May 3, 2012

Research: How People Use Mobile Email

Over the years, I’ve read a lot of interesting studies and predictions about mobile technology, but there always seemed to be something missing. Yes, we all know that more and more people are using mobile devices. Yes, we know that mobile devices render emails a little differently, so we have to design around that. But smartphones just outsold desktop computers, and we see people everywhere using them more than their PCs–that’s a sign that something else is going on here. So I asked our UX team to do some research that looks into the behavior of people when they read emails on their mobile devices. It’s a quick, 24-page guide that goes a little beyond screen resolution stats, and (hopefully) makes you think a little differently about mobile email.

For example, whenever marketing people talk about mobile, they usually talk about how "people are on the go!" which–since we’re talking about marketing people here–always leads to, "so we have to find ways to blast relevant messages at them *while* they’re on the go, like SMS marketing and near-field wifi fence blah blah blah."

They also tend to use cheesy stock photos like this "business man on the go:"

He's on the go! He's so busy and productive!


Now, I like technology as much as anyone, but I always wonder: "Is this what people really want?" More importantly, "Is that guy in the picture for real?"

When designers talk about mobile, it’s usually about responsive website designs, "renderability," media queries, obscure code hacks and workarounds for different email apps. This is all extremely useful, but designers serve clients. Often, their clients are marketers. And so I can’t help but wonder if our clients are asking those designers to target that theoretical "on the go" guy:

Does this theoretical "on the go man with cell phone" really want that daily deal coupon email to render properly on his Android while he’s on the go? Of course, but I wonder if we’re still missing some opportunity to use design to help our man on the go.


Computers in our pockets, email in our beds

What happens when that guy’s not on the go? Does he check his mail when he’s on the couch? Or out shopping with his wife? Or walking the dog, or taking his kids to the playground? Yes, he does. We all know he does, because that’s what we do. So how does that change the way people use email? What’s that mean for email marketers?

Our study attempts to reveal more about mobile email behavior. There are statistics, but there are also some recommended best practices.

Here are my personal takeaways:

  • Stop saying "people are on the go." For the love of all things holy, stop saying that. Yes, some people are on the go. More importantly though, it’s the computers that are on the go. People are buying and using Androids and iPhones instead of desktops. People are computing while they’re on the couch. This changes behavior, and it changes our expectations (not just screen resolutions). See page 11.
  • We "filter" emails on our mobile devices (IBM calls it "triage"), and we do this in weird places and at weird times. That’s obvious. What’s not so obvious is that email, which was once separated between "work inbox" vs. "home inbox" is now all dumped into a single "always-on stream" of information on our phones (and this makes us think of email differently). Most marketers jump to the conclusion that "we need to make our message fast and to the point and less than 140 characters!" Maybe that’s true, but I think it’s more important to realize that your marketing message is now appearing at the dinner table with family, or in bed. There are interesting little ways you can make your brand look more considerate of that fact (design tweaks, read later tools, etc). See page 14.
  • People expect a sucky experience when they visit websites on their smartphones (for now). We’re just not there yet, apparently. So it’s actually a differentiator when your emails look mobile-friendly, because it suggests your website just might be mobile friendly, which makes people more likely to click your email. See page 16.

Download the Email on Mobile Devices research paper from our resources page.