Email, Email, Burning Bright
Jeffrey Zeldman, a web design visionary whom I’ve had the privilege of working with, has some thoughts on the use of HTML email that got me thinking this morning. He sums up his sentiment and rationale to say that:
But when I say HTML mail still sucks, I donâ€™t mean it sucks because support for design in e-mail today is like support for standards in web browsers in 1998.
I mean it sucks because nobody needs it. It impedes rather than aids communication.
I imagine that this sort of jazz coming up in the next version of Mail for the Mac doesn’t make Jeffrey smile:
It didn’t make me smile, either. I’m not a fan of HTML mail, myself, and when I saw this feature demonstrated I rolled my eyes and wondered who let the Hello Kitty team into the Apple design lab. This all seemed so…1999.
When I started to teach my neighbours how to use their new iMac last year, though, I realized just who this feature was made for. My neighbour, in her early 50s, asked almost on cue a week later how to change the look her emails: make the words bigger for her mom to read, make it colourful because she likes colour in everything, and make it easy to show her photos without them getting in the way of the text. I ended up teaching her about the font and colour palettes, and about attaching and resizing photos.
She got a bit of the Geek’s Tour, when what she really needed was software that made those goals easy to reach. With Mail templates in Leopard, she’ll get that. And, as a frequent recipient, I imagine I will, too.
Email has been called the Internet’s killer app. Regular users get it right away; people who’ve never touched a computer get it almost as quickly. That’s saying something. As our stated dream comes true and computing becomes increasingly accessible to non-experts, we’re likely to see more of the things that non-experts want. And not all of what they want will be what we’ll want as defenders and advancers of the state of the art. To them, communication is as much about being entertaining as it is getting the message across. And when words aren’t your fortÃ©, a little style can go a long way in making sure you’re understood.
It turns out they want to be as expressive and artful as the professionally designed sites they see on the web. They want to be of that world but don’t have the skills to build it from scratch. They don’t have to. I’ll still cringe at HTML mail from time to time, but seeing how much my neighbour gets out of being able to send stylin’ emails to her family without needing my help tells me that even if I don’t like it, it’s probably the right thing to do.