Call the Design Team: Outlook 2007 Is Coming

As you may have read, Microsoft is soon launching a new version of Office which includes a new Outlook. This new version, called Outlook 2007, includes changes that are going to affect everyone sending email today.

The reason for this is that Microsoft has switched the Outlook rendering engine from Internet Explorer to Word. A rendering engine reads the HTML, rich text or plain text code and displays it in your email message, just like a browser displays a website.

What this means is that instead of displaying your HTML emails with a rendering engine that was designed to render web pages, Outlook will be using a scaled down version that has been included in Word for some time now. While Internet Explorer has seen a recent update to its rendering engine, Microsoft Word has not received the same treatment. This does not mean Outlook will not be able to display your HTML emails but it does mean you will have to change how you approach your email design and layout – in some cases radically.

For a complete list of what is and isn’t supported with the Word rendering engine check out these articles from Microsoft.

At a high level, the following elements will no longer be supported:

  • Background images
  • Alt attributes in image tags (these would display text if the image can’t be loaded)
  • Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) assisted positioning (meaning no float or display properties)
  • Custom images in place of bullets
  • Flash
  • Animated GIFs
  • Forms
  • Rowspan and colspan attributes in tables

There have also been reports of HTML emails having issues with background colors not inheriting, meaning if you nest elements (like tables) the parent element does not pass the background color on to its children. You will also want to keep an eye on margins and padding as it seems they have an unexpected affect on text. Of course, some of these elements have never been supported by other popular email readers, so how much of a change this is for your program depends on the composition of your list and how you were approaching such capability issues up to now.

But, if you have been using modern HTML/XHTML practices with CSS in your emails you probably want to consider less modern practices. Here are some suggestions:

  • Instead of using CSS positioning for layout, think about using tables.
  • Be careful not to depend on images to convey your content, since background images and alt attributes are no longer supported.
  • Avoid using any forms, applets or Flash.
  • Be very basic in your table layouts and minimize the use of background colors.

As we begin to run emails through Outlook 2007 we will get a better idea of what works and what doesn’t. In response to the confusion this has stirred up Microsoft has released a tool you can download that will validate your emails HTML to the new standard. Also, we are pleased to tell you that Outlook 2007 is included in a soon-to-be released upgrade to Campaign Preview, so you will be able to easily check this alongside other rendering environments.

Of course, like all design decisions, the operating mode we recommend here is design, test, measure, repeat. As Outlook rolls out and gets adopted by more end users, watch your metrics and be diligent with testing.

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