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The Interactive Christmas Tree

The Interactive Christmas Tree

Firstly, to give you some background of how this came about, in-short, I was actually thinking about an email that I could make that my daughter (Poppy) would interact with and enjoy. Poppy is almost 5 and has no real concept of what email is, or what I do do for living and I wanted to make something that she would be interested in.

I also thought if I can interest her, then perhaps it might give me some more insights in to something that I’ve also been thinking about. Something that people could share, or post socially.

Something that:

  • Wasn’t made of the usual content, sales, or messaging, or welcomes.
  • That might just engage the person who receives it to interact
    with the brand perhaps in the way the usual social media channels do.
  • To show our clients that boundaries within email can be pushed, not just in code, but  also in it’s approach.
  • I also initially wanted to create something that had no images at all.

I don’t really feel like I achieved any of those things to any great extent, but it’s part of a larger body of work, and I learned a lot from creating it.

I think I wear my influences on my sleeve with this email, and it’s definitely a bit of a nod to them. Mark Robbins and TABLE TR TD are there for all to see. I’ve never really fully delved in to interactive email fully, I’m more of an CSS animation geek, so In fact I reached out to Mark, Camille and Miah  (Table Tr Td) to get their input on it and they were kind enough to get involved. In fact the Humbug idea came from Camille, and I think it’s my favourite function.

I also took a lot of influence from Mike Ragan‘s work on pixel-art which always resonated with me somewhat from that point of view of focussing less on that ROI/stat based email culture, and thinking about that social sharing side of things. Mike said described his pixel-art as a “labour of love” and I certainly know what he means by that after making this. But I felt the idea of the email still functioning in the same way even if the user doesn’t download the images. That would be cool.

I then just tried to combine them all with my love and hate relationship with CSS.

it went through a few stages, before ended up as what went out.

Stage 1

1

As it was coming up to christmas, and Poppy likes colouring in. I started by simply making a Christmas Tree with the simple premise of colouring it in. It was made up of 105 checkboxes and styled with a preset colour in the CSS to be activated when checked.

Poppy loved it, it was a huge success. She also made me share it with her friends so I ended up sharing a web link with a couple of her school friends parents. Which was unexpected, but nice reaction. I guess the reaction wanted despite being from a 5 year old.

Stage 2

The first version (despite it’s success with Poppy) wasn’t really going to cut it from a professional perspective and it led to the main idea which was “Decorate the Christmas Tree”.

2

So I had the tree already coloured in a create a palette of colours that you could choose to colour in baubles and then apply to the tree.

The problem with this was I wasn’t able find a reliable way to have multiple bauble colours on the tree, triggered by the menu, without heavily bloating the code. Whatever you selected in the colour palette changed all of the baubles. So because of the menu of colours it inferred that you could have numerous colours, so when using it, you were actually left disappointed. When I tested this on Poppy she just got very frustrated, and told me “IT’S RUINED!”

2a

 

Stage 3

The colour palette concept was ditched and set colour baubles to appear behind the checkboxes, by creating different colour styles for different classes and assigning them to the checkbox.

I then created a menu section which is similar to what exists now. The functionality changed to the baubles to christmas lights, and added the “Humbug” option suggested by Camille.

The lights worked well because they are change of colour animation, and when selecting each checkbox it starts from the beginning so it gives the impression of randomness.

The idea for the humbug option was initially a gif, of the tree burning down. Like when Wylie Coyote blows himself up after pressing the TNT plunger. I then changed this to a background sprite animation instead of a gif so that every time the button was pressed the animation played. (Thanks Mark for suggesting that change). Otherwise the user would have to go in and out of the email to make this function play again.

3

 

Stage 4

We then began work on the surrounding design. We wanted to keep things simple for this – so we just targeted webkit and and everything none webkit got the fallback version. Which was very much that.

Anyway we had these constant frustrations with it, and that was:

  1. The Baubles couldn’t be controlled by the user.
  2. When selecting lights the baubles would changed to lights, and the lights were much better. You couldn’t have both.
  3. If you selected your baubles and then pressed ‘lights’ they would all change and be on the same animation timeline. We didn’t have the desired affect.

So we changed it again. To how it is now.

 

Stage 5 – The Final Version

For the final version we just went with the variation of lights. This helped keep things a little simpler and work better simply because all that is now happening is that the different functions are a different CSS animation.

