This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a long time now. I’ve been delaying it purely because I wanted it to be perfect. I wanted to write with Zeldman-like virtue on why email, just like the web, needs to pay attention to web standards. Sadly, in the time between the idea for this post and actually getting it published, web standards support in email has gone seriously downhill. I can’t delay it any longer.
My role at Campaign Monitor has given me a great opportunity over the years to research and speak to other designers at length about the standards issue. Each time the topic comes up the result is always the same – getting an email to display consistently in all of the popular email clients is by far the most frustrating part of the job. It’s a painful and always moving target that’s getting harder instead of easier. There’s really no justification for it and it’s about time something was done.
Accepting the reality of email today
Let me preface this by saying I completely respect everyone’s choice for the email format they prefer to send and receive. I also understand that it probably wasn’t the original purpose of email to go beyond one-to-one plain text messaging. I really do. This is one of the biggest reasons we encourage everyone to include a plain text alternative whenever they send a HTML email.
But we need to be realists. Every popular email client supports HTML email and most use that format out of the box. Out of the box means it’s the format of choice for anyone outside of the design and early adopter community and there’s no indication that’s changing any time soon. No amount of angry comments on Slashdot singing the praises of Pine are going to suddenly force email client developers to drop HTML support. It’s just not going to happen.
So, it’s not going anywhere and it’s broken. If we can all get past this point together, it’s obvious that the best path forward is to work with desktop and web-based email client manufacturers to improve how HTML emails are rendered, not argue amongst ourselves about personal preference.
What’s wrong with the current picture?
Today there are at least 10 popular email clients out there, each offering different levels of standards support ranging from perfect to virtually non-existent. I often hear comparisons between the current state of standards in email and the web circa 2000. While there certainly are some similarities, there are also some big differences.
The web standards movement faced not only poor browser support, but also an uneducated design community. They had browser makers and designers to convince. Today we’re lucky enough to stand on the shoulders of these giants in a world where web standards have well and truly been embraced by browser developers and the design community alike. People want to build HTML emails using the same approach they build for the web.
Another big differentiator is the fact that there were 2 or 3 browsers to consider back then and we knew exactly which web browsers were popular, making it much easier to know where to focus our energies. There is almost no data like this for the email world. Are more of my subscribers using Thunderbird or Apple Mail? It’s almost impossible to know. So, we’ve got 3 to 4 times more variations to cater for and we don’t even know which ones we should be targeting.
Because of this huge variation in standards support, email designers have been forced into a corner. There have certainly been valid attempts at encouraging the use of web standards in email, of which I’m proud to say we’ve played a part. The W3C has even jumped on board in realizing something needs to be done here. With the recent and unfortunate news from Microsoft however, it’s been getting harder and harder to justify this approach.
What we’re now left with is building for the common denominator. This means bandwidth hogging, image heavy emails with nested tables and font tags. Yes, I said font tags. I see hundreds of these designs being sent every day purely because it’s the only way to achieve consistent rendering across the board. Type in the URL of those creating these designs however and you’ll often find a beautifully coded standards compliant site. Email design truly is stuck in the dark ages.
Revisiting the benefits of web standards
Many of you are already well aware of the positives web standards offer, but I’ll focus on those I think are particularly relevant to email.
- It removes the guess work from email design – This is an instant win for designers and everyday email users alike. If all email client developers aimed for something close to web standards, you can design an email knowing it will work for all your subscribers. Stop and think for a second how awesome that would be. Your subscribers will win by no longer receiving garbled, hard to read newsletters because their email client doesn’t support standards.
- Faster loading and reduced bandwidth consumption – Well coded, standards compliant markup that separates content from presentation is generally much more compact than nested table and spacer-image based markup. Further to this, many designers have given up on rendering issues altogether and send purely image-based emails. This adds significantly to the file size and results in a poor experience for their subscribers because of image blocking.
- Make your email accessible to all – Using standards does not automatically mean your email will be readable to people with disabilities, but it’s certainly a great start. By separating content from presentation you’re making it much easier for everyone to access your email.
Further to these intrinsic benefits of web standards, there’s another significant win that would follow. Using tables for layout is a dying art in the web design community. Many designers who started web design in the last few years have never even coded a table based layout, which is a good thing. The current email environment means a designer not familiar with the table based approach will need to learn a completely different way of creating a page if they want to send HTML emails.
We’re fast approaching a fork in the road where email design will become a niche, expensive service that fewer designers can provide. Sure, a few designers win by being able to charge more for their work, but everyone else loses.
Where to from here?
This much is clear – arguing about HTML vs plain text or complaining about standards support in email isn’t going to get us anywhere. It’s time to get off our butts and actually help email client manufacturers to introduce better standards support.
I also think it’s important to realize that these manufacturers don’t have a problem with web standards. Supporting standards might not always be the easiest option, in fact for web-based providers I’m sure it’s quite the opposite. It’s our job to demonstrate why they are important and then make them as easy as possible to embrace.
We’ve been hard at work on this for the last few weeks, focusing on the following areas:
- Establishing a baseline of what standards we need supported in email – We certainly don’t expect perfect standards support across the board initially, but there are a number of key properties that we can encourage manufacturers to support sooner rather than later.
- Document the important changes each of the major email client manufacturers need to make in order to support web and related standards – Once we’ve established the baseline, we can put together a basic wish list of the changes each manufacturer will need to make to meet this target and then work with them in any capacity possible to help make this happen.
- Create a simple acid test that makes it easy to see if an email client supports this baseline – Much like WaSP’s Acid2 test, we should make it easy to see if these important standards are being supported by creating a simple test page that can be viewed in that email client to confirm at a glance if the baseline is being met.
We plan on bringing this all together in a dedicated site launching soon. Obviously the more of us that can get behind this the easier the job will be. Even the king of web standards, Jeffrey Zeldman agrees (emphasis his):
Learn how HTML mail works (or doesn’t) across as many platforms as possible, and work with the manufacturers to improve support for web standards. This is not my job. I did my job where web standards are concerned (you’re welcome!), and turned over The Web Standards Project to a new generation of leadership. And as I never send HTML formatted mails, not only is it not my job, I wouldn’t even be qualified to do it. But standardistas who are compelled by their clients to create HTML mails (or who choose to do so) are gently urged to do their part in diminishing wasted bandwidth and enhancing semantics.
We’ll be posting more about this initiative soon, including how you can help make a difference. Jeffrey’s right, it’s not his job – this one’s up to us.
Update: You can start helping right now. Check out the initial list of baseline standards that should be supported and add your own thoughts.