Industry Insight

About the Author

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Rachael, a white woman with curly, shoulder-length hair, smiles at the camera. She wears a mauve top and a brick building is reflected in the window behind her.
Rachael Penfil

Rachael is UX Manager and co-leads the accessibility team. Rachael advocates for users while keeping client needs in the forefront of her mind.

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Tom Jacobs

Tom, President, uses his keen strategic eye to help clients create groundbreaking creative campaigns. And he's been a thought leader appearing on Bloomberg, WGN, NBC, CMO.com, and Wall Street Journal.  

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Devin Owsley-Aquilia: light-skinned non-binary person smiling, with dark blonde hair pulled back, wearing a black turtleneck against a grey wall
Devin Owsley-Aquilia

Devin is Scrum Master, Agile Master Certified, co-leads the accessibility team and leads complex, enterprise web development for a diverse set of higher ed, consumer, and B2B clients.

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Anne Lentino
Anne Lentino

Anne, as a Product Owner, enjoys the opportunity to learn about her clients' diverse fields of expertise. She consistently advocates to make the best products to support each client's growing business, while keeping workflow efficiency and creativity top of mind.

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Laura Chaparro
Laura Chaparro

As Sandstorm's Senior Account Director, Laura helps clients grow their businesses. She has worked at both big and small agencies, with small local and global brands garnering extensive experience in B2B, B2C, and retail marketing.

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Amanda Heberg
Amanda Heberg

As the VP, Business Development, Amanda leads new business development, sales, partnerships and marketing strategy across Sandstorm. Amanda collaborates closely with new clients to build strong, long-lasting partnerships while aligning Sandstorm's capabilities to solve client business problems.

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Eric Savage
Eric Savage

Eric Savage is a JavaScript Developer with expert knowledge and extensive experience in front-end development.

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Jeff Umbricht
Jeff Umbricht

Jeff is an Illinois native with a passion for web development. Making code into great things drives him every day. He’s often busy building awesome experiences for Sandstorm clients, and there’s a high probability that he’s rocking out to metal while he codes.

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Nick Meshes
Nick Meshes

Nick is Sandstorm’s Director of Technology & Analytics. He’s boosting our quantitative focus. He’s busy increasing our capabilities in web analytics, website optimization testing, SEO, SEM, display advertising, business intelligence, and personalization.

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Emily Kodner
Emily Kodner

Emily is our Senior Director of Client Delivery. She consults with clients, leads projects and works alongside our team of creatives and developers to provide solutions to complex business challenges.

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Nathan Haas
Nathan Haas

Nathan is a User Interface Art Director at Sandstorm. He is a proud alum of The University of Tennessee. His main focus was print design, but he soon realized the potential of pixels. This combination of print and interactive gives him a unique view of design possibilities.

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Andy Cullen
Andy Cullen

Someday I'll need a real bio, but for now I'm busy creating awesomeness for our clients!

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Janna Fiester
Janna Fiester

Sandstorm's VP of UX & Brand Innovation, Janna, is a design-thinker. Showcased in several design publications and exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, she is talented in taking nuggets of good ideas and nurturing them into solutions that are always strategic, engaging and visually delightful.

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Alma Meshes
Alma Meshes

Alma likes to help get things done at Sandstorm. She's worn many hats in her many years here and knows a little bit about everything.

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Sandy Marsico, Founder & CEO
Sandy Marsico

Sandy Marsico is the founder & CEO of Sandstorm®, a digital brand experience agency that turns consumer insights into engaging user experiences through our unique blend of data science, brand strategy, UX and enterprise-level technology.

Industry Insight

Rachael
Color Alone is Not Enough: 7 ways to support the use of color on your website - paint buckets showing different colors

For many sighted website users, color is a useful way of sorting and coding information. But it’s important to remember that being sighted is not the “default” condition; the World Health Organization estimates that approximately 2.2 billion people have some kind of visual disability. That’s nearly 30% of the world’s population!

People with visual disabilities, including those who are red-green colorblind, blue-yellow colorblind, low-vision, blind, or deaf-blind, may not be able to see the differences between colors, regardless of the level of contrast between them. Therefore, relying on color alone to communicate information could deny important content information to a significant portion of your users.

This isn’t to say that you can’t use color to convey information - in fact, it’s a useful way to reinforce information for users who can perceive color differences. But to ensure that visually disabled users can access your content, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) require that websites include at least one non-color visual cue to communicate the same information. As is often the case, solutions designed with accessibility in mind will benefit non-disabled users as well - including people who prefer to print things out in black and white.

What can I use to support color for accessibility?

There are many different ways that you can visually communicate information that does not require color. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and which mechanism you use depends on your situation and what information you’re trying to convey.

