Ted Goas plans, prototypes, and publishes for the web and email. Design @StackOverflow. +1 hockey, snowboarding, soccer, skepticism, Newcastle, and Troy McClure quotes.
How were you first introduced to email marketing and design?
I started my career in 2001 as a web designer focused mostly on websites. Everywhere I worked, there was always a great need for email. I started with “I’ll take a crack at email” and progressed to, “I have experience with email” and eventually got to “I’m pretty good at email.” Since 2007, email has been a part of every job I’ve had.
You worked for a long time in the medical industry. What challenges do you see as inherent to medical industry emails and web work?
I worked at Canfield Scientific, a biotech company specializing in medical photography and clinical trials. One of my main challenges was getting useful feedback on my work. Doctors were our main customers, but their schedule is often hectic and their time is worth a lot. It was hard to schedule time to do research or get feedback.
I also had a hard time explaining my work to designers in other industries. The medical industry is so specialized that outsiders had difficulty understanding the problems and workflows. I rarely received helpful feedback from folks outside my team. At times, I didn’t feel like part of the design community. I wrote more about this experience for anyone interested.
How did you end up transitioning from the medical field to your current role at Stack Overflow?
I saw Stack Overflow advertise an open design position and messaged a friend on their team who helped get my foot in the door. I officially applied by sending an HTML email to Stack Overflow. (I would totally recommend this, BTW!)
The transition itself was pretty rough. Information at Canfield was need-to-know, so for better or worse, I was sheltered and able to focus on design. Stack Overflow is by default open with information and I got access to everyone on my first day. It was overwhelming. I saw people in multiple chatrooms, jumping in and out of Hangouts, posting designs, commenting in docs, and committing code. It took a month before I got both feet on the ground and my imposter syndrome started to fade away. I wrote about my first few weeks at Stack Overflow.
What’s been your biggest challenge at Stack Overflow and how are you overcoming it?
Designing at scale. Stack Overflow racks up almost 8 million visits daily. That’s a lot of different people with different motivations and different goals. It can be risky to change even the smallest things on a site like that without disrupting someone’s workflow.
Last year, Stack Overflow adopted a double-diamond product development process to help remove some of that risk. We place a lot of emphasis on design discovery, research, and prototyping to validate each new design. By the time we start writing code, we’re pretty confident we’re building the right thing.
What’s your current process look like when working on emails?
Everything starts with a functional spec. I’ve been using a modified version of a template that Jay Jhun shared at The Email Design Conference in 2014. This allows everyone to contribute early and build a shared understanding of what we’re doing.
I design in Sketch, which has great tools for exporting optimized images. I share my progress early and often by dropping a design in chat, linking to an Invision project from Google Docs, or posting a PNG in Trello.
After a design is validated, I jump into Sublime and use Cerberus as my starting point. When the rough draft is coded, I move to Litmus Builder and push it across the finish line. Lastly, I integrate it into SendGrid, Iterable, Campaign Monitor, our codebase, or whatever ESP it needs to be in and support the team in QA and reporting.
You’ve been involved in the open source world for a while. How have you seen open source, especially open source email, change over the years?
It’s gotten really complicated! A few years ago, open source email was mostly basic templates and simple fixes to common email gotchas. Now there are build systems using custom syntax to generate responsive emails without media queries. It’s tough to keep up. And just when I start to feel good about myself, Mark Robbins does something new…
And just when I start to feel good about myself, Mark Robbins does something new…
What’s you opinion on the growing trend of interactive emails?
When I hear someone say “code emails like it’s 1999,” or “just make everything a table,” I tell them about things like interactive email or using CSS Grid in email. Their eyes usually perk right up. I love how interactive email pushes what’s possible in email design. Unfortunately, I haven’t worked on one yet. My teams are focused on sending the right email to the right person at the right time, so that’s where most of our effort goes.
What is the one thing you constantly see people getting wrong in their email campaigns?
Sending the same poorly-targeted emails over and over again. I have accounts at a few online retailers. I search, browse, and occasionally buy on their websites. Even though these retailers have my data and track my behavior, the emails I receive seem generic and are sent when I’m not looking to buy. I’ve unsubscribed from a bunch of these emails even though I continue to buy from these retailers.
Wayfair, however, gets this right. One day I was looking at daybeds on Wayfair’s site. I searched, clicked on a few products, and ultimately got pulled away but left the browser tab open. A day later, I got an email with photos of the exact beds I looked at, asking me if I was still interested (yeah I was!). I was looking at these beds, recently, and Wayfair used that to strike while the iron was still hot. I own a daybed now 😀.
What are some opportunities you’ve seen in email that you don’t think enough people are exploring?
I see an opportunity to use email to onboard folks into a new experience and keep them coming back. Email is everywhere, it seems like an obvious channel to go after.
I recently researched ~20 products on how they onboard and hook new users after signup. Half of them sent me a single welcome email and the other half didn’t send any email at all. I was really surprised! I had just just signed up. The product wasn’t part of my world yet, but the interest was clearly there. I was amazed how many products let me walk away so easily.
What advice do you have for anyone looking to get into email marketing?
I favor being a generalist over a specialist, or being T-shaped as Jacqueline recommends. I’d recommend working on websites and apps, too. It makes one more versatile and able to work on more aspects of a project. There’s also a ton of overlap. Grid systems, typography, responsive design, performance, copywriting, progressive enhancement, A/B testing are all part of both my email and web projects. I use the same tools to work on both email and web projects.
How do you stay sane outside of the email world?
My wife and I have two young children, so I come back to the email world to regain my sanity :) In all seriousness, I enjoy spending time with my family and taking weekend trips. This past summer, we moved to a new town in northern New Jersey. We’re having fun putting our house together and exploring a new part of NJ.