UX writing

Email UX writing: The ultimate writing guide

Email is a totally different beast when it comes to UX writing. Learn how to write effective emails as a UX writer with 13 examples.
email ux writing
email ux writing
In: UX writing, Components

We’re all pretty familiar with email. Whether you love it or hate it, we all get email on a daily basis. We get email from work, from friends and family, and from that newsletter we’ve already unsubscribed to 5 times.

Since you know what email is, we’re going to dive into how email is different when it comes to UX writing. By the end of this lesson, you’re never going to be able to look at an email the same way again 👻


When it comes to email and UX writing, there are 3 important things to know about how people use email:

  1. Emails are task-oriented: Aka email is often associated with practical communications, like work emails and Amazon shipping confirmations.
  2. Emails are time-sensitive: People perceive emails as highly time sensitive. That’s why we check email before we even get out of bed in the morning.
  3. Email is done while multitasking: Most people check personal emails while working and work emails while doing personal things.

And every single email is made up of three main parts:

  1. Subject line
  2. Preheader
  3. Email body

Here’s what that looks like in the average inbox and email:

email ux writing

Let me break it down…

Subject line

Together with the preheader, the subject line is the very first touchpoint a user will have with an email. It’s like a billboard advertising why you should (or shouldn’t) open the email.

email ux writing

Preheader

The preheader is a line of text programmed in the email software to display underneath the subject line in the inbox. It adds extra context to the subject line to make an even more compelling case for you opening the email.

email ux writing

Email body

The email body is what’s inside the email. You only access the email body if you decide to open the email from your inbox.

email ux writing

The email body is made up of 4 components:

  1. Headline
  2. Subheadline (optional)
  3. Body copy
  4. Call-to-action

How they work together

email ux writing

Email writing might seem complicated, but there’s actually a formula to it.

It’s the job of the subject line to tell the user what will be inside the email, and the job of the preheader to back it up.

The headline is there to reinforce the subject line and introduce the rest of the email content. The subheadline gives the headline more context, so the message is crystal clear.

Last, the body copy offers more in-depth detail and reinforces the preheader.

95% of emails should direct the user toward an action, which is where the call-to-action comes in. The CTA should clearly tie to the headline, so the user can skip the body copy, and the email still makes sense.

Types of emails you’ll work on

UX writers aren’t copywriters, so don’t expect to be writing some Black Friday promotion emails. Instead, UX writers write transactional emails.

Transactional emails are emails that don’t sell something, they tell something. Examples are:

  • Order confirmations
  • Welcome emails
  • Payment reminders
  • Plan change confirmations
  • New features

Almost every email a user gets after they sign up for a product is a transactional email and is a part of the user journey.

Why do emails matter?

Like SMS messages, email is a direct line of communication with a user. The difference is email is a little less intense of a channel.

For example, SMS messages send you a notification on your phone lock screen every time. Depending on your email app settings, you’ll only get email notifications depending on the priority of the email. Some users get no email notifications and only access email when they open their email app.

Because email is a more chill way to communicate than SMS, we should send more emails than we do SMS messages.

It’s important to have a more chill direct line of communication with the user because there’s a lot to communicate, but we don’t want to be tapping them on the shoulder every time we have something to say.

This is more like sending them a letter, and they’ll open it whenever is a good time for them.

Disclaimer: Some emails are urgent. But I’d argue, if they’re *so* urgent, we’d also send an SMS message.

What makes emails effective?

To understand what makes an effective email, we need to break it down into its parts:

What makes effective subject lines

Effective subject lines:

  • Don’t sell what’s inside, tell what’s inside
  • Are under 35 characters, including spaces
  • Are personalized
  • Limit punctuation
Effective subject lines are under 35 characters

Subject lines truncate on mobile devices when too long. To make sure your subject line gets read in entirety, keep it short.

Effective subject lines tell what’s inside

Subject lines can be witty and are a great time to flex the product voice, but not at the expense of clarity.

Instead of saving “Sizzling summer bargains,” describe the benefit a user gets from what’s inside the email. What’s in it for them? Why should they care?

Clear > clever

Effective subject lines are personalized

Similar to push notifications, subject lines that are personalized are way more likely to get opened. The most common personalization in a subject line is using someone’s first name.

Effective subject lines limit punctuation

According to Mailchimp’s research, it’s best to use no more than 3 punctuation marks per subject line. Too many punctuation marks can make your email look like spam, especially if you use a lot of special characters.

And when it comes to emojis, according to Mailchimp:

  • Don’t use more than 1 emoji at a time
  • Use emojis to supplement words rather than replace them
  • Different operating systems render different versions of emojis, so test before you send

What makes effective preheaders

Effective preheaders:

  • Shouldn’t be essential to the message
  • Keep essential info within a 40-character count
  • Don’t repeat the subject line
  • Summarize the email content
Effective preheaders shouldn’t be essential to the message

Everyone has different inbox settings. Some people choose to see two lines of preview text, someone, and some none. Because of that , there’s no guarantee the preheader will be visible.

