What do you do when things get a little out of hand in your life and you aren’t sure whether you’re on the right path anymore? My guess is that you sit down, assess the situation, think about your priorities and decide on the action that you’re going to take. In design, we call this a design audit.
Today, we’re going to take a look at what a design audit is exactly, why and when you need one, as well as check out some of the best practices that will help you if you decide to conduct one yourself.
What is a design audit?
First and foremost, a design audit is a review of all visual design elements used by a brand or a company. It’s usually done when there’s a reason for a thorough revision of a brand – perhaps a rebranding plan, new management, glaring inconsistencies, etc. Its goal is to ensure that brand image, experience, and communication are consistent and uniform across all channels and outlets.
For this reason, a proper audit will also take into account a brand’s overall tone of voice and brand messages.
We’ll mostly focus on the visual aspect of a design audit, but a thorough audit should include all elements that are part of the user experience.
If there are brand guidelines in place, an audit checks whether or not all elements and the overall brand image is on point.
I’ll list a few typical design audit questions to give you a better idea of what you might be looking for:
- What does the overall identity look like?
- Are the design, color palette and typography consistent throughout all materials? E.g. Are all of our “Subscribe” buttons consistent?
- What do the visuals communicate and are they in sync with our target audience and our business objectives?
- Why are people not completing key user flows?
- Why is the cart abandonment rate so high?
- Why do we spend so much time creating new, simple designs?
Why should you conduct a design audit?
When your company’s visual style gets lost or confused, branding, positioning, mindshare and sales soon follow into this downward spiral. And if your UX is not consistent, your conversion rates become low, your customer support team keeps receiving the same questions, and your information architecture gets confusing.
Users don’t like inconsistencies. It’s annoying if things keep changing or aren’t cohesive, and are therefore hard to recognize. No one wants to deal with things that annoy them.
Inconsistencies usually start to appear when your company grows and employs new designers but doesn’t have a design system in place. The fact is, it doesn’t need to be that way.
Think about some huge, successful brands – McDonald’s, Apple and Starbucks, for example. Their individual looks are very similar, if not the same, across different channels and cultures. The colors, typestyles and other elements all form a cohesive, well-known whole. This is comforting to people, and it’s what a design audit strives to achieve.
A design audit is also like a spellcheck for design and brand communication. I’m sure that you’ve read an interesting article before that had the potential to be great, but just had too many glaring typos or grammatical mistakes. You couldn’t help but question the author, the editor and the news source. That’s very similar to the experience that a customer goes through when they encounter an inconsistent design element or broken UX that disrupts them when using a website or digital product.
You should carry out a design audit when you see that there’s a lot going on and teams or designers start veering off in slightly different directions. That’s the best time to do it, as the differences are still small enough to handle.
Doing or requesting a design audit is nothing to be ashamed of. It doesn’t mean that you’ve done a bad job which needs to be corrected. It means that your company or brand is levelling up, evolving, and you care enough to keep it on the right track.
You can conduct the audit yourself, however, it’s usually a good idea to outsource it to an impartial third party and thus get results that have nothing to do with internal ideas or politics. In-house designers are often too close to the product to be objective, which is the whole point of an audit.
Benefits of a design audit
By conducting an audit, you will find and eliminate UX pitfalls, strengthen your brand, and gain an even deeper understanding of it.
Limiting and curating the number of button and form styles across all platforms might seem insignificant, but these small changes pile up. Once you fix lots of small performance drainers and inconsistencies, your user’s experience will drastically improve – something that will also affect your company’s bottom line.
Let’s take a look at some of the benefits that you can expect:
You’ll see where inconsistencies appear, including which channels are not reaching the desired quality or do not adhere to the brand guidelines. A design audit is not just about correcting various elements, but also understanding the process behind it and recognizing where it can be improved to enhance your branding in the future.
A brand that resonates with its users
You should always consider your user research and target persona when doing a design audit, especially if you’ve just gained some new insights. That way, you can improve your brand image and communication based on solid data, rather than on assumptions alone. A brand that resonates with its users will always perform better than one that doesn’t.
When I was doing a design audit for AIRTM, one of the first things that we changed were the illustrations on their website. We considered their main target audience – younger freelancers from Latin America – and adapted the illustrations accordingly. Now, they are much more in tune with AIRTM’s users.
A strong identity and position in the market are what all brands are aiming to achieve. Revisiting and improving the elements that affect it will ensure that your company doesn’t lose its position due to an identity crisis.
