email design system

Auditing Your Email Design System

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Design systems are a helpful tool in the email development workflow. They save time by having a starting point for components that are used when building an email.

If you do not already have a design system, knowing where to start and how to make one, can be overwhelming. This post will walk through the process of auditing your existing emails to start the design system build process. In the audit phase, we’ll analyze trends and inconsistencies across your emails. Then, we’ll use that as a plan for building out our design system.

An introduction to design systems

First, let’s talk about what a design system is and why they are beneficial.

InVision describes a design system as “…a collection of reusable components, guided by clear standards, that can be assembled together to build any number of applications.”

The real benefit of having a design system is that it saves time by outlining how elements or components such as buttons, links, or promotional sections should be styled. They often include written directions such as what brand colors can be used, fonts, and sizing. 

I mentioned earlier that they serve a reference. With a design system, developers or designers do not need to start from scratch, or piece together parts from previous emails. This helps to avoid duplicating older, outdated code—and possibly broken code—into new email campaigns. 

Auditing your existing emails

The next step in creating your email design system is to take a step back to audit your existing emails.

Why do I need to do an audit?

Let’s think about it this way. Measuring results is a big part of email marketing. Think about if you launched the best summer sale campaign ever and it got a 40% click to open rate. Is that good? It sounds like it!

But, we don’t know if it’s better if we don’t have the results of the previous year’s campaign. Maybe the previous year had gotten a 60% click to open rate (we can dream, right?) In that case, our campaign didn’t perform as well as we thought. However, if the previous year had a 35% click to open rate, that is an improvement we can celebrate. 

It’s difficult to know where you are going if you don’t know where you are starting from. An audit of existing email elements, tells the story of how a design system can improve the existing state of email within your company.

Audit time — show me your emails!

To get an idea of what your current email landscape looks like, you will need a sample of your emails. The number of emails in your sample will vary depending on your company, organization or team structure.

Some things to keep in mind when thinking about which or how many emails to collect are:

  • Categories: Product, newsletter, alert, transactional, event, etc.
  • Business unit: B2C, B2B, internal, corporate

Who should be involved in the audit process?

When starting a project like this, I highly recommend involving people from other teams or groups that are involved with or related to the email process. Beyond your email designers and developers, consider including representatives from marketing, leadership, product owners, or project managers. 

A benefit to involving other teams is that they may be aware of email examples, that you would not have thought of. Or, they may be able to help gather sample emails that they have worked on recently or been included on the test email for.

Involving other groups allows you to see how having a design system may help them in the future. Other teams may be more willing to adopt a new design system if they are aware it is coming, and can contribute to it. 

Tools

Now that we have an idea of our scope and a team, let’s chat about what tools we’ll need to start auditing our emails. At the end of this, all we need are email samples. Depending on how emails are sent, saved, or stored in your company, samples can be collected in a few different ways. For example:

  • HTML files
  • View in browser links
  • .eml files
  • PDF
  • Screenshots

I preferred to capture my samples with a screenshot of the test email. Other than samples of the email themselves a way to take notes (post-its and sharpies or an annotation tool like power-point) and you’ll be ready for the next step.

Gathering

The first step is getting all your email samples—HTML files, pdfs, screenshots—into one place. If you expect a lot of email samples, grouping or naming them by type—B2B, transactional, etc—may be beneficial. 

I recommend taking a low-fidelity, pen and paper approach to auditing your emails. There’s something about looking at the printed paper in the real world that makes it easier to take it all in at once. Print out your samples and spread them out where you can see them all. 

If you prefer to work digitally, that’s ok too! Email screenshots saved into a contact sheet and viewed as one large image will work.

Analyzing for trends and inconsistencies

Now that you have your email samples in an easy to view format, you’ll want to start grouping components. Try not to focus on categories like link styles or headline treatments. Group what looks similar and figure out the rest later. Grouping all buttons or links is a good place to start. 

Using buttons as an example, take a closer look at the examples you gathered. Some things to think about are:

  • How many different button styles do you have?
  • Is there a need to have that many variations? Or can they be paired down to 1-2 options, both from a style and color choice perspective?
  • Are there any brand, accessibility, or technical limitations to keep in mind?

The goal is to pair down component variations so they are on brand and cohesive. If having buttons in any color is part of your brand, great! If limiting buttons to a primary and secondary color is the goal, then flag that as a guideline to address when building your design system.

Take the time to review all of the components you gathered. Make note of outliers that need adjusting to be brought in line with other components. It’ll take time, but once you’ve audited your existing emails, you’ll end up with an understanding of what is currently working within your design system, and what needs to be updated. 

Starting the Design System

Now that you’ve done the behind the scenes work of auditing your emails, you can start on the fun part—planning what the future of your design system will look like. You have a list of all components that are used to build your emails. From here, you can look at them as a whole, adjusting the components so that they are unified with each other and your brand guidelines. Each component should have:

  • Technical specifications: Width, height, spacing, font-size, color, etc.
  • Use cases: This component can use one of three colors, except in this specific case, etc.
  • Examples: Include visuals of how the components should be used. 

Including code samples for the email framework and components is ideal. This way there’s less of a chance the technical specifications can be misinterpreted from email to email. Plus, if the work is put in now—to code and test all components for rendering issues— it’ll save time when each email campaign is built later. 

Conclusion

Design systems are a helpful tool for maintaining consistency across email campaigns. The documentation of how your emails are built and what they are supposed to look like is beneficial to email designers, developers, and agencies. Auditing your existing emails gives insight to any outdated, off-brand, or legacy elements. It also gives you the opportunity to revisit technical concerns, like accessibility, mobile rendering, and rendering in dark mode.

 

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Author: Shannon Crabill

Shannon is a Senior Email Developer at UnitedHealthcare. She has 7+ years of experience as an email developer and has spoken at industry conferences about the importance of collaboration between email and marketing teams and maintaining quality in a high-volume environment. She gets nerdy about documentation and outside of email, she can be found tweeting about tech, coding with Javascript, Ruby on Rails and enrolling in every software development course she can find.

Author: Shannon Crabill

Shannon is a Senior Email Developer at UnitedHealthcare. She has 7+ years of experience as an email developer and has spoken at industry conferences about the importance of collaboration between email and marketing teams and maintaining quality in a high-volume environment. She gets nerdy about documentation and outside of email, she can be found tweeting about tech, coding with Javascript, Ruby on Rails and enrolling in every software development course she can find.

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