Avari Blog

Developer Thinking: Strategy for a Mobile-First Content Delivery Engine

[fa icon="calendar"] Feb 18, 2018 / by Karsten Rieke


In today’s email marketing climate, there’s no question about the major role being played by mobile-first design and development. Yet considering that it’s such a trending topic now, it may come as a surprise to some that Luke Wroblewski, a Product Director at Google, was already writing about the importance of mobile-first design in 2009.

But back then, while a lot of people talked about mobile first, only a few of them really did it themselves. Fast-forward to today, and it’s most important to note that if you don’t start with mobile when you design your campaigns, you’re doing it wrong. A poor mobile user experience means no response, no action, and no return-on-investment (ROI) for the businesses we serve.

As VP of Product at AVARI, my goal is to deliver successful campaigns and dynamic elements for our customers. That means we need to understand what success means. The reality is that 60-75% of emails are opened on mobile devices. So it’s obvious that mobile as a consideration must come first.

Let’s look at more numbers to drive home the mobile-first point. According to the Mobile Technology Fact Sheet by Pew Research Center, as of January 2014:

  • 90% of American adults have a cell phone
  • 58% of American adults have a smartphone
  • 32% of American adults own an e-reader
  • 42% of American adults own a tablet computer

However, not everyone is taking this information into consideration. Responsive design is pretty huge for the web, so it’s already considered a default. But in a lot of email campaigns, it's not. Mobile design is still like the stepchild. This is changing, but not across the board, and not very quickly. For example, MailChimp started offering mobile-responsive templates, but that’s only a recent development. At AVARI, we have been working hard and fast to get ahead of the market on this, by doing everything with mobile-first thinking.

In order to deliver successful campaigns and dynamic elements for our customers, I need to put myself into their shoes. It’s their perspective that largely drives our product development. And after months of a beta phase where I was using our own technology on behalf of our customers to learn the experience intimately, I decided that I don't want our customers to EVER have to think about how to make Dynamic Content Blocks mobile first.

Things like device type, device brand, email clients and apps, browsers, experience design, and “all the things” are so important. For example, we had to consider that even on the same device, the way an HTML Dynamic Content Block is presented can be very different from inbox to inbox. In an ebook about mobile responsive design by Campaign Monitor, the author says that “while the default Android email client that appears on the Google Nexus is renowned for its superior CSS support, the Gmail client that also comes shipped with the handset ignores styles within the tags and can’t make head or tail of many run-of-the-mill CSS2 properties.”

It’s horrible to have to set up mobile-first finetuning over and over and over. Even with some automation, it’s just awful. It’s a time-consuming and mind-numbing process.

It’s a lot for developers and user experience experts to think about, and it definitely cannot be an afterthought. But it doesn’t mean that the email marketer has to figure it out alone.

So what’s our development strategy for building a technology like AVARI? We keep it simple. I make sure we are baking mobile-first into the DNA of our content editoryou just need to make mobile-first design the default, and when you create a campaign or blocks, it's already built in. It’s super simple. Push a button to set it up and then know you are delivering content that has mobile-first delivery behind it.

We don’t overwhelm customers with too many options when they are using AVARI to create a Dynamic Content Block. They can design for mobile and design for desktop, and we take care of making sure it works everywherethey have a dynamic element that fits on all those screens and is readable and useable in the campaign. There is a ton of work going on behind the scenes, but our technology takes care of that so it feels really easy to use. Meanwhile, we will continue optimizing these points as we proceed, to ensure that our product continues to do what it’s supposed to.

To achieve our goal to deliver successful campaigns and dynamic elements for our customers, an important aspect of my job is conferring regularly with our user experience designer. Both of us go deep within the same application that our customers see every day to discuss how we can keep making it better.

We test it, we view it, we feel it, and then we talk about our options of how to optimize it. For testing, we use Litmus. It's a service that allows you to send a campaign, and it renders that email in dozens of different email clients, from Outlook to Windows Mobile. You can see how a campaign will look and make changes to it.

Our design thinking begins with a small screen and then adapts to big screens if necessary, which is opposite to what a lot of people used to do, and what some are still doing. In these instances, you need to make hard decisions, which involves saying no to a lot of things, like too many images or too much textit just doesn’t make sense to have them on a much tinier screen. You need to focus on what content drives the email and makes it effective for mobile users.

At AVARI, we take all of the above things and more into consideration to ensure that the campaigns our customers send always work well and always look good on mobile. On our end, we focus on ensuring that the content behaves nicely with what's designed around it, and adapts so that you’re delivering the best version of mobile available. And we work very hard to make sure that the whole experience of setting up a Dynamic Content Block and using it in a campaign is very easy to do and measure.

To conclude, when our developers and I were thinking about a building AVARI in a way that delivers mobile-first dynamic content to email, we:

  1. Deeply explored the experience of dogfooding* our product for a prolonged period of time—we set up a temporary internal services agency team for six months and we created and delivered dynamic campaigns on our customers’ behalf. It forced us to feel the pain every day, and made solving it omnipresent in our design thinking.
  2. Used our previous 18 months of experience to figure out what would get us 80% there, built that, and then optimized. We didn’t try to make it perfect at first; we started lean, and then made it very usable as a priority, putting our focus on building a robust, scalable solution that is really fast, a predictive recommender system that is best-of-breed, and a content delivery method that is reliable and readable. That’s what really makes the difference in the experience of a person looking at an email.

So, that’s about it. The area of predictive, dynamic personalization is growing and changing really fast right now and we are learning more every day. We have a process to keep feeding that new knowledge back into development, and that allows us to keep ahead of the market and on top of customer needs.

If you developing an application that uses dynamic content, or designing mobile-first email campaigns, feel free to ask your questions in the comments below and we can keep the topic going.

*Dogfooding means "using your own product." A product that was dogfooded is usually much more polished. To quote Urban Dictionary, “When a normal user is annoyed by the product, they can't do anything about it. But when a developer is annoyed by the product, they can stop what they are doing and make the product less annoying.”

Topics: Developer Thinking

Karsten Rieke

Written by Karsten Rieke

Karsten is a Co-Founder and the VP of Product at AVARI, where he defines and drives our product’s vision and strategy while overseeing a team of engineers. He’s a native German, the father of a seven-year-old son, and the team leader of a local volleyball group.