A matter of design principle(s)

Some lessons learned from jumping into the deep end.

One of the core principles around which our way of working is based is the concept of the small, multi-disciplinary team. At Booking.com there is no design team, there is no dev team, there is no copy team. We’d rather refer to groups of people in the same field as communities — they scale so much better this way. While some of these communities may number in the hundreds a team is usually around six people working together on a specific problem. Six people with a good mix of skills: designers, developers, usually one product owner, sometimes a copywriter or a data scientist — whatever the scope of the team requires.

In my four years here I’ve been part of 7 teams; choosing a new team is always one of my favourite and yet most challenging moments. It’s not easy leaving behind a bunch of awesome people, even if sometimes you’re just moving a couple desks down. It’s not easy to stop working on problems you’ve been trying to solve for a while and passing them on to someone else. It’s not easy leaving what is already a comfort zone to work on something you may know little about. But, because it’s a great opportunity to learn something new, I almost never pass the chance.

There’s always a learning curve when changing teams. And, to me, that’s essentially the point of doing so, to put fresh eyes on a fresh challenge, bring new perspectives to the team and learn something in the process. If it’s easy — if it’s not a little terrifying — you’re probably doing it wrong.

It’s a quick, informal meeting. There are no chairs in the room, just a tall, round, yellow table standing on three legs. From the other side of the table comes a challenge: Do I want to join the email marketing team? My first thought is that I know absolutely nothing about email marketing and that in fifteen years as a designer I haven’t designed a single email. Sure, it’s a little terrifying but I see that more as a reason to say yes than to say no.

In about twenty minutes the weight of the challenge I’ve just accepted starts to become more and more visible. It’s fine. I’ve done this before, I know how to keep calm in this situation. Take a deep breath and repeat after me: It can’t be that hard. It’s a process. Steps. I can figure out the steps.

What I usually do about now is take a good look at the product. New eyes can spot a lot of things that might be hard to see if you know the context and story behind them too well. I do this first, even before talking to people on the team. In this case I’ve gathered all the email campaigns we send out. I make notes, usually in the form of questions, trying to look at them from the perspective of the user, trying to challenge everything that’s there and identify what might be missing or could be even better.

Questions about design: says who?, why do we recommend this?, why is this here?, based on what?
Kind of like this.

This usually works out very well and gives me a lot of ideas to test and validate (to deliver the best possible customer experience we test everything we do at Booking.com). Sometimes it’s things the team already tried, sometimes my ideas are stupid or impossible. Most of the times I’m wrong. But I can promise there’s a lot of value in a fresh, critical look.

This time though I also tried something else. Remember I knew nothing about email marketing? To fill in a little of that gap I’ve decided to also make note of everything I liked — everything that worked, everything that, as a user, made me happy and told me what I needed to know. When your goal is to improve something it’s easy to focus on the negative — after all you don’t need to improve what’s already great. But when your goal is to learn, looking at what works makes a lot more sense.

I ended up with almost two hundred positive notes. A lot more than I would have thought looking at the long list of things that could be improved. Looking through the tags I made, some patterns emerged pretty quickly. Before I knew it I had six design principles for designing email. I’d like to say I came up with these but they were pretty much already there — they just needed to be put into words. Looking at them now they have value beyond just email marketing (but I’d need 2000 more words to get into that). 
 Anyway, here they are:

1. Relevant

Relevant is hard. Relevant is hard enough , relevant NOW is even harder. But context is important since people started taking email with them everywhere. And I mean everywhere.

But “is this relevant” is not a yes or no question. Relevance is a spectrum that goes all the way from: “I literally couldn’t care less” to “spot-on amazing.” That feeling you get when Google or Facebook know you a little too well.

This is an example of a relevant email. Relevant because summer means I need sunblock and I need sunglasses.

Summer is here! Here's some stuff you might need -- list of sunblock and sunglasses
A relevant email

In the next example, because of some extra insight, the email is even more relevant. I have a sunny vacation coming up so I really need these things. I can’t imagine how how they would possibly know this, unless the same company sells flight tickets, sun screen and sunglasses. So maybe not a realistic scenario but it should make my point.

Your trip to Curacao is in 1 week. We can deliver these before you finish packing -- list of sunblock and sunglasses
A really relevant email

2. Personal

Speaks to me and fits my needs. I don’t think I need to sell you on this, personal emails work so much better than mass emails. You can look for opportunities to trigger emails based on user behavior or add personalized elements or recommendations in mass campaigns. Feel free to throw in a first name in there every once in a while, it’s a nice touch, but don’t assume that is enough to make the email personal.

Bike making funny sounds? That is because it has been a year already -- discount on bike maintenance
A personal email.

