Expert: Web Designs Better But Could Be Better

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Errors in sign-ups for e-mail newsletters can shortchange subscriber rates by thousands, according to Internet usability experts Nielsen Norman Group.

In a two-stage study of 10 e-mail newsletters, test users successfully signed up for them 78 percent of the time, according to Nielsen Norman, Fremont, CA. The figure shows improvement over past studies. However, newsletter designers have a way to go, said company co-founder and usability expert Jakob Nielsen.

"A lot of marketers are focused on front-end promotion," or getting users to the sign-up stage, Nielsen said. "But conversion is just as important."

Newsletters with the lowest successful subscribe ratings were those that required an e-mail confirmation of the subscription, he said.

Nielsen is on a national tour giving usability seminars and unveiling the e-mail newsletter report, which was published in October and sells for $195. He is also touting his newest top 10 list of mistakes Web designers make (see sidebar).

Nielsen said direct marketers are among his best audiences because they are so results-oriented. "They know it has to work, so they say 'if that's what the customer does, that's fine,'" he said.

However, among the notable recommendations Nielsen Norman makes in its e-mail newsletter report is not to use a known response driver -- the much-maligned pop-up window -- for subscription drives.

"They annoy people endlessly," Nielsen said. "People tend to swat them away." As a result, they can damage a Web site's image even while effectively collecting e-mail addresses.

Rather than pop-ups, Nielsen recommends finding natural breaking points in the user's experience to pitch for newsletter sign-ups, such as at the end of an article or in a box on the side of the page.

And though recent studies such as one by marketing technology and services provider DoubleClick have determined that the identity of the sender most determines whether an e-mail gets opened, Nielsen also suggests against repeating the sender's identity in the subject line, as some marketers have taken to doing lately.

"You've got a very tight amount of communicative space to tell the sender what this is about, and I wouldn't recommend repeating information," he said. An e-mail's subject line should identify "what's special about this one as opposed to everything else I get from this sender."

Consequently, Nielsen suggests that serious attention be paid to the contents of a subject line. "It's not something where your first draft will be good enough," he said.

Users for the e-mail newsletter study were asked to evaluate newsletters in criteria such as easy to read, interesting information, well-written, well-designed, understand content on Web site, and overall satisfaction, on a 1 to 7 scale with 7 being the most positive rating.

Not surprisingly, a strong correlation appears between the time it takes users to subscribe and unsubscribe and their satisfaction with a newsletter's design. However, users are twice as critical of slow unsubscribe processes as they are of slow subscribe processes.

For every minute it took users to subscribe, newsletters on average lost 0.3 design satisfaction points. For every minute it took to unsubscribe, newsletters lost 0.6 design satisfaction points.

"Once users want out, they want out quickly," said the report, adding, "It seems impossible to create a design that allows users to subscribe and unsubscribe in zero seconds, but that's ultimately what users want."

The report also determined that when things go wrong during the sign-up process, people often automatically think "scam."

The report offers 79 recommendations to improve e-mail newsletter sign-up and usability, among them:

· If you require registration, clarify whether a user is registering for the site, a newsletter or both.

· Give your newsletters easy-to-understand names and provide explanations of what they are and how frequently they will be sent.

· Don't require site registration unless there's a reason for it. Clearly state the benefits of registration for the user. Let users sign up for the newsletter without registering for the site.

· Provide archives of your newsletter on your site.

· Only require users' e-mail addresses and, if necessary, names during sign-up. If you ask for anything else, ask for five or fewer additional pieces of information and make them clearly optional.

· Limit your newsletter to five screens of content or fewer.

· Link directly to content, not just to the home page or a random page on the site.

· Give users simple ways to recover their usernames and passwords.

· Offer a frequency option as an alternative to unsubscribing.

· This report and others are available at

Jakob Nielsen's Top 10 Web Design Mistakes

1. No prices. While a business-to-consumer site would never make this mistake, it's rampant in business-to-business.

2. Inflexible search engines. Overly literal search engines reduce usability.

3. Horizontal scrolling. Users hate scrolling left to right.

4. Fixed font size. Ninety-five percent of the time, they are specified too small, reducing usability for people older than 40. Allow text to be resized.

5. Blocks of text. A wall of unbroken text is deadly.

6. Javascript in links. A link should be a simple hypertext reference that replaces the current page with new content.

7. Infrequently asked questions in FAQ. Too many companies list questions they wish people would ask, but never do.

8. Collecting e-mail addresses without a privacy policy. Every time a Web site asks for an e-mail address, users react negatively. Tell them at sign up what they'll receive and how often.

9. URL greater than 75 characters. Long Web site addresses make it impossible to e-mail a recommendation to visit a Web page.

10. Mail-to link that's not an e-mail address. When people click, they expect information, not to be required to write an e-mail. So, for example, don't place a mail-to link on a name. Clicking a person name should link to a biography.


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