All About Mobile-First Email Design

Melanie Balke
April 24, 2023

As if email marketing wasn’t hard enough!

When you’re just starting, there’s a lot to learn. And, now, I’m about to throw another wrench in your plans! Because guess what? It’s not enough to write a good email; you must also design a gorgeous message.

Thanks to modern technology, a majority of the global population can access the internet in the palm of their hand. 75% of Americans now own a smartphone, and a 2022 study suggested that there are around 5 billion online mobile users worldwide.

All that is to say, your marketing emails must work for everyone, especially mobile users.

That’s why many brands are taking what is known as a “mobile-first” approach to email design.

What Is Mobile-First Email Design?

A mobile phone. "The Basics: What Is Mobile-First?"

Mobile-first design is exactly what it says on the box.

It’s an approach that prioritizes a customer’s experience on a mobile device. That’s not to say the desktop version is entirely ignored, though! Content should obviously look great on mobile and desktop devices.

However, under a mobile-first mindset, an email’s mobile view is the priority. If it looks a bit bland on a desktop, that’s okay! Most mobile-friendly email messages tend to be minimalist, so these design principles work well for any device.

Comparatively, many brands used to focus on the desktop view before mobile implementation. While this isn’t always a bad thing — there are still many places where desktop use dominates! — it’s an increasingly outdated mindset.

Why Should Businesses Consider Mobile-First Email Design?

A mobile device. "The Perks: Why You Need Mobile-First."

In the past, most people accessed the internet with a personal computer, and widescreen was the default. (After all, how many people have a portrait-oriented computer screen?) In the “good old days,” there was no need to design for multiple devices. You crafted a gorgeous visual plan for a desktop and sent the campaign on its way.

However, the introduction of smartphones has permanently changed the game.

Now. desktop-only (or even desktop-first) design elements pose problems for countless users. More importantly, failing to account for mobile users leaves many customers with a poor user experience.

Improving the Mobile User Experience

Public domain record of a 1920s Naval experiment. "Experiences: Create unique and convenient customer experiences."

So, let’s start with that last bit — the customer experience.

Imagine for a moment that you’re on a mobile device. Now, squeeze a classic two-column layout (a once popular facet of desktop email design) onto that vertically oriented screen. The result will be something that’s unnecessarily hard to read and nearly impossible to understand at a glance!

Now, let’s imagine the same scenario with a mobile-first email design, and let’s use a single-column layout. Now, the message is easy to understand, right? Even better, screen readers can easily parse these simple email campaigns.

With just one simple edit — namely, the removal of a column — we’ve vastly improved our customers’ experience with the brand!

Building Customer Relationships

A public domain photo of the Treaty of Paris. "Relationships: Mobile emails are a great way to nurture relationships."

The choices you make — your single-column layouts and easy-to-read designs — make a difference in your relationships, too!

The bottom line is that mobile devices are easy to access. Anyone can whip out their phone and check their email at any time. And — assuming you’ve optimized that messaging — they can just as easily purchase something the same way. This widespread accessibility fosters a sense of familiarity and trust between consumers and vendors. And more excitingly, those conditions can result in boosted conversion rates!

Boosting Your Brand’s Overall Reach

A large crowd at a rally at Yale, from the public domain. "Getting Heard: Mobile emails are an easy way to expand a brand's reach."

Functionality aside, mobile-first email design is also a numbers game.

Forget about screen sizes and footers for a minute, and join me on a quick dive into some important numbers.

Mobile internet use is growing. In a Pew Research report, around 15% of Americans reported accessing the internet solely through a mobile device. The same study also showed that younger consumers are more likely to be mobile users, and 23% of American adults reported having no home computer.

Putting the figures together, it’s easy to see why email marketing remains so popular. More importantly, it’s obvious that mobile design must be a priority. So, with that out of the way, let’s look at how you can optimize your marketing for that small screen layout.

Responsive Email Designs

Multiple multicolored paint smears. "Email Design: What Is a Responsive Email?"

