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The Well-Structured Email

April 21, 2010

Summary: Don’t send business colleagues a Wall of Prose. A well-structured email can get you faster responses. This post includes a few tips.

As @periodicdesign might tell you, I’m on a rampage. Having gotten way too many messages with 3-4 paragraphs of dense prose, I decided enough was enough. “Crafting these messages,” I said, “need to have the same care as a client deliverable.”

Unfortunately, I work from home in my basement, so no one heard me. So, I assembled a few tips and sent those around in — you guessed it — a well-structured email. Everyone at EightShapes is now trying their hand at improving the legibility of their email.

General Principles

Email should communicate three things:

  • Action: The message should make it clear what I need to do.
  • Issue: The message should describe the key issue or problem.
  • Data: The message should provide any necessary background information.

Email Structuring Tips

To communicate Action, Issue, and Data, messages should:

Use headers to delineate sections

I use boldface headers throughout the message to distinguish different elements. Typical headers include “Action”, “Summary”, “Background.” I also try to make my headers as specific as possible. While this means that every email might be structured differently, it’s more important to communicate the gist of the message from the headers.

Start with the action item

The first sentence in every message is the main action I expect from the recipient. It’s phrased as either a question or an imperative (“review the attached document”). I try to make the action as specific as possible such that the recipient doesn’t have to read the rest of the message if they’re pressed for time. Examples:

Action: Prospective Client X has a project starting in 3 months time, lasting 6 weeks. We have a prior relationship. Pursue?

Action: We have 20 hours left in the budget for Project ABC. Please consult with client to align remaining funds with scope.

Include deadline

When do you need the action done? Highlight the deadline.

Make recommendation

If appropriate, I include my recommendation or thoughts. Again, I keep this as succinct and as specific as possible. Example:

Dan’s Recommendation: Complete wireframe for screen X and await feedback from client before starting visual design.

For some reason, I always include my name. I think it saves the recipient a step: “Who’s this message from again…?”

Summarize message

Sometimes, I need to include a lot of information in the message. Rather than eliminate information, I’ll summarize the situation. I tend to use 4-5 sentences of prose for this, since I’m trying to paint a picture. This summary appears toward the beginning of the message (between the action and the bulk of the email), labeled “summary”, and lacking some specifics.

Whether people read it or not, it’s a useful exercise for me to make sure I can relate the situation succinctly.

Use bullets for sub-topics

Bullets are the bane of slide presentations, but very useful for email. After a new header, I’ll break the topic down into its key points. My bullets tend to have a leading phrase in boldface that provides an overview of the point. Example:

Client has concerns about direction

  • Heavy-handed menus: The navigation mechanisms encroach too much on the content area.
  • Progressive disclosure: The interactive elements revealing hidden information are not apparent.

Anticipate needed information

For prospective clients, my business partner likes to know three pieces of information. Whatever else I put in my message to him about a prospect, I also put those three pieces of information.

The best way to do that is to look at the action item and think, “What would I need to know in order to answer this question myself.” If you can think of a data point, but don’t actually have it in-hand, be sure to highlight that in the message. Example:

Mid-sized project likely good match

  • Starts: Not sure. Assume ASAP.
  • Duration: 4-6 months
  • Scale: Not sure of exact budget but likely comparable to Project ABC.

Two more things

  • I also put key phrases in boldface to make them stand out.
  • I like to enumerate attachments so people know exactly what they’re getting.

The Future of Email

I’m experimenting with using more color to communicate overall disposition of email. I’m also thinking about ways to make email more visual. Unfortunately, it’s rare that a quick sketch (after scanning and attaching to the message) is faster than just writing.

Structured Email: What’s the Real Return?

It would be hard for me to quantify the value of well-structured email. I don’t mean that it would be hard to measure, I just mean that it would be hard for me, personally, to measure. Mostly because I’m lazy.

And it’s because I’m lazy that I’m confident more structured email is helping. I’m responding to more messages, and gleaning the overall gist of a message is much faster. I anticipate a few other benefits:

  • I search email a LOT to find stuff. I hate tagging/labeling/classifying/foldering messages. I just archive everything. With better structure, I anticipate search will be more effective.
  • Referring to old email will become much more efficient. Scanning a well-structured message will likely yield that elusive piece of information much faster.
  • All of us do email every day. Forcing ourselves to be structured about it might mean that we get in the habit of doing it, and that habit may find its way into other aspects of our professional lives. Imagine highly structured meeting minutes, project plans, and client deliverables!

You might worry that a structure is a creative-killer. This is perhaps a topic for a separate blog post. Suffice it to say that creating a well-structured email is a design problem in and of itself, one that requires careful thought and sensitivity to your users.

What do you do to write more structured emails?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. John permalink
    April 21, 2010 1:43 pm

    First thing: fresh approaches to email are sorely needed. Despite its brokenness it’s not going away, and we need these types of discussions. I do have a couple of misgivings though particular to some of your proposals. How does bolding text or using colors rhyme with keeping things plain text? For me, in business communications especially, plain text is important as it ensures consistency, especially when communicating with those outside your company/profession. I also quote extensively in my emails, so things are kept as contextual as possible. But of course, this is only really successful if the recipients continue to observe such protocols.

  2. April 21, 2010 3:59 pm

    I like these recommendations. Longer email threads get too complicated, with each email requiring an understanding of the previous message’s context. I have to agree with John though, I think bold keywords and excessive use of colour makes email harder to read.

    Bottom line is that by clearly stating action items and issues I think you can save people time and avoid miscommunication. If people followed most of the items on your list and avoided using Reply All, the world would be a better place.

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. April 21, 2010 5:13 pm

    I agree with John’s comment re: bolding and color. I work for a large law firm, where much of the email ends up being read and replied on mobile devices (mostly Blackberries). Your well-structured emails ought to read well on a blackberry or iPhone as text is broken down into smaller chunks with context and one-line section headers.

    How do you enumerate the attachments?

  4. Nathan permalink
    April 21, 2010 10:20 pm

    I don’t like the colors. The language according to some arbitrary color palette is too hard to discern. Bold is enough.

  5. April 22, 2010 2:27 am

    Thanks for sharing your thought process here – lots to take away. I’m curious. Do you follow a similar format for site mail like Basecamp messages?

  6. Jamie Bresner permalink
    April 25, 2010 3:42 am

    At my previous job, we had a lot of projects and a lot of clients. To help deal with the flood of emails sent around daily, our email Subject lines were used to convey as much info as possible.

    In most cases, the Subject would contain the client code (usually a 3-letter abbreviation), then a project code (each code’s first two digits corresponded with the year of the project), then finally what the message was about, which normally was conveyed with as few words as possible.

    The client/project code made it very easy to find past emails without anyone having to file/organize emails in folders.

    With the volume of emails I receive at my current job, I’m surprised nobody tries to implement a similar system.

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