many of us are accustomed with the idea of a "mobile version" and a "desktop version" of an email newsletter - so why not an "Apple Mail version' and a 'Outlook version', too?

The argument for this is not just a fluffy matter of aesthetics - techniques like using web fonts instead of images for headings, or even animated GIFs can potentially have an impact on response rates. For example, making a call-to-action more appealing to 30% of your subscribers (and still decent for everyone else), is likely to result in more clicks than you would have had when aiming for a universally consistent design.

Secondly, unforseeable events like Outlook.com dropping margin and float support go to show that what may work one day, may totally be laid to waste another. When things like this happen, you can't be blamed for taking the defeatist line that 'consistency' is 'impossibility'.

Nonetheless, we can't be blamed for placing emphasis on consistency. In many aspects of our jobs, it's critical. However, given the rendering differences between email clients can be so great, perhaps it's worth occasionally thinking about how we can craft the best possible email experience, instead of levelling things simply to benefit those facing the worst.

Is consistency between email clients important to you and your colleagues? Why, or why not? Let us know in the comments below.

Posted by Ros Hodgekiss

6 Comments

  • Ted Goas
    7th February

    I compare this question to its website counterpart, no!

    We don’t want things broken, though. Varying support for floats and the CSS box model can certainly break layouts. I think we still need to be mindful of those things.

    But I think things like line heights, margin sizes, CSS3, and even fonts can differ. Techniques such as creating system-font-stacks and placing solid background colors behind background images provide adequate fallbacks for features we known to have spotty support. Graceful degradation, as you say above.

  • Jay Eckert
    7th February

    We spend considerable time fine tuning a design for a specific user experience. Should that experience change across email clients some of our work goes for naught. So yes, it matters to us!

  • Greg Smith
    7th February

    The comparison to developing sites (and dealing with IE issues) is perfect. I think the trend, for a long time, was to burn hours hacking IE’s failures, and just consider it a part of the project. I did this for a while. The “How does it look in IE6?” era was a joke. Then I started listening to people like Zeldman and realized it was OK to tell the client they have “browser options” when starting a project. Here’s what you get in Safari, here’s what you get in IE, etc., etc.

    When I read “the client had the right to question inconsistencies” I hear “the client wasn’t given a clear explanation up front about the nature of the technology.” With a big agency budget, then no big deal. Hack away all day. But I think most designer/devs are building HTML emails as one-offs, or as a small portion of a larger project (both with budget limitations down to the hour). And if they don’t spell this out, in detail, up front, they’ll be burning their own time trying to please a client who mistakenly thinks any design concept SHOULD look the same everywhere, and they just haven’t gotten it working correctly yet.

  • Cristin O'Connor
    7th February

    Great question.

    If I may, I’d like to look at the question in terms of how valuable it is to push for email standards by providing better experiences to the most ahem, advanced, cough, email clients.

    In my experience, it seems to that people get much more entrenched in and loyal to the email clients they’ve grown to know, whereas with browsers, the switch is a bit easier. There’s no calendars and address books to migrate, etc., and their relative value to most people is substantially higher than a collection of bookmarks or browser settings. I know if I had to choose between losing my bookmarks, bookmark lets, extensions, and settings or my calendar and emails, a million out of a million times, I’d kick my browser-specific customizations to the curb.

    So, thinking of this question in terms of the importance of pushing the email client software owners to prioritize email standards, it seems less likely that the design community can contribute, in my opinion, because design experience has less of an effect on which email client most people use. Now, this is just the sense I get from my client work, but if anyone has research or data that indicates otherwise, I would rejoice and dance in circles.

    So if the burden of advancing email standards carries less weight in the decision making process, it becomes a question, to me, of user stats. Cater to the most popular.

    I don’t like saying that. It makes me feel dirty in this case, because I know how much of a mean girl Outlook is, but I fear that might be the reality of our situation.

    I hope someone smarter than me (oh, and there are plenty of you!) jumps in and comforts me with a compelling argument to the contrary. It would be like Christmas all over again!

  • Jordan
    7th February

    I think as an email designer you come to expect that you’ll never achieve 100% email and mobile consistency for a email of any substance.

    If you’re not working towards building an email that doesn’t render correctly across multiple clients then you perhaps should consider yourself a different project as it really is that hard to work within the basic confines of HTML to achieve your goals.

    Expect some quirks, but put the effort in and be rewarded.

  • Chris
    7th February

    With all email clients having their own rendering parameters, expecting a design to look exactly the same in all of them is the ultimate in wishful thinking. Just like with web browsers, the best one can hope for is e-similar and stable.

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