Perhaps the most common way to create mobile-friendly emails is a responsive email, alternately known as a mobile-responsive email. (Yeah… not really a big difference, right?) These are adaptive templates that — by various methods — conform to fit many screen sizes. The best responsive email template can even fit non-standard screens.

Unfortunately, it is here that I must be the bearer of bad news…

If you’re not a fan of tech and coding, look away now and come back when I’m talking about the actual tips. Because I’m about to dig into how responsive email works, and that requires some coding info.

The Basics of Responsive Emails

Regardless of the strategy, mobile design relies on scalable content. In other words, content is made to work on any screen size. The simplest approaches use universally legible formatting tactics, while the most advanced options require in-depth implementation.

Ultimately, these efforts have three main goals:

  1. Ease of Use: Reducing the effort needed to create a simple email message
  2. Readability: Ensuring that email campaigns are legible
  3. Standardization: Creating standard templates and boosting branding

Unfortunately, you’ll run into a few formatting problems unless you’re using basic plain-text emails. The following techniques are often used to avoid these issues, but most experienced implementation socialists use a mix of all these options.

Beginning With Media Queries

Scattered printing press letters. "Queries: How @media can amplify your CSS designs."

Let’s start with one of the most common facets of traditional responsive emails: the media query. This is an internal bit of code that goes into an email’s CSS (cascading style sheet) code. Users won’t see this, but the effects are visible.

On a technical level, queries are implemented by adding @media to the code, after which a user can define customized templates for each device. By default, media queries can split a single display into three distinct categories: printers, screens, and screen readers. These categories can be further divided by orientation, screen size, and resolution.

So, summarily, media queries are super useful, and you’d think this would be the end of the article, right? Why use anything else?

Unfortunately, media queries are not supported by every mobile email client. For example, Microsoft Windows 8 phones don’t support the function at all, and some email clients — Samsung Email 6x being a prime example — block the feature.

Filling the Gaps With Fluid and Spongy Coding

So, what do implementation experts do to cover these odd cases?

There are many words to describe the additional formatting codes, including “fluid,” “hybrid,” and (my personal favorite) “spongy” coding. However, they all share a few critical features.

Adaptive (or “fluid”) formatting is the biggest commonality.

This term describes the use of tables and percentages to define a message’s layout. For example, a fluid image will be contained within a box, and that box (thanks to its max-width attribute) expands or contracts to fit any screen size.

Fluid emails are widely supported, and non-compliant email clients (such as Outlook for mobile) can be tricked into using it by inserting tables.

However, fluid design always requires a bit of buffer space. Any image will inherently have a “frame” — a variably-sized bit of white space.

Now, with all that techno-babble out of the way, let’s dive into the tips!

1. Mind Your Layout

A color-inverted patent for a printing press. "Tip #1: Keep and Eye on Your Layout."

The first email design tip is to check and double-check your layout. Don’t just assume that something is a mobile-friendly email. Know it.

Most mobile email clients let you view an email preview before you send something, so take full advantage of that feature. You can also send emails internally to yourself to see how the mobile version works.

Keep Things “Above the Fold”

A woman folding origami. "Above the Fold: Place the most important info first."

How do you increase click-through rates, amplify every email campaign, and reach the vast majority of mobile users? You follow one of the biggest doctrines in modern mobile-first email design: “above the fold.”

This phrase may sound odd, but it describes the simple process of placing your most important information first. Others have also called it “front-loading,” although it’s more commonly known as putting things “above the fold” these days. On a more precise level, anything “above the fold” comes before a user would have to scroll down.

Your first call to action and main message (i.e., contests, discounts, new products, or prizes) should always follow this rule to ensure your messages display optimally on any device. And let’s face it… most users — regardless of device — are only giving your emails a few seconds of attention. So make sure your biggest points go first before you hit send.

Simplify That Design

A color-inverted photo of the American Constitution. "Simplify: Use single-column layouts to avoid confusion and clutter."

This tip might ruffle some feathers, but it’s true!

