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Design and emailing: The principle of acceptable degradation

In this article, I'm not going to tell you that "The best is the enemy of the good" (well, it's already done) and I'm not going to tell you that you have to be a perfectionist to the point of being stupid (certainly not)!

Does your email have to display the same way for all your subscribers?

The various emailing professions are often segmented, and it is rare that real experts are present in companies. The marketer has to take care of all the channels at the same time, the designer does more banners than emailing and the HTML integrator has to know how to do everything, integrate for the web, for mobile, do some SQL, some design and many other things. In this type of organization, it is not easy to develop specific skills for emailing. Only very large companies are able to set up teams dedicated to the different channels (which is not always a good thing if these teams are too compartmentalized).

When it comes to redesign a newsletter or the templates of the different emailings used in the company, the specificity of email is rarely taken into account... and it is tempting to want to reproduce what we do elsewhere (mainly in relation to web development).

Unlike other media, in emailing, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to get the same rendering of your email in all environments. There are big differences between the different webmails, between the different software and today between the different mobile terminals. So you have to make concessions... and think about these concessions from the beginning of the project.

Reduce functionality to provide an equal experience for everyone?

A frequently used approach is to reduce the functionality of the email in order to get the most uniform experience possible. If you're a fan of minimalism or flat design anyway, no problem, this is a technique that should suit you perfectly. However, if your brand and its graphic charter require a more complex desgin, it would be a shame to lose this richness under the pretext that all your subscribers must receive a similar email.

Making the most of email clients that allow it: Acceptable degradation

This is where the principle of acceptable degradation comes in. If it is impossible to provide all your subscribers with a similar design experience, then don't!

For example, not all email clients allow the display of a background image. But for those that do not, it is possible to define a background color that will replace this image. There will therefore be an "acceptable" degradation of the basic design, a degradation that will not significantly affect the user's experience.


Another example is that CSS3 (a recent standard for formatting HTML) is not available in all email clients. This does not mean that you cannot use shadows, gradients or rounded edges in your emails. You just have to accept that these features will not be displayed everywhere and provide an alternative.

Three steps to define what is acceptable

The principle of acceptable degradation cannot be done randomly. You should try to anticipate your needs when creating your briefing. Here are three steps that can guide you:

  1. Define what are the essential elements of your email, those that should be displayed correctly, be visible and are useful for the reader
  2. Check which email clients are the most used by your subscribers ... anticipating the future evolution of your audience in order to give energy where it is most useful.
  3. Stay focused on the action rather than the "beauty" of your creation. A newsletter or a promo email must be useful before being aesthetic (even if the aesthetics participate in the usefulness of your email).

By applying these three steps and especially by specifying them in your briefing, the work of the designer and the integrator will be significantly easier. Moreover, you will know in advance where you are going and you will avoid any disappointment with the final result.

Photo credit: Clem Rutter, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

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