Consistent visual and textual communication makes a brand recognizable, reliable and trustworthy in the eyes of its user. It’s one of the foundations of successful branding and the primary objective of a design audit.
Increase your profits
At the end of the day, we can’t neglect revenue. Is a design audit worth it? Is there a return of investment?
By improving your communication and value proposition, you’ll make users understand your product much faster.
By finding and eliminating UX flaws on the purchase path, you’ll increase conversion.
By streamlining onboarding, making your visual language slicker, and creating easier and intuitive user flows, your customers will feel more satisfied with your product. In turn, this will result in higher Net Promoter Score, lower churn rate and increased number of referrals.
So yes – a design audit and the resulting improvements can, and if done well, increase profits.
How to conduct a design audit
First things first, you need to decide what you’re auditing.
Are you auditing a certain component, such as search forms? Or maybe something more complex, like an account creation flow? Either way, if you’re not doing a complete design audit, pinpointing what you’re looking for will help you to stay focused.
But if you’re doing a complete design audit, the first thing that you need to do is gather everything. And by that, I mean every single branding and communication material that your company has created.
- Style guides and the design system
- User flows, funnels
- Website design and web pages
- Logo in all formats
- Facebook ads, banner ads, all web ads
- Radio, TV or print ads
- Flyers, business cards, stationery, email signatures
- Landing pages, marketing materials, and their collateral
- Classes, workshops, presentations, promotional speaking engagements
- Posts from social media, including stories
- Original design files vs. what’s live right now
- Mobile apps
- And more
Then it’s time to take some ‘photos’. 😉
Screenshot everything and record a video
I like to screenshot pretty much everything that I come across during an audit. I also record videos of the most important user flows and processes. It’s also a good idea to record a video of any process or user flow that you find weird or awkward.
This will make it easier to remember certain things later on and document them for yourself and others.
I really recommend that you get into the habit of doing this from the get-go. If you don’t, you’ll almost always have to do it later on once you realize that actually, you really do need those screenshots. 🙂
Organize into folders and artboards
Firstly, I like to organize all of my screenshots into various folders, which are categorized by products or channels. I’ll have a folder for the website, and subfolders for subpages. I’ll also have a folder for marketing ads, Facebook posts, products that the client is selling, etc.
That way, it’s easy to find and refer to certain elements once I’m doing my artboard or when I’m putting together the final document. It’s a huge time-saver, so please organize your files.
Once you do that, I suggest that you cut all elements of a certain kind and compile them onto an artboard or into presentation slides. This will make it easy to see how many different iterations of buttons, forms, logos, headline fonts, etc., that you are dealing with. You can see an example of one of my artboards here.
Once you’ve done this, you’ll have an overview of what the company is using the most and you’ll be able to identify certain patterns, common characteristics or traits, any deviations from the guidelines, and more.
It’s also a great way of showing the executives that inconsistent design and difficult user flows are a real problem. They are often shocked when they see certain visual elements together and realize what kind of Frankenstein-esque design monster has emerged over time.
Review everything you’ve captured
What you want to do now is study the different elements in order to recognize patterns and their deviations. Document your findings, as they are going to form a major part of your final report.
You may notice things such as the incorrect logo file being used on your social media ads, or that some elements with the same function are designed differently.
But before you review everything, I’d recommend coming up with a list of questions around what it is that you’re looking for. This will ensure that your design audit is comprehensive and doesn’t miss anything really important.
Here are some questions that you’ll need to answer when auditing a website:
- Is the navigation always the same?
- Where are people potentially leaving the funnel because of X?
- Is the same logo file always used across assets?
- Are the background patterns consistent? The background styles?
- How is mobile design? Is it accessible and usable? Does it follow the brand guidelines?
- Are the icons all from the same set?
- Do similar sections adhere to the same design conventions and styles?
- Is the typography the same throughout?
- Are the popups and hello bars in alignment with the branding?
- How do the landing pages stack to the main website? Do they adhere to the brand guidelines? Do they use the correct logo and colours?
Go over questions like these until you’ve covered every design aspect, including the voice, tone, and messaging of every channel and material that your brand is using.
Do a heuristic evaluation
Another thing that a good design audit will include is a heuristic evaluation, which examines the usability and accessibility of a website or an app. It’s an important part of a UX design audit.
It can be the first thing that you do, or you can conduct it during your audit. It’s a bit different because it doesn’t highlight inconsistencies as much. Instead, it focuses on usability problems and enhancing your UX – your user experience.