Because there’s no guarantee, make sure your subject line makes sense without your preheader. Think of your preheader as the icing on the cake — if there’s no icing, the cake is less good, but you still have cake, so life’s great 🎂

Effective preheaders keep essential info within a 40-character count

Smaller phones only show 35 – 45 characters of preheader text, including spaces. That means ya gotta keep it real short. If it’s longer than 45 characters (including spaces,) someone will miss the point, making your preheader a dead weight.

Effective preheaders don’t repeat the subject line

The preheader should build on the subject line to add interest and intrigue. If they repeat the subject line, they aren’t adding any new information, and therefore, aren’t adding any value.

Effective preheaders summarize the email content

On the topic of the preheader not repeating the subject line, preheaders are a great opportunity to summarize what’s inside the email. The key is to do it in an actionable way that builds curiosity.

An easy way to make the preheader actionable is to start with a verb. So, instead of “Your receipt is inside,” say, “Open your receipt.”

You build curiosity by not giving it all away. For example, instead of, “Get the new video processing feature,” say, “Find out how to process videos 10x faster.”

What makes effective email bodies

Effective email bodies:

  • Serve the user more than the company
  • Tell a story
  • Point toward an action
  • Remember the onion 🧅
Effective email bodies serve the user more than the company

The best emails are aligned with user goals, not company goals. That means they’re focused around how to help the user, not how the user can help the company.

This is where telling, not selling, also comes in. When you tell a user something, you’re laying out the facts as they’re relevant to the user and letting them make the decision. When you’re selling, you’re pushing company values on the user to the benefit of the company.

When writing an email, continuously gut check yourself and ask, “Is this serving the user or the company?”

Effective email bodies tell a story

Storytelling in UX writing is about creating a conversation between the product and the user. The same is true when it comes to writing email content.

You’re not filling in the blanks, so think about how you can use components as building blocks to construct a story that’s compelling, logical, and empathetic.

For example, this email from Wix brings you on a journey:

email ux writing

It’s a short journey, but it’s telling the story of how Wix can give you the freedom and tools you need to embrace your time to create. If this didn’t tell a story, it would look something like this:

email ux writing
Effective email bodies point toward an action

Every email has a point, and that point is to take a specific action. To point your email around an action, make sure to include a compelling CTA above the fold and below the fold.

FYI, the fold is just where the content cuts off on a device, like this:

email ux writing

Make sure to refer back to call-to-action writing best practices from Lesson 1.3.

Effective email bodies remember the onion 🧅

You don’t need to say it all in an email. Emails are one of the first layers of the onion — you just need to tell the user enough for them to make an informed decision on if they should hit the button and continue.

Using the onion approach, or progressive disclosure, prioritize what’s important for the user to know right here, right now, and what can be said on the screen the CTA links to, and what they can discover along their journey.

Good examples of emails

Disney+

email ux writing

This email from Disney+ is in the good example list because of how they tell a story in the email body. The content above the fold lays out the main value proposition and tells you when you should care, so you can make a call if you want to learn more.

The way they outlined how GroupWatch works in steps is very clear and brings users along the story, helping them envision using the product.

The email also serves the user before serving the company, which is a job well done.

Gusto

email ux writing

Gusto’s subject line (“Smiles Davis wants to pay you with Gusto”) and the email body headline work together quite nicely, especially considering the recipient of this email will be a new Gusto user. They introduced Gusto well, quickly connecting what Gusto does (gets you paid) and what’s going on IRL (Smiles Davis wants to pay you.)

Chobani

email ux writing

This is a promotional email, but I included it because I love how Chobani told a story that mellifluously pointed toward an action. They literally told a story – like writing a book — and it hooks you. It entices you, gets your mouth watering, and makes you want to learn more.

Bad examples of emails

Grammarly

email ux writing

This email is a mind game. I’m getting a badge because I disappeared? This is not very empathetic to the reasons why the user might have disappeared. And instead of hitting on those reasons and working to revolve around them, Grammarly invites them to come back and “continue writing awesome things.” This is a prime example of serving the company, not the user.

And with that “Go!” button, it might point to the action a little too much… Plus, if you have to put explainer text below your button, your button is unclear.

Domestika

email ux writing

Domestika’s welcome email is super long and super all over the place. There are too many things to do. Do I shop around the recommended courses? Complete my profile? Explore all courses?

Because there are so many calls-to-action, this serves the company casting the widest engagement net they can. It doesn’t serve the user, because the user isn’t sure what they should actually do first and why.

You Need a Budget (YNAB)

email ux writing

This email from YNAB isn’t good because it’s all about YNAB. “I also hope” and “We feel pretty strongly.” What about what the user hopes? What about what the user feels?

Instead of telling a user-centric, compelling story to convince the user to subscribe, YNAB wrote a one-dimensional letter about why the company thinks they should join.

Happy UX writing 🖖

Written by
Slater Katz
As founder of The Gig Gal, my mission is to make learning UX writing fanastically-simple and landing a job easy. I've held UX writing jobs at companies like Netflix, Fitbit, Verizon, Afterpay, & more.
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