This is an example of a mail being personal. This company knows my bike has not been serviced in a year, they know exactly what bike I have, and they remind me to get it checked. Because they know all this they can give me the exact price, I don’t have to figure out myself what price matches my bike type. Throw my name in there and sign it with a person’s name, preferably the guy who will service the bike for me, and it becomes almost impossible to tell this is an automated marketing email, not a personal one.

3. Engaging

Engaging is about making me want to take action but also allowing me to take action. If it triggers my interest but there’s no action to take, I will have an unsatisfying experience. Sometimes I get recommendations for amazing products and then find out they don’t ship them to Europe.

Don’t do this to me! I know you know where I live.

You are so close! Daily reminder for your BBQ master class.
An engaging email

This is an example of engaging elements. I’m reminded of a goal I set, I can see all the progress I made and how close I am to the next milestone. It will be hard to resist taking action and going for that level 3.

4. Clarity

This one I think is clear (see what I did there?). Some examples: I’m subscribed to a lot of email marketing emails and the ones that are infrequent should include a way of reminding me who they are and why I subscribed. Or if I get a recommendation, let’s say for a book, then include a reason why I will like that book.

First ad reads: CF283A toner. Second ad reads: Toner for your HP Laserjet
A clear email.

In this example here I’ve replaced the actual name of the product with what it is for. To me, it seems clear that in one of these scenarios I am more likely to understand why that product is in my email. In the example on the left I’m likely to ignore this recommendation because the product name is so obscure. Stating that clearly, the way a human would speak to me if I walked in a store to buy this, makes the version on the right clear.

5. Control

Control is a tough one. One example from Booking.com is language. We send email in 43 languages. I see a lot of companies offering content in multiple languages and selecting a language for you based on your country. A person’s location hasn’t been an accurate way to determine what language they speak in…ever. We give subscribers control over this, even if it is not explicit. You change the language on the website, the language in your email will also change. No extra steps, it just works.

Would you like less email? Check boxes with turning various email subscriptions on and off
Giving user control — content preferences.

In this example you can let users control how much email they get, or what content they are interested in. This works great when you have a lot of different content. Your unsubscribe page is a good place to offer this as an alternative to completely opting out. This gets double points for making your emails a lot more relevant to this subscriber and for keeping them around.

6. Inspiration

One way to look at this is by asking what value does this email have to someone who cannot take action on it? What value it has to someone who cannot buy what you are selling or cannot directly benefit from what you are offering? If you take away the chance of a transaction is there any value or meaning left? It’s a good way to keep people opening and reading your emails.

This value can come from beautiful storytelling. It can come from giving some useful information without asking for something in return. It can come from offering a brief moment of delight. Charity Water sends out some great stories. Lonely Planet prioritizes great content over selling travel guides. Kickstarter puts lovely, if random, quotes in the beginning of all their emails.

And if all else fails a kitten GIF will do the trick.

Article title and email with a cute_kitten.gif placeholder
An inspiring email.

In this example, the story, the inspiring content takes the front seat and the selling can happen on the landing page. If they feel you’re not always trying to sell something, subscribers will look forward to your next email.

To sum up — I want to confidently say this about any email we send out: This email is relevant, personal and engaging because it offers clarity, control and inspiration.

This email is relevant, personal, and engaging because it offers clarity, control, and inspiration
And now I’ve got a framework of guiding principles. Yay me!

It took just a couple of days to come up with these principles and just a couple of weeks to refine them. That was a little too easy so I never fully trusted them. I’ve spent the next year putting them to test after test, waiting for the data, the numbers, to tell me I am wrong. To my surprise, I can tell you that didn’t happen.

What did happen is that I’ve found a new challenge, and a new team, and that I’m back working on web products. But if you want to design email, in 43 languages, for tens of millions of subscribers in over 200 countries and one of the largest digital ecommerce companies in the world you can take on the challenge! Don’t worry if email is not your thing we’re also looking for UX designers and mobile app designers.

So, what did I learn from creating my own design principles?

  • If you’re going to have design principles, define them early to make sure everyone is on the same page.
  • It’s important to get buy-in from everyone involved. Principles will not help much if you are the only one using them.
  • Validate your principles through research and experimentation. That will make the above point easier.
  • Be flexible, but don’t keep changing or breaking the rules.
  • Be positive. If you try to define what your design should not be you will end up with a very long list.

Without defining design principles first, it might seem like there are a million directions in which you can take a product, and a million different things you can try. But be honest with yourself: however much you’d like to, you can’t try every one of those things. You need some direction. It may seem counter–intuitive but having these principles written down is important because of the restrictions they set. These restrictions bring clarity, focus and help you make better design decisions.

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