A heuristic evaluation can reveal a simple issue such as a broken link, or something bigger like a complicated purchase form. It also includes things like missing alt tags or low contrast between text and background colours.
Ask whoever is doing the evaluation to record videos of bad or weird user flows or UX experiences. This will help you to improve them and refer back to what you’ve changed after a while. You can then compare the metrics or test results to see if your change had the desired impact.
Nielsen created a thorough heuristic evaluation guide, which you can check out here.
It defines the following 10 heuristics that you should evaluate:
✅ #1 Visibility of system status
✅ #2 Match between system and the real world
✅ #3 User control and freedom
✅ #4 Consistency and standards
✅ #5 Error prevention
✅ #6 Recognition rather than recall
✅ #7 Flexibility and efficiency of use
✅ #8 Aesthetic and minimalist design
✅ #9 Helps users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
✅ #10 Help and documentation
Although heuristic evaluation borders on a UX audit, it’s definitely worth doing; it enhances usability, improves user experience, and can make your design shine without detractors or errors.
Document to share with your team
Now that you’ve obtained new insights and recommendations, you’ll want to share them with your team and present them to your organization. It will help them to understand your decisions.
How you share your findings is really up to you. You can create a Keynote presentation, a UX framework guideline, or something else that you personally find helpful.
Even if you’re not planning to share your findings immediately, create a presentation or a document as soon as possible. You’ll be thankful for it when you want to refer to it later on, or when you’re able to pass it onto other designers and therefore save them a lot of work.
How to conclude a design audit and what to do afterwards
The main deliverable of a design audit should be a detailed report. This usually takes the form of slides with annotations about what is being done right, what is being messed up, and how to make adjustments. Your report should be supported by the materials that you’ve audited, like the artboards mentioned earlier. It can be eye-opening for the stakeholders to see how inconsistent branding truly is. You want them to give you as much time and as many resources as needed to go ahead and fix the issues.
After all of the design inconsistencies are out in the open, it’s time to come up with an action plan in order to ensure consistent visual and textual communication across every channel.
What you do next depends largely on how many inconsistencies there are. However, you should always aim to achieve a few quick wins right after the audit, so that you get things rolling and motivate your team.
There are usually 3 options:
#1 Improve your style guide, address the mistakes, move on
If your brand communication and image are quite consistent, then you’re in luck. Address the things that need tweaking right away, improve your branding guide, and show the relevant teams where these inconsistencies occurred. Let them know how to prevent them in the future and that’s it – you’re done!
#2 Create or update your design system
If the mess is substantial, you have a bit more work to do. Figure out what needs to go, what can stay, and what should be updated.
Consider implementing or extensively updating your design system. You must have an updated design system moving forward so that your visual language and brand image can remain consistent. It’s crucial that assets and requirements are readily available to every team and employee. I’ve written more about design systems and their importance here.
If you have an updated design system and still have a mess, it probably means that people are not using it or they don’t understand it. Make sure that everyone understands the different brand assets, from logo usage to the right kind of wording, and adheres to it from now on.
#3 Redesign the brand
If there is only chaos and the current visual language doesn’t follow any guidelines or target audience insights, consider redesigning the brand. It’s a huge decision, but it offers a fresh start that is evidently needed and it gives the company a chance to get on the same page about its visual messaging. It’s an opportunity to redefine values and positioning and start with a new design system – one that will hopefully keep communication consistent.
A design audit is an asset that keeps the brand on track and ensures that it’s consistent at all times. A strong brand is a huge competitive advantage, so don’t forget to audit it when cracks start to emerge. You need to ensure that it retains a strong image, visual language that effectively communicates its values, familiar aesthetics that its customers enjoy, and a solid position in the market.
If you’ve enjoyed this article and are craving more design knowledge, check out my free design strategy email course! 😉
Oh hey, I’m Romina.
Design strategy consultant. Founder of DesignStrategy.guide and NUEVA / design studio. Wife. Mother.
I am a Design Strategist who holds a Master of Business Administration. I have 15+ years of career experience in design work and consulting across both tech startups and several marquee tech unicorns such as Stellar.org, Outfit7, Databox, Xamarin, Chipolo, Singularity.NET, etc. I currently advise, coach and consult with companies on design strategy & management, visual design and user experience. My work has been published on Forbes, Hackernoon, Blockgeeks, Newsbtc, Bizjournals, and featured on Apple iTunes Store.