Email Community Spotlight: Alice Li – Litmus

The Community Spotlight—a monthly blog series highlighting some of the amazing members of the email community—is back for 2024!

Every month, we interview, highlight, and celebrate the splendid members of the email community. We dig into where they got their start, where they are now, and explore their challenges and passions in email.

This month, we’re chatting with Alice Li—email developer, accessibility activist, and former Geocities webmaster.

Alice Li  (she/they)
Principal Email Engineer at Zillow
Follow Alice on LinkedIn & X (Twitter)

What did the beginning of your time in email marketing look like?

Picture this: I’m walking into a beige cubicle jungle of an office for my code screen, wearing a pantsuit I just bought with my meager retail wages for the occasion. The hiring manager sits me at a desktop PC with a giant CRT monitor that’s disconnected from the internet so I can’t Google anything. I also can’t look anything up on my phone, as this was the age of flip-phones. I’m provided a flat JPG of the design, Photoshop, instructions in a TXT file, Notepad to write the code in, and Internet Explorer to preview my code changes.

I was the only candidate who passed that code screen, and fortunately, the actual job was a *tiny* bit more advanced—we used Allaire Homesite instead of Notepad as an integrated development environment (IDE), at least!

Needless to say, we’ve come a long way in terms of email design and development since. Back then we were still slicing up layouts in Photoshop, using spacer GIFs, and worst of all—sending email proofs to our own test inboxes in multiple clients because Litmus testing wasn’t a thing yet! There was no mobile responsiveness, Dark Mode, interactivity, or accessibility considerations to speak of. Sometimes I miss some of the more out-there trends like horizontal-scrolling layouts or slicing up JPGs down to a pixelated version and then filling it with background color so it would still show up with images-off… but I think we’re in a much better place now.

How did you first connect with the wider email geeks community?

After I coded the interactive carousel Lego Bionicle email back in March 2015, I became obsessed and found any opportunity I could to add interactivity to the email designs that came my way. I found Justin Khoo’s FreshInbox blog—which was one the first resources for interactive email—and started commenting on some of his posts and sharing around the interactive emails I’d been coding for Shutterstock/Offset at the time—which were also some of my early entries into Really Good Emails!

Through that, Justin asked me to appear on my first-ever conference panel on interactive email at Email Evolution Conference 2017. My company’s Communications/PR team loved it, and submitted me to speak at Litmus Live later that year with my first solo session, “Getting Started with Interactive Email.” It was really at these in-person events that I found out about the larger email geeks community online, and I’ve never looked back.

How would you describe what you found in the email geeks community and what keeps you connected to it? 

I was pretty lucky in that I’d already worked on a vibrant team of email developers and designers around the United States who were constantly sharing their learnings, but getting cross-pollination from around the world was a revelation. So it was really like a larger, international version of the collaborative environment I came up in. I love being able to learn, teach, and share; and the email geeks community is the perfect place for that.

Your Litmus Live 2023 keynote, Green Your Emails: Eco-Friendly Strategy, Design, and Code was our highest-attendee-rated session—why do you think this topic resonated with so many people?

That’s so heartening to hear! I think that in recent years, we’ve been really feeling the effects of the climate crisis. My keynote took place only 2 weeks after abnormal flooding in Nevada’s Black Rock desert stranded over 70,000 people at Burning Man, including at least one of the attendees of Litmus Live 2023. Just a few months before that, New York City (where I live) was engulfed in apocalyptic orange wildfire smoke that blew in all the way from Quebec. I wish these were just coincidences, but sadly the frequency of extreme climate news stories just keeps increasing.

It’s easy to feel helpless as individuals to affect such a huge systematic worldwide problem. But as email professionals, the decisions we make on our jobs every day actually have the potential to make a difference. We already knew from the headlines that recent tech trends such as AI and crypto are leaving an environmental impact, but now we know that email does too. I think it’s the realization that we *are* in a position to slow climate change which has become an actionable call to our industry.

And as a follow-up, what prompted you to present on the environmental impact of email? 

I kept running out of space on my Google Drive and I discovered that the vast majority of my drive was being taken up by *email* instead of any of the larger photos, videos, etc. I was storing. After a frenzied deleting spree, I noticed some egregious anti-patterns in my inbox—brands sending too many emails too often when I hadn’t opened a single email from them in over a year, or email code that far exceeded the 102kb Gmail clipping limit. I started thinking about how the email code I write gets multiplied by millions when it lands in all those users’ inboxes and has to be stored on cloud servers until recipients actually delete them.

Since I was in the email industry, I knew that my colleagues and I had the knowledge and power to change this. As an email developer—if I personally cut out a few KBs of code per email, that has a direct exponential effect on the space that gets taken up on servers. Following that thread, servers also require electricity to power and hardware to run, which leaves a carbon footprint. It really hit home that anyone who works in email can make small changes that create a huge impact on the environment.

What do you think our social responsibility or guiding principles should be as email developers, designers, and marketers?

I truly believe that good marketing is like fostering a good relationship. “CRM”, after all, stands for “Customer Relationship Management”. There are all sorts of ways to influence customer behavior, and not all of them are healthy or positive. Ultimately, doing the best for our users and customers is not only our social responsibility but also reflects positively on our brands and businesses.