The only real problem I had was that in making the web version (which wasn’t just targeted to webkit and didn’t have any fallbacks etc,..), even when specific creating -moz- targeting in the animations for the mozilla, all of the animation colours for the lights were initially made up of a a skew and scale change that had varying gradients with box-shadows. However when i tested the menu functionality options Mozilla didn’t like the gradients, and wouldn’t display them, instead just displaying nothing with a box-shadow around it, and after spending a few hours trying to fix it, I decided to simplify a little. Time was pressing. So I reverted to simpler hex codes for that instead as it appeared to have problems with the linear gradient.

 

To Conclude…

It was fun experiment and will lead to more, and it was a great way to launch our newsletter. Which you can sign up to here.

And I was particularly pleased when Kevin and Jason made it the “Email of the Week” on the Litmus Email Design Podcast

Here is the code for each version. I’m sure it could have been lighter and cleaner but it was largely all born from adapting the build at each stage.
Email Build
Web Version

 

Thanks for reading.

Kristian

Background Images: Part 2 – Full Bleed Emails, VML, and OWA

Background Images: Part 2 – Full Bleed Emails, VML, and OWA

litmus

Following on from Part 1 of my blog post on background images, part 2 focusses largely on the considerations behind full-bleed backgrounds, and just finishing on a couple of other frustrations with VML and OWA you might want to be aware of.

Full Bleed Backgrounds

A simple method for adding more texture and depth to your designs, and break-away from the usual containers is to use a background image that spans the entire space of the viewing pane. I explained at #LitmusLive that my key considerations for this are:

  • Have as smaller image as possible in terms of weight.
  • Ensure that image is designed to repeat well if required.
  • Don’t base your entire design around this. Use it for enhancement.

Using backgrounds in this way becomes very simple, and doesn’t take long to implement. Much like the Litmus example above, which illustrates this point perfectly. There are a couple of quick ways to do this.

.bg {background: url('yourimage.png'),
     linear-gradient(-25deg, #262e45 0%, #222635 100%);
    }

The easiest way is to simply host the image, and add it to in the <style> of the <head> of your email. This has limited support, and won’t give you support on “Those Outlooks” and Gmail for example, but it’s a quick and easy way of providing an extra attack on the senses without having to spend too much time on it. Where the method is not supported it simply won’t appear and will gracefully degrade back to a flat background colour.

Speaking of which, you may have noticed that Kevin used a transparent PNG, and then applied a CSS gradient behind it, which also will fallback to flat colour where unsupported.

The inline method is somewhere which will offer you a little more support. You can use backgrounds.cm to set this up for ease, and this will save you the hassle, and will provide you with VML required to make it function in “Them Outlooks”

Keeping it Simple(r)

The reason I tend to stick to the 3 bullet points as rules, is to keep it simple(r) (and I have Outlook users to consider). I still believe for ideal user experience layout images (rather than content images), should still be used in this environment (unless you really know where your audience is going to open your email). This way you’re not chancing key pieces of content, key imagery, not displaying and affecting you’re overall build.

There are many fine examples of beautifully designed emails that feature a full-bleed content background images. But they are not without their issues, such as “Them Outlook versions” and “Those older Outlook Versions” squashing the images, or not rendering consistently on opening, or zooming in, or the image potentially adding significant amounts of weight to your email (if you’re not treating them right), as you’re likely to need something around 2000px wide.

If you’re looking for more my favourite approaches to full-bleed email background I’d suggest looking at Campaign Monitors and Taxi For Email’s newsletters. Key thing for me is they have chosen their images wisely. It provides them with flexibility.

The biggest issue you’ll find is in Outlook Web/365/.com (whatever it is right now).  The lack of support for “style” in background images in Outlook Web means you can’t control it, and depending on how the big/wide the viewing pane is, the content that sits on top will be in the wrong position (like below).

robot_owa

In my opinion if you are going to start diving in to full bleed emails with content; know your audience, plan ahead, think about the overall weight, but think about the overall user experience. How does it render in version of Outlook(s) at different sizes of viewing pane. You can’t just rely on your testing subscriptions for this, you need to do more thorough testing on devices and inboxes to be fully confident of their functionality. If it doesn’t render quite how it’s supposed to is the content still accessible.

You could however think about having an outlook fallback that is a restricted width. I have seen examples of this. (See the Taxi for Email Newsletter)

That being said if Outlook isn’t much of a consideration, or you have some flexibility that it doesn’t have to render perfectly to plan everywhere, then go for it.