The multiple-column layout is going out of style. It’s incredibly difficult to design a legible message with more than one column for mobile devices. Some of the best designers in the world can pull it off, but most mobile users end up with a cluttered and illegible mess. Most mobile email clients also have issues with these flashy designs.

Instead, use a single-column layout. This nearly guarantees your vision matches reality, and these minimalist designs make coding easier.

Keep in mind that you’ll probably need to play with your spacing and line breaks to make these emails stand out. Adding a basic header image can also boost your staying power.

Check your email and take note of how many single-column layouts you see. A lot, right?

(Of course, following the crowd isn’t always the best idea, but it is in this case.)

2. Keep an Eye on Your File Size

A loading screen. "Tip #2: Watch Your Loading Times."

Secondly, you must keep your content a reasonable length and size.

As lovely as it would be for everyone to have 5G wireless, plenty of people still use older and slower connections. There are also many consumers in areas with poor internet coverage. They may not be your majority, but they’re still your customers! Nurture your customer relationships and include them in your correspondence.

Ensuring your content loads quickly can also be considered mobile optimization, but it’s just a common courtesy. After all, how frustrated would you be if you couldn’t open an important email?

Keep your file size down by using compressed content. You can also reduce your email bulk by reducing the image size (it’s not like the mobile display needs a 5,000×5,000 pixel splash photo).

3. Cut the Fluff

Lines of regularly spaced film. "Tip #3: Keep Your Copy Short."

We all want to be creative, but mobile-friendly emails require brevity. Really, every modern marketing email should be brief, and the only major exceptions to this rule are newsletters and informative campaigns.

Think of it this way: When you’re checking your email, how long do you spend on a single message? Not long, right? The same goes for everyone, including smartphone users!

Keep that content snappy.

You’re not writing an essay; you’re making an elevator pitch, and the next stop’s a few seconds away. Make the most of your content and read it aloud to make sure it catches your attention. Pay particular attention to your preheaders and subject lines!

4. Give Things Space on Mobile Devices

A galaxy. "Tip #4: Give Things Space."

How many times have you fat-fingered a letter on your phone keyboard?

Mobile-first email design must consider that a small screen size means less active real estate. In other words, mobile devices require more space around interactive portions of a message.

A single-column layout helps a lot, but you’ll also need plenty of buffer space around your call to action and links. Many mobile-first emails avoid using hyperlinks for this reason, although they’re fine as long as you have plenty of room between each link.

Generally, the minimum font size for mobile emails (and any text on a computer screen) is 16–18 pixels. This figure varies, and serif fonts (e.g., Cambria and Times New Roman) require slightly larger sizes than sans-serif options (e.g., Arial and Roboto). The call to action should be even larger, with a 20 points (or more!) font size being fairly common.

Don’t Forget Your Accessibility

Mobile devices don’t preclude accessibility features!

Avoid placing important text in images, as some email clients fail to load these elements. Moreover, users with poor vision may have a hard time reading image-based content.

Be sure to include alt text for every relevant image and double-check that your content has proper headings. In your HTML code, be sure to use header designations (i.e., H1, H2, etc.).

5. Test Your Content

Overlapping foliage. "Tip #5: Always Check Content."

Finally, I can’t stress the importance of a test email. Even one pre-send check can save your company a load of embarrassment! These final inspections are the digital marketing equivalent of quality control, and they’re the perfect time to catch broken links, typos, and whether or not an email triggers spam filters.

Don’t just do this for your mobile email campaigns, either! Double-check every email campaign, and you’ll see a rapid improvement in your marketing power.

Feeling Overwhelmed?

People in suits. "Confused? Hire Some Help!"

If that’s a bit much for you, I understand. Running a business is stressful enough without learning to code! Fortunately, there’s an easier way.

Give me a call, and we’ll plan a free strategic session. Together, we’ll lay out a plan for your business’ email marketing growth. You can also ask about The Email Marketers — my team of experts — and how they’ll help you!

While you wait, don’t forget to check out the rest of my blog for more amazing marketing tips and tricks! I also post regular news updates about the digital marketing world.