Some guiding principles we can act on when managing our relationship with our customers include:

  • Accessibility: Legal implications aside, we want to ensure that *all* of our users can access and interact with our messaging.
  • Sustainability: In addition to making a positive global impact, sending sustainable emails is just better for your user. Your emails will be less likely to clip, will load faster, and will be less likely to annoy your users by taking up too much space or appearing too frequently in their inboxes.
  • Inclusivity: Consider the groups of people you may or may not be representing in your imagery. Could you be unintentionally making some folks feel excluded by not showing that they can be a part of your brand’s story?
  • Empathy: At the end of the day, our users are humans with complicated feelings that we should be empathetic to. For example—allowing users to opt out of messaging surrounding certain sensitive holidays like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, or Valentine’s Day not only shows that we are also humans who acknowledge their humanity; but can prevent folks from rage-quitting your emails altogether.
  • Avoiding dark UX patterns: Are you tricking users into boosting your metrics somehow? Do you use copy that makes them feel bad if they’re not acting how you want them to act? (e.g. Opt-out buttons reading “No, I’m a loser who hates getting discounts!”) Maybe rethink that, because it’s a bit passive-aggressive and not great for any relationship—marketing or otherwise.
  • Adding value: We want our relationships to be that of enthusiastic consent. One way of doing that is to provide genuine value to our users’ lives and give them a legitimate reason for wanting to hear from you.

You’re renowned within the community for your development expertise—what do you find in email development that keeps you interested and engaged?

In the Geocities era, I was part of this little clique of nerds who designed/coded their own websites dedicated to their favorite anime characters. I remember the excitement I felt when CSS3 first came out, and when I became the first “webmaster” among my peers to incorporate translucent alpha-channel hover effects into my navigation and everyone clamored to ask me how I did it. Creating delightful and innovative interfaces to impress my geeky friends has really been the running theme in my life that motivates my interest in email development.

How do your intersecting identities shape the way you approach your career?

When I was 8 years old, I was told by my optometrist that I had a high chance of going blind by the time I was in my mid-20s because of my retina issues. Thankfully multiple surgeries in my 20s helped save my vision, but not before I spent a good chunk of my childhood worrying about and imagining how to navigate the world as a blind person. So when more education came out around digital Accessibility and making things easier for people with disabilities to interact with the world, I really latched on to advocating for a11y-compliance at every company I’ve been with.

As a femme-presenting, queer person of color from a low-income service industry background, I also belong to multiple groups that haven’t traditionally been well-represented in the tech industry. Although things have gotten better over the years, there have been multiple incidents in my career that strongly broadcast implicit bias because I wasn’t what people “expected” of a developer on the outside. Those experiences continue to motivate me to advocate for other folks from non-traditional backgrounds in tech and inform why I’m passionate about creating resources and guides for anyone to learn email development. 

What do you wish was better understood by non-developers about email development?

The lack of email standards (vs. say, web standards) is a huge factor in how email development has been shaped over the years. Email development appears deceptively simple from the outside, even to other types of developers. But consider the cognitive load in prioritizing on-the-spot which coding methods you’ll use to support which email clients, balancing the implications of all those trade-offs for your users’ needs, and having encyclopedic knowledge of the plethora of tools/hacks/deprecated languages from the 1990s through today you might need to address all of that.

These complexities are, at their root, caused by the fact that email clients don’t adhere to established standards like web browsers do. While web development has been streamlined and documented through corporate browser-driven efforts, email development has been primarily driven by individual developers reverse-engineering how email clients are transforming and interpreting their code, and then sharing those findings with the community. As an admin of the Email Markup Consortium (like a W3C for email), we’re trying to change that and urge email client vendors to follow a similar set of standards to remove all the aforementioned barriers just to code what essentially should just be a simple static HTML file.

Which songs hype you up, and which songs chill you out?

When I need to concentrate on something and feel energized at the same time, I listen to non-English high-tempo music so that I’m not distracted by the lyrics. When I was a kid, it was mostly J-pop and anime soundtracks. These days I’ve been listening to more Latin pop and Cantopop. (I do speak Cantonese, but the tones can be so different when sung versus spoken that it’s less distracting.) Otherwise, if I’m not trying to concentrate, 90s hip-hop or grunge always gets me hyped up since it’s basically what I grew up on—anything I can dance or karaoke to, basically.

In terms of chill, I’m a big fan of anything within the realms of trip-hop, dream pop, neo-soul, or shoegaze. Some of the top concerts I’ve attended of all time are Massive Attack, Zero 7, Halou, Imogen Heap, MS MR, SZA, Bjork, and Sia—before she started hiding her face, even. (In fact, you can spot me in the front row of her TV is My Parent DVD!)

When you need renewal, what sort of activities have you found that help?

Art and food are my happy places. The entire process of creating an illustration stimulates the part of my brain that my day job neglects. From coming up with a great concept/composition to the noodly-nitpicky finishing touches, making art really allows me to get into the “zone” where something subconscious takes over carving out my vision from the blank page.

As for food—I grew up in an apartment on top of my parents’ Chinese-American takeout restaurant in Detroit, so food has always been an inextricable part of my life. As a kid, I would fall asleep listening to Food Network shows, and I still listen to food-related videos on YouTube to unwind. Whenever I travel, my first priority is getting reservations for the restaurants I need to try and then filling up the hours between meal times afterward—preferably with museums or theater.

Learn from (and connect with) Alice

You can find out more about Alice at her site, AliceLi.Codes, and be sure to follow Alice on LinkedIn & X (Twitter).

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The post Small Changes Creating a Huge Impact: Community Spotlight with Alice Li appeared first on Litmus.

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