FreshInbox: On a Mission to Take Interactive Email Mainstream

FreshInbox founder Justin Khoo has spent his entire career pushing the web to be better. And in email, he sees a lot of room for improvement.

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FreshInbox founder Justin Khoo — who started his career as an internet engineer for GE, built websites for startups during the dot-com boom, and worked on early voice recognition technology for mobile devices — has spent his entire career pushing the web to be better. And in email, he sees a lot of room for improvement.

“Email really got stuck,” Khoo says. “You couldn’t do cool things with it, because if you tried something too ambitious, it wouldn’t work across clients. And the email services didn’t seem too interested in fixing it.”

That’s when Khoo came up with an idea. What if he founded a site that could serve as a resource for programmers and coders while prodding email services to do better?

“FreshInbox became a way for me to talk about the problems I saw,” Khoo says. “I didn’t expect it to take off. I just wanted to talk to the community about ways that email could grow.”

But since he started his blog, Khoo’s critiques have gotten the attention of some pretty big hitters — including developers at Microsoft and Google. At the heart of his criticisms? The lack of support for interactive email.

Email on lockdown

If you’ve ever wondered why email seems to be so stuck in the early days of web design and development, you can thank malware. The reason email doesn’t support things like JavaScript, Khoo explained, is due to early security concerns.

“When you visit a website, you’re choosing to take a risk. But with email, the risk comes to you — and the security needs to be higher,” Khoo says. “Stripping stuff like JavaScript from email was done to protect the user, but the consequence is that it leaves email a lot less interesting.”

While that may have made sense in the early days of the web, Khoo thinks it’s high time to figure out a better solution.

“I’ve been quite struck by the fact that there’s been no coordinated effort from email clients to figure out better ways to address security,” Khoo says. “And when I started to see what clients like iOS could do, I found it even more frustrating.”

In fact, it was on an iPhone that Khoo first saw an example of interactive email’s potential.

“About 4 years ago, LinkedIn introduced an app called Intro,” he says. “It tied into the iPhone’s email client to insert sender profiles into an email. You could just tap it and expand their profile information. After some digging, I figured out that they were actually inserting CSS into the email — some really sophisticated stuff. But it only worked for the iPhone’s email client, because it has such great support for HTML and CSS. You couldn’t imagine such a thing for something like Outlook.”

So Khoo began to experiment with other clients, only to discover that each came with different levels of support for different capabilities. “In an open-source world, that shouldn’t happen. I understand the security concerns, but what’s happening is that people who are interested in interactive email have to find very complicated, hacky ways of making it work, when it would be much better for everyone if the email clients coordinated their supports.”

Khoo also realized that his blog alone might not be enough to drive change. The demand for something better also had to come from email users themselves.

Give it away now

Khoo believes that the more people are exposed to interactive elements in email, the more they’ll expect email clients to support them. And retailers especially will benefit.

“Interactive email brings the website experience a little bit closer to the recipient,” Khoo says. “If you’re a retailer, it removes some of the obstacles between your customer and your store. But right now it can be a bit hard to justify the time it takes to build interactive elements.”

To help retailers get over that hurdle, Khoo began posting tools on his blog.

“I’ve tried to make it easy for people to create things like carousels or rollover effects so that they can see for themselves what these interactive elements are like. I don’t charge for any of it, because my goal is to get as many people to use them as possible. That’s the best way to raise awareness of the capability of interactivity.”

Khoo believes that as users see what can be done with interactive elements, more people will want to use email clients that support it. And in some ways, his efforts are being helped along by the rise of mobile devices.

“People who access email primarily on phones or tablets already enjoy better support, and a better email experience,” Khoo says. “Right now, if someone wants to create a really whiz-bang experience, they’ll do it in an iOS client on the iPhone or iPad. But what’s really interesting about mobile is how the space limitations work to interactivity’s advantage.”

With a smaller screen, Khoo says, it became necessary to support creative ways of scaling content. He brought up Uber as an example of how interactivity can be used for practical purposes on on small devices.

“When you get your receipt from Uber, you can see immediately what your ride cost. But you can also tap to expand details on individual elements to see the pieces that go into that total. The interactivity allows you to avoid cluttering the email, while also providing detailed content to the users who want it.”“Interactive email brings the website experience a little bit closer to the recipient ”

A unified theory of email

Although Khoo is confident that interactivity is the future of email, he’s not yet certain how it’s going to materialize.

“The problem right now is that most developers are not very interested in it,” Khoo says. “And the reason developers aren’t interested is because of the fragmented and confusing support of CSS among different email clients. Even something like Gmail — a client people expect to be innovative — has differing support for CSS between their mobile and webmail clients.”

Khoo hasn’t been shy about calling them out, either. “I wrote an article basically saying to Gmail, hey, you guys suck — you need to make this better,” he says.

“Right now, everything we can do with interactivity is basically a hack. But if you’re Gmail, or Hotmail, and you see that people are actually adopting this, aren’t you going to want to support it? We need these clients to come together and agree on a standardized way to support interactivity in email.”

Will such a coming together happen? Or are developers destined to continue hacking together interactive elements for the foreseeable future? Khoo, despite his frustration with the lack of urgency around the issue, is ultimately optimistic.

“I feel very confident that things are moving that direction. In 5, 10 years, one of the major email providers is going to propose a simple and robust implementation and email developers will jump on board. That’s when we’ll see real interactive email, without all the hacks.”

"Interactive email brings the website experience a little bit closer to the recipient."

4 steps to better interactions

If you’re going to invest the time to create interactive email, you better make sure your audience knows what they’ve got. Here are 4 steps to teach your readers how to get the most from your email.

Step 1: Start with a clear message.

You can do a lot with interactivity, but those elements are likely to get lost if your email doesn’t have a clear message in the first place. “Know what you want to do, and how to make the interactive elements help you accomplish your goal,” Khoo says. “Interactivity should be integrated in service of your message.” Your readers will better understand how to interact with an email if they know your purpose.

Step 2: Include instructions.

“It can be as simple as an arrow that says ‘tap here,’” Khoo says. “Overdoing it can detract from your email, but basic instructions can help guide your reader.” If you’re not sure that users will intuit interactivity, there’s nothing wrong with giving them a little nudge to help encourage better engagement.

Step 3: Be familiar.

There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel — or the web. “More and more, you see hamburger menus showing up in email,” Khoo says. “That’s because it’s become a universal symbol. People understand when they see it that there’s more information there.” Adopting the shorthand of the web for your email may be the quickest way to help your users make the leap.

Step 4: Test, refine, test again.

As you experiment with interactive elements, it’s important to gather the same kind of data you would with any other email. “A/B testing works just as well with interactive email, and it will tell you what works,” Khoo says. “There’s a learning curve for the sender as well as the recipient.” Understanding what your audience will and won’t interact with will help you craft better, more engaging content.

Illustrations by Jess Rotter, a Los Angeles-based artist whose illustrations have appeared on public murals, album covers, and a whole lot of tee shirts. Her first book, I’m Bored, was released in October of 2016.

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