Thursday Dec 13, 2007

Plaintext vs HTML Email

A new group called Email Standards Project was recently started to improve the state of web standards support in Email clients by working with both client developers and the designer community. I mentioned in passing that HTML Email doesn't always appear to the recipient the way its sender intended. One reason is that different clients render HTML Emails differently, so it's good to see an effort towards standardization.

That being said, however, I used to be strongly against HTML Email. I had my mail client set to display plaintext alternative when available. I had, whenever a choice is given by the mailing list or online merchant, set preference to receive plaintext rather than HTML. I felt that the sender should not dictate the font size and background color I like to read my Emails, especially on mobile devices.

But over the years, my view gradually shifted. I now consider HTML Email to be complementary to plaintext. Like a presentation or a speech, HTML Email is structured, well-prepared and unidirectional; whereas plaintext is more informal, friendly and dialog-like. Both are important forms of communication, so it would be a bit naive to write off either one. How should one choose one form over the other? Here's a guideline I recommend:

Plaintext Email

  • Good for discussions or two-way exchanges.
  • Preferred on mailing lists.
  • Not suitable where formatting of information is essential to the recipient.

HTML Email

  • Good for announcements, newsletters, press releases, status reports, e-bills, coupons and generally Emails to which you don't expect a reply.
  • Must always include a plaintext alternative.

Reason being that there are reasons for an organization to send professional-looking Emails to its clients, but it's very difficult for both humans and mail client software to respond to and properly quote formatted text, and you never know if someone in your audience may not care for visual appeal, such as an eyesight impaired person. A plaintext alternative ensures graceful degradation.

I wish there was a mail client that would auto-select between plaintext and HTML based on previous habit and context...

About

I currently live in San Francisco Bay Area. For the past seven years, I have been designing and building messaging solutions for Sun.

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