How I learned to stop worrying and love the chaos of email rendering

As a professional email designer and veteran of more than half a million Litmus email previews, hearing me describe email rendering as chaotic may not inspire confidence in my abilities. Fear not, dear clients, I remain a stickler for detail and at Wax we take great pride in achieving the best possible appearance for a given campaign in every inbox. But I can assure you of one thing - your email won’t look the same for every recipient. To pursue perfect consistency between the myriad desktop, webmail and mobile email clients, factoring in the added influence of operating system, browser or user-specific settings, is frankly a fool’s errand. Not a comfortable feeling for the brand police, but with a little mental adjustment this might actually turn out to be a positive thing. 

Why so different?

Once upon a time our agency built websites for a living. Back then we used to rant endlessly about Internet Explorer 6 and how it was crippling the Internet with its lousy CSS support. Fast-forward a few years and we routinely test each and every email we create in upwards of 40 different environments, ranging from the top-of-the-class (well played, iOS Mail) to the kids in dunce hats (I’m looking at you, Outlook and IBM Notes). How we long for simpler times. 

The differences in email rendering from one environment to the next come from a number of factors:

  • the ESP
  • the mail server
  • pre-processing
  • the operating system
  • the mail client’s rendering engine
  • the web browser (for webmail clients)

At each step in the delivery chain there is potential for our lovingly crafted email code to be tinkered with (or just not understood). Some of the tinkering is fairly benign, some can be anticipated and 'fixed' in advance, but some is just plain unavoidable, leaving us with rendering inconsistencies that we have to accept and factor in to our design process. Here are a few specifics that highlight the extent of the challenge:

  • Most Android mail apps will replace your font with Roboto.
  • Google Inbox on Android will make that font 20% larger than everywhere else.
  • Fonts across the board look heavier on Mac OS than Windows.
  • Gmail App on Android running an IMAP mail account will refuse to show your background images.
  • IBM Notes, Outlook 07 - 16 and Windows Mail can be bullied into displaying a background image but with many limitations.

And your point… is?

Well, I previously stated our goal at Wax as achieving the best possible appearance for a given campaign in every inbox - and that’s really the crux of the matter. All too often our efforts at ironing out the inconsistencies in an email’s appearance result in us fixing and fiddling until we’re left with something that looks decidedly mediocre everywhere. We know that our emails will look a bit different for every recipient, so once we’ve freed ourselves of any hopeless obligation to achieve uniformity we can start to think about how to achieve that ‘best possible appearance’ throughout the spectrum of rendering environments. And what we find is that ‘best possible appearance’ means something very different for Outlook 2007 when compared with something like Apple Mail. 

Time for a buzzword

Progressive enhancement. Sounds like jargon, is jargon, but it actually describes our approach quite nicely. Start with a basic appearance that isn’t going to get messed up - fundamental things like the broad desktop and mobile layout, colours, sizes and proportions of elements. We then add layers of niceness (technical term) that the more capable mail clients can handle. This can range from simple things like webfonts and CSS properties right up to animation and even interactivity. 

Taking this approach to its logical conclusion, you actively exploit the ways that different email clients handle and alter HTML code to enable you to target them with certain features. In the past year we’ve created emails containing quizzes, interactive hotspots, hamburger menus and all sorts of other fun and funky features that roughly half of the recipients get to see, targeting the email clients that will support that sort of functionality and providing fallback content for everything else. Rather than a big broken awful mess.  

So there we have it. Rather than disappear up our own collective fundaments in the pursuit of a homogenised email rendering world, let’s get the basics right, and then start thinking about those layers of niceness.

Would you like us to help?

At Wax Media we create Email That InspiresTM (not actually TM). With more than a decade’s experience working with some of the biggest brands and agencies, whatever your goal, we can help you get the most out of the email channel. For a no-obligation chat, give us a call on +44 (0)1189 778578 or email hello@waxmedia.co.uk - we’d love to hear from you.