Hopefully if the web versions of Outlook perhaps get some bugs fixed, this sort of issue will  start to go away and will be a significant step in the right direction.@litmusapp @caithartMSFT

Using ‘Cover’ and Full Bleed Backgrounds with content images

Other than some of the versions of Outlook, what else needs to be considered if you are to start thinking about using content images as full-bleed backgrounds.

Gmail

(please note that since writing this, Gmail has started supporting ‘background-position’ and ‘background-size’)

One thing I mentioned in part 1 of these blogs, was that Rémi Parmentier @HTeuMeuLeu discussed briefly at #litmuslive that background-size:cover was supported in gmail if it was set-up as shorthand.

The one thing I tend to stress with using ‘cover’, is that it will full the space and zoom-in/crop off the sides in order to fit the space (also mentioned in part 1). So depending on height of the space that it is filling, you’re going to need to still plan ahead with the images you use, and experiment back and forth to achieve the results you want. 

For this experiment I used an image that is 2000 pixels wide in a 600px hero section. You can see below that this methods works in Gmail app and the Yahoo Mail app.

robotcover

(Please remember that a non-gmail account on the gmail app will not render a background image).

<td bgcolor="#000001 " valign="top" background="yourimage.jpg"
height="auto" style="background: url(yourimage.jpg) 0 0 / cover; 
background-size:100%; max-width:600px; background-repeat:no-repeat !important; 
background-position:center top;">

Taking this to the next level and using the image as a 2000px full-bleed background, we have to change things a little. I’ve added what I did here, feel free to have a look at the code (it’s not the tidiest of code, lightweight code, or the most precise, it’s a bit over-coded, but I will go over the key parts).

The first thing is the set-up of the image itself. Again I’m sure I’ve probably over-coded this, but it’s just a dummy for testing.

<td class="yhoofx bg_cov owaoff" bgcolor="#000001" valign="top" background="http://kristianrobinson.co.uk/was-looking-mr-robot-fullw.jpg" 
height="auto" style="background: url(http://kristianrobinson.co.uk/was-looking-mr-robot-fullw.jpg) 0 0 / cover; background-size: 100%; 
background-repeat:no-repeat !important; background-position:center top;" >
<!--[if gte mso 9]>
<v:rect xmlns:v="urn:schemas-microsoft-com:vml" fill="true" stroke="false" style="mso-width-percent:1000;background-size:cover;background-repeat:no-repeat;"padding:0px; margin:0px; display:block;" inset="0,0,0,0">
<v:fill type="frame" src="http://kristianrobinson.co.uk/was-looking-mr-robot-fullw.jpg" color="#000001" position="0,0" />
<v:textbox inset="0,0,0,0" style="mso-fit-shape-to-text:true;">
<![endif]-->
<div>
<div style="font-size: 0; line-height: 0px; mso-line-height-rule: exactly;">

 

Yahoo

As we know from the gmail test, the shorthand version of ‘cover’ works for the mobile app, but doesn’t for the desktop web browsers. Thankfully I didn’t have to do too much digging for this either as @ericlepetitsf and @stigm kindly mentioned the fix for it recently in a discussion (thanks for that guys, saved me a good chunk of time).

You’ll see in the class of the TD that ‘yhoofix’.

@media screen yahoo {
.yhoofx] {
background-size: cover !important;
background-position: center top !important;
}
}

 

(The ‘owaoff’ class is just to turn the background image off in OWA – it’s not necessary, but I thought I would share that hack for those that don’t have it)

OWA Style for Backgrounds. (lack of)

While we’re bringing up the subject of OWA/Outlook 365 not supporting background style this then means you can’t prevent repeating.
In the example below where the idea is that if content overflows beyond the background image size, the flat background colour (set to the match the very bottom of the gradient) colour expands beyond the space. (Which in theory should be a nice idea for self service templates). We can’t stop the image from repeating.

backgrepeat

What can you do for Outlook 365/.com/OWA?

The only solution I have managed to find for Outlook 365 using the [OWA] .foo hack are is to turn off the background. In this instance that isn’t such a big deal. But for the Mr.Robot full-bleed you are removing a content image.

Of all the Microsoft platforms, Outlook 365/OWA seems like something that Microsoft could be looking to fix quite easily and quickly.
So please submit the request for OWA to start supporting styles for backgrounds by emailing outlook@litmus.com
(remember to show example use cases of why background style needs support)

VML

Vile Malevolent Language* Or VML  as it’s more commonly known, is not exactly what anyone wants to be using, but in certain circumstances it is unavoidable.
If you have a heavy Outlook audience to consider I’m sure you’ll have had more dealings with VML than you care to remember and this might be something you’ll want to consider.

