How much time do you spend designing your employee newsletter?

10 minutes? A few hours? A day?


Perhaps a more important, albeit painful question is: does it make a difference?

Most of the time, the answer is: I don’t know. 

If you don’t have a tool like Staffbase Email to measure the effectiveness of your emails with metrics like open rates, click rates, or read time, you have no tangible way to determine if your communications are engaging or effective.

And even if you do have a great email measurement tool like Staffbase, you may be at a loss as to why your open, click rates, or read times are so low.

But don’t worry!

Regardless of whether you’ve got access to metrics on your employee emails or not, we’ve got a trick that is guaranteed to save you time and give you insights you can apply right away. 

It’s called the 5 second test.

What is the 5 second test?

The 5-second test is a super simple usability testing technique that product designers and marketers use to test how well a design performs and which elements are most memorable. 

It’s primarily used for websites and landing pages, but really, you can apply it to any visual design that needs to communicate a message—like your employee newsletter.

The goal of the test is to find out the overall impact of a design, and answer the all-important question: “does this do what I want it to?”

Why you need to use the 5 second test

Anyone designing anything needs to acknowledge the two universal truths of how people consume content in the digital age:

1. We only have a brief moment to capture attention.

2. Personalized experiences power the modern web experience.

With so much content pumped our way every day, we’ve become conditioned to tune out anything generic, badly timed, or out of place. If something doesn’t capture our attention immediately, it won’t catch at all.

And when so much out there looks the same, sounds the same, and does the same, we crave the sweet relief of content that speaks to us personally. Content that seems to get us.

Companies like Netflix, Amazon, and Google all know this, and they’re changing the game because they design for it. They make use of all kinds of data and testing to identify what kind of content consumers want, when they want it, and how they consume it to maximize the time you will spend on their platforms.

And though you may not have a huge testing budget or the fancy tools these companies use for data collection, with the 5 second test you can start testing your design and content, and adapt it for the needs, desires, and expectations of the modern employee.

The 5 second test is one of the fastest, cheapest, and most convenient UX testing methods out there to get qualitative data on your newsletter designs.

The test may be extremely simple, but that’s the beauty of it.

You get a heap of freshly-pressed data in a short span of time and you can use it to help you make decisions or back up recommendations or changes you’d like to make.

The 5 second test is the perfect usability test for a busy communicator short on time.

If you’re worried your emails are too cluttered, that employees are missing key information, or worse, they aren’t reading them at all, the 5 second test could save you a lot of time, energy, and effort.

How we saved time and money with 5 second testing

The first time we did a 5 second test, it blew us away. 

We were working on ad copy and had what we thought was a very clear, big, unambiguous headline:

“Book a demo”. 

The ad had been tweaked and refined over the course of a few weeks but was still getting poor results.

So we decided to put it to the 5 second test.

We showed the ad to several people for five seconds; we asked them what the ad was about and if there was an action they were asked to take. 

Not a single one of them got it. 

This was a turning point for our team. 

Even if your communication is clear as day to you, it may be clear as mud to your audience. 

It wasn’t until we had the exact same language in both the headline and the supporting copy that our test subjects seemed clear on what we were saying.

The tests took us just 20 minutes to complete, but saved us weeks of additional live testing and spending.

How to run a 5 second test

All you need to run a 5 second test is a design you want to test and a handful of subjects who aren’t intimately familiar with what you’re working on.

The subject takes a quick look at your design for—you guessed it—five seconds, and then you ask them a few questions to see what they remember.

The trick is asking the right questions. You want to find out what captured the subject’s attention and what they remember.

But remember, this is not the time to ask for advice on your communication. Just get the facts.

Why 5 seconds?

First impressions count.

Research shows that it takes only a few seconds for people to make their minds up about your email and decide whether or not they will read on.

For that reason, five seconds is the most amount of time you want to give someone to assess your email. Any longer than five seconds and your reader will start to notice details they would normally miss.

Having your subjects spend more time looking at the email and picking up on the smaller details is actually not a good thing because it doesn’t accurately mimic how people would read a real email.

That is, in fact, the killer benefit of the 5 second test: you get immediate feedback based on how people actually consume content.

What questions should you ask your subjects in a 5 second test?

So if asking the right questions are the key to getting good data, which questions should you ask?

Generally, we recommend asking open-ended questions and avoiding yes/no questions. This helps keep the feedback informative and actionable.

Try asking questions like:

  • What do you think this email was about?
  • What are the main elements you can remember?
  • What did you like/dislike?
  • Are there any words or sentences that stood out?
  • Was there an action you were asked to perform?

