Make your messages accessible on any device: Use plain-text e-mail

William Jones believes that rich HTML email has seen its day. As people read email in more places and on more devices, content--and not presentation--is paramount.

William Jones believes that rich HTML e-mail has seen its day. As people read e-mail in more places and on more devices, content—and not presentation—is paramount.


Last week, Joe Rosberg asked readers to respond to a poll regarding the role that smartphones play in their lives. Seventy-five percent of respondents have a smartphone themselves, and sixty-five percent of techs report having to support them at work. I'm hoping then that I'll be able to get most of you on board when I encourage you to make plain-text e-mail the default on the machines you support.

I've been using a BlackBerry for two years now, and it's great for e-mail. Having a smartphone has changed how I relate to messaging. In fact, I read a higher percentage of my messages on my smartphone than I do on my computer. Working the help desk means I'm usually not at my desk, and when I am I'm usually trying to accomplish other tasks. Having my e-mail in my pocket lets me be more productive. It also means I have no patience for HTML e-mail messages anymore.

To be fair, I've always been crotchety about rich text and image-laden e-mail. From the beginning I never got the appeal. E-mail was always useful enough for me as plain text and attachments. Adding HTML features seemed like gilding the lily.

I felt vindicated as we started seeing some of the ways that HTML e-mail could be misused: phishing scams can hide destination URLs and redirect users to malicious Web sites and inline images can ping advertisers' servers to let them know their messages are being read. Now our mail clients avoid displaying most of those rich HTML features anyway, as a security feature. And yet, some people insist on continuing to use HTML e-mail. If they're trying to reach a BlackBerry user like me, that's a great way to ensure I don't read their messages.

When I whip out my smartphone to read a new message and find myself confronted with a screen full of HTML and no actual content, I assume the message is an advertisement, and I delete it. This is because my users and I discovered that reading image-rich e-mail messages on our BlackBerrys is a major pain. Those advertisers and newsletters that send the few image-heavy messages I do want to see are filtered so they don't end up coming to my phone. I read them at my leisure when I'm at my desk. So, bear in mind, if you're not on my personal Rich Text whitelist, your message may end up in the bit bucket.

As people read e-mail on a wider variety of devices, I think we should put plain-text e-mail at the forefront again. Set your users' e-mail applications to default to using plain text when they compose new messages. Odds are, most of them will never miss the rich text features, and you can rest assured that messages are being sent in a format that is universally accessible. Which is great for the BlackBerry users like me, but even more vital for someone who relies on a different type of assistive device. You see, screen readers for the blind really prefer plain text, too.

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