Sticking with the same theme, I had been working with VML where I wanted to use a background image, but wanted the height to be variable. With VML I had removed the height and instead used “mso-fit-shape-to-text:true;”.

The problem with not having a height in the VML is that in inboxes running on PC with Outlook using the VML, is that the preview pane truncates the content. This then resolves itself on opening the email an downloading the images.

The main issue is that I know many Outlook users will only ever use the preview pane to view their emails. I am one of them. I couldn’t find any way of resolving this other than adding the height back in, which I was concerned will ruin the flexibility. However if you keep a height in as well, you may need to adapt what the height setting is in testing the preview pane, but what I found is when you open the open the email, the “mso-fit-shape-to-text:true;” will sort it out for you.

*This is not what VML stands for.

trunacting

 

2013 extra spacing

If you find when using VML that you get extra space added on platforms such as Outlook 2013. You can reduce spacing like this by adding this extra ‘div’

extradiv

<!--[if gte mso 9]>
<v:rect xmlns:v="urn:schemas-microsoft-com:vml" fill="true" 
stroke="false" style="width:600px; padding:0px; margin:0px; display:block;"
inset="0,0,0,0"><v:fill type="frame" src="yourimg.png"
color="#b4db0a" /><v:textbox style="mso-fit-shape-to-text:true;v-text-anchor:bottom;"
inset="0,0,0,0"><![endif]--> 
<div>
<div style="font-size:0;line-height: 0px;mso-line-height-rule: exactly;">

 

Follow me on twitter @joon82

Thanks for reading.

Kristian

 

Litmus Announces Microsoft Partnership

Litmus Announces Microsoft Partnership

litmus-microsoft

Last night during Boston’s Email Design Conference, it was announced that Litmus and Microsoft are going to team up to make email better.

Caitlin Hart, Program Manager at Microsoft was welcomed onto the stage by Kevin Mandeville and Justine Jordan who then described the long term plan for the partnership with Litmus.

Every email developer out there knows that Outlook is the biggest of many bug bears when it comes to email development due to the myriad of versions and platforms that Outlook runs on; the biggest issue being that the (desktop) application uses Microsoft Word to render email instead of Internet Explorer.

We’re excited to partner with Litmus, who has an amazing user base of passionate email marketers and developers that can provide us with real world examples of rendering bugs and errors. This will allow us to better identify and prioritise rendering issues to work on improving rendering in Outlook.

Caitlin Hart, Program Manager at Microsoft

Litmus announced as part of the partnership that it plans to include a ticketing system, so email developers are able to report all the issues they experience with Outlook directly to Microsoft. In addition to this, Litmus announced that new Microsoft email clients (Windows Mail 10, Outlook app for Android, iOS and Windows Phone) are going to be available for testing in the app, as well as allowing users to sign up for a free Litmus account that allows for Outlook render testing only.

We couldn’t be more excited about this partnership, and want to thank the Microsoft team for joining the campaign to #MakeEmailBetter.

Paul Farnell, CEO, Co-Founder at Litmus

Our Thoughts

Whilst Outlook and all of its annoyances aren’t going to be fixed overnight, this is a huge step forward. The fact that Litmus has managed to get one of the biggest email clients onside, willing to make changes to their products for US as email developers, is a great achievement.

We’ll be following up on this post with our thoughts on the changes that we think should be made to Outlook in the future, in order to #MakeEmailBetter.

Tom Riley
@MrTomRiley

Background Images: Part 1 – Content Images as background.

Background Images: Part 1 – Content Images as background.

Backgrounds Title Header

To follow-on from my talk at ‘The Litmus Email Design Conference 2016’ (#litmuslive) I’ll be doing a series of blog posts covering background images. They’ll feature key design considerations, prevent time consuming frustrations, some simple code solutions and some additional ideas for things like progressive enhancement.

Increase your Design Opportunities.

Background Images in email have a mixed reputation. Depending on your experience and approach, they can be a pain to work with, and many people find them too time-consuming, add too much weight, and/or restrictive. If this is the case I think it stands to reason that designers and developers when time is precious can potentially do what they can to avoid using them.

But if you use them in the right way there can also be some real design benefits to using them over and above just being to add live-text over an image, such as:

  • Create impactful designs without using too many images.
  • Help to frame content and add extra texture and depth.
  • Increases your creative options
  • It opens the door to more emotional design.
  • Can enhance the user experience with minimal effort.