How do I find test subjects for my 5 second test?

Sites like can be a great way to source volunteer participants externally, but it’s easiest and cheapest to use colleagues in your office or friends in your network.

The do’s and don’ts of running a 5 second test:

Good research can be easily ruined by bad testing practices. 

Remember the following as you set up and run your 5-second test and you should be set to collect excellent, high-quality data:

  • Do be appreciative of your subject’s time and attention.
  • Don’t make assumptions about their answers if you’re uncertain.
  • Do ask follow up questions to dig deeper into the “why?”
  • Don’t try to sell your work or get defensive. Stay objective.

When you’re done testing, gather the feedback, swallow your pride, realize everything you thought was wrong, and make whatever changes that are necessary.

Then find some fresh subjects, rinse and repeat.

How to 5 second test your employee newsletter design

Like we said, you can use the 5 second test to test any type of communication design but we’re going to show you how to apply it specifically to employee emails because, hey, that’s what we do.

Start with the assumption that people won’t be reading your email in 5 seconds; they’re simply scanning to figure out what’s going on.

For the 5 second test, this is perfect. You don’t need or want them to read your entire email. You just want to know if they can find the most important stuff.

Whether or not they find the most important pieces will come down to how well you can pull off the combination of simple design and providing valuable information.

Simple designeliminating all the unnecessary details

Valuable informationensuring your email has clear benefit the user

Emails have a handful of core elements that can work together to achieve that simplicity and highlight the most important benefits. 

Let’s go through some of these elements you can test and optimize for your internal emails.

How to test: subject lines

Let’s start from the top. Or even, one step before the top. The subject line.

Subject lines can determine whether or not someone will actually open your email.

Since you want to replicate a real email experience in your 5 second test, it’s best to show the subject line to your subject before you… *ahem*… subject them to the test.

After the test ends, be sure to ask a few questions specifically about the subject line:

  • What did you expect to see after opening the email?
  • What do you like about the subject line?
  • What do you dislike?

Test out a few different variations to see which one lands best.

How to test: headlines and sub-headers

Your title/headline is usually the first thing someone will read once they’ve opened your email.

Even if everything about your newsletter design and content is on point, the headlines still may be the only thing they read.

In 5 seconds people won’t make it beyond the headlines to read your body text, so your headlines need to be clear, compelling, and informational.

Write at least 5 possible headlines for every email to give yourself options to test.

Here are a few questions you can ask about the headline:

  • What can you remember about the headline?
  • Which words or phrases grabbed your attention?
  • Can you recall any other headers?

How to test: images

Though we may be hopeless remembering words, it turns out we’re not so bad at remembering pictures.

Studies show that not only are images often the most viewed element of a newsletter, but pairing a relevant image with corresponding copy improves memory retention.

Whether it’s a photo, icon, or an expertly chosen gif, your main image communicates the mood and helps to explain the purpose of your message. Anything too abstract or distracting, and you’ll find subjects asking: “What is this email actually about?”

For a 5 second test, you’ll want to see how well your main image and headline work together, or if they compete for attention.

A few good questions to ask about your email’s images would be:

  • Can you remember any images?
  • How would you describe the images you saw?
  • How did the images make you feel?

How to test: calls to action

There’s a reason you sent this email, right? 

Often that reason is that you need your audience to do something. That’s where your call to action (CTA) comes into play.

Employees should understand what your CTA does and where it will lead them.

Here are some questions you can ask about your CTAs:

  • Was there an action you were asked to perform?
  • What would you expect to happen after you perform the action?
  • How quickly would you act on this?

These are just a few of the core elements you can test, but there are plenty more to explore.

Fonts, color choices, typography, bolding, word spacing – They can all make a difference to how your email reads and are worth experimenting with.

Finishing the 5 second test and analyzing your data

As you go through the tests, document your subjects’ reactions. When the tests are complete, take stock. 

What worked? What didn’t?

Do people remember what you assumed they would remember? Or was it all surprises and now you’re questioning everything?

If the data shows that everything you believed initially was wrong, don’t panic. 

The whole point of testing is exactly that: to test. It’s meant to help you validate great ideas and shake out the bad ones before you get to the real deal.

So we propose this challenge to you:

The next communication you design—whether it’s a newsletter, email announcement, or a new intranet page—try putting it through the 5 second test. 

The results will shake up your assumptions and challenge your perspective.

But, in the end, it will save you time, help you create better email designs, and send more effective communications.