We now know that we have that we have to be very focussed with our content, and that we have literally seconds to make an impact, something like a background image could be a good tool to have, and use in the same way as websites do to draw your attention.

Because email rendering can be awkward, and support can be sketchy my ideal scenario is to use backgrounds that are layout images, so if the background or the image is not supported you aren’t losing any thing from your content. You’re then not relying on the background image to deliver a message.

However probably the most frustrating part of using background images. Is when you have to use content images as backgrounds. Especially if that is a full width header image.

Content Images as backgrounds.

So with this situation I always aim for the same result. And I think I have a simple method of achieving this. The key thing to remember is that, email doesn’t have to look the same everywhere. So in that transition between desktop and mobile, regardless of the image, I aim for my content to remain the same size/easily readable on mobile. Immediately you then have another victory over “burning” the content in to the image. It also provides me with a simple mindset, and solution to aim for that I can build upon with very little effort.

To start, the thing to remember is that background images can be fluid. This is roughly the code set-up I like to use.

core_code

I’ve then set-up my image, and added inside the VML <DIV> the content to go on top, and forced it in to the position I want, at the foot of the screen.
For this I have used a top padding of 180px, but you may prefer to use heights instead.

NOTE: As a side note for anything horizontal I have spacing <TD> because there is a glitch with Outlook 2013 where horizontal padding has a habit of not working inside the VML fallback.

desk_robot

GMAIL APP

(please note that since writing this, Gmail has started supporting ‘background-position’ and ‘background-size’ on gmail addresses)

At this point I would test it in the Gmail App. To see what kind of result I get. Because if it’s not right in there. There is little I can do about it.
Thankfully it works quite well, but if not, I would go back to the desktop and try to find a workaround. Perhaps by repositioning the text, etc…

(Not featured in this example, but when setting the content up, I will often to start by setting things up in 2 floating table columns, even if one is blank. This give me a column that will stack on gmail and i can sometimes use it to my advantage to position things and then re-control on other mobile platforms.)

I’ve also set the position as ‘background-position: center top;” which shows the central portion of the image. This is made easier because the key area of the content (Mr.Robot) is narrow. However as you can see with the other example (Silicon Valley). You’re really looking to choose the ideal portion from either left, center, or right of the image when it’s a “busier” image.

You can however as Remi Paramentier (@HTeuMeuLeu) said at the same conference target the gmail app, and apply ‘background-size: cover;’ in shorthand and gmail reponds to that. So that might be something you want to work with and try out.

gmail_app_position

CALC and the GMAIL APP

UPDATE: This is now probably more relevant when rendering in the Gmail Apps on a non-gmail address.

If you’re looking for more precise positioning, you can always use CALC inline to reposition the background, and then use a media query to reposition again on supported mobiles.
The support for CALC has been fine for myself, however I have some potential issues on older Android devices. Worth looking in to though especially if you have a right-hand side image like the one below.

The one thing to be wary of here, would be to consider your text positioning. If you were to put text to the left of the image, it would just move behind it. So keep your text, above or below.

calc

THE TRANSITION TO MOBILE

So as mentioned, I have a straight forward formula for mobile, and although there are other options. I tend to always immediately aim for 1 of 2 solutions.

Because I have a flat background colour applied behind the image, I simply allow the image to shrink down on mobile to see how it looks, and more often than not, the combination of the image shrinking down and the content remaining not at this point will force that background colour to appear from behind the image. I then used media queries (often padding) to force to the content on to the flat colour.

(if this doesn’t work for you you can always apply and flat colour behind the content using media queries and see how it works out)

The second thing I do here is once I have that version right. I then apply background-size: cover !important; as a media queries style to see how it looks when the image fills the space. This can be hit and miss, often depending on the amount of content. But it’s a easy thing to try, to give you a different result.

For the really awkward scenarios

If you get really stuck, there is one solution I have gone to in the past. But it does tend to leave you forcing the desktop on gmail, or targeting it with other gmail hacks. You can use media queries to:

  • turn off your background image
  • remove any fixed heights or padding from your content. Leaving just the content
  • Apply a flat background colour behind it.
  • Turn on a mobile version image of the background image.

So that’s it for the first part. It’s a basic premise. If you have anything you wanted to add, please feel free to let me know.

 

Next time around I’ll be looking more at the other part of my talk. Patterns, Enhancement considerations, and Layering of content.

 

You can access my slides from Litmus here

 

Kristian Robinson
@joon82