Tools that can be used to support color accessibility may include:

  1. Patterns, fills, & textures (e.g., solids vs. stripes or dotted line vs. solid line)
  2. Symbols (e.g., add an asterisk, checkmarks or X’s)
  3. Adding text labels & cues
  4. Underlining, bolding, or italicizing text
  5. Changing typeface
  6. Increasing or decreasing font size
  7. Adding or changing shapes (e.g., a square becomes a circle)

Common cases where color is used to convey information & alternatives

Charts & Graphs

Color is useful in pie graphs, bar graphs, and other data visualizations to indicate different categories of data. When using color in a chart or graph, it’s best practice to use different tones of the same color (i.e., three different shades of blue rather than red, green, and blue) to ensure that the colors appear different if converted to black and white. Common supporting visual cues for charts and graphs include different fill patterns and text labels for each category of data.

Menus

Color is often used in menus to communicate where a user is currently “located” in a site or which menu item has been selected by the user. Common supporting visual cues here include adding an underline or an outline to the relevant item.

Buttons & Links

Color changes are often used in buttons and links to convey hover states and focus states (i.e., which item is about to be selected by the user if they click their mouse or hit “Enter” on their keyboard). They are sometimes also used to communicate visited states, or which buttons and links were previously selected by the user.

The presence of a link is usually communicated by using an underline and a different text color from the body text. To maintain good UX, you should keep your links underlined. Therefore, changes in the typeface itself could communicate a focus, hover, or visited state (e.g., all caps, bolding, or italicizing the text).

Users don’t expect button text to be underlined, so that would be a great way to communicate a state change. You could also add text elements like brackets, or change the shape of the button itself.

Error Messages

Form fields are often outlined in red to communicate an error, such as a mismatched username and password or an empty required field. Adding asterisks or warning symbols are common ways to communicate error messages. To go a step further, consider adding text that explains the error and how to correct it.

Support Color Differences with Visual Cues

Color can be an effective way to communicate information for those who are able to perceive it. But to ensure the most impactful user experience for everyone, WCAG requires that there are additional visual cues to support color differences.


Need help identifying areas to improve your website’s usability? Contact us today to learn more about our accessibility audit.

This blog was posted by Rachael on December 7.
Rachael, a white woman with curly, shoulder-length hair, smiles at the camera. She wears a mauve top and a brick building is reflected in the window behind her.

About the Author

Rachael Penfil

Rachael is UX Manager and co-leads the accessibility team. Rachael advocates for users while keeping client needs in the forefront of her mind.

Devin
Accessibility keyboard

Adding alternative text (“alt text”) to images seems like a no-brainer when managing your website. But ensuring image alt text is implemented properly and follows ADA and WCAG accessibility compliance is a little trickier than you think.

What is Alternative Text and Why Is It Important?

Alt text is a tenet of inclusive and accessible web experiences for all users and provides users with visual disabilities access to key visual non-text content including photos, infographics, logos, icons, and other images.

Alt text lives in HTML code inside the alt attribute, which is embedded in an image element. It’s important to code this correctly to ensure a smooth, accessible, and delightful experience for users with access needs.

So how do you write good alternative text? Here are 5 best practices to improve your skills.

  1. Identify and convey the purpose of non-text content

    When you have a lot of images on your site to write alt text for, it’s easy to go on auto-pilot and just describe the image. However, this is not going to create an accessible experience for users with visual disabilities (like blindness, deaf-blindness, or low vision), who may be using assistive technologies, like screen readers, to access the information conveyed by images.

    An example is the magnifying glass icon. Good, accessible alt text would be “search” not “magnifying glass” - the aim is to convey the purpose of the text, rather than just a literal description.

    If the image acts as a button or a link, you will need to add the action keyword to initiate, like an icon of a cart. Instead of “add to cart” as the alt text, try “ Click add to cart.” Having the action as part of conveying the purpose makes it easier for users to identify a button or link and is crucial for those that need to speak the action aloud to get the button or link to open.

  2. Remember that screen readers read the alt text aloud

    Screen reader users can program them to translate the text to other outputs, Braille, or voice command devices.

    A quick way to test alt text is to read it aloud to a user that does not know what the image is. If they can identify what the image is trying to convey based on your alt text alone, great!

    However, for optimal results, conduct testing and collaborate with screen reader users and users with disabilities to improve your site’s accessibility and overall user experience. They know how they interact with web content better than anyone else.

  3. Complex images require a long description with alt text

    When the alt text alone is too short to describe your image, you should add a long description (also called an image description). In these cases, alt text is still required and is used as “directions” to point to and access the long description.

    Long descriptions are needed for complex images like graphs, charts, medical illustrations, infographics, detailed photographs, etc. to fully describe the more complex purpose of that image. For example, bar graphs present data that will need to be fully described, as well as the intended conclusion to draw from the data presented.

    You can hide these long descriptions using the appropriate ARIA labels, however, it’s best practice to make them available to everyone. For example, if there is a bar graph on a webpage, users with dyscalculia may have difficulty interpreting the graph and may not use a screen reader to access the text alternatives. A great solution is to have the long description available to all users in the surrounding text near the graph image. So for this, your alt text can look like “Annual Revenue per Quarter, see long description in next paragraph.”

  4. The rules are different for decorative images

    How do you know if an image is considered decorative? If the visual content provides no information, then it is considered decorative.

    Because alt text is required, in this case, you would leave the alt attribute blank, like alt= “ ”. This tells screen readers to “skip over” the image. If you don’t include the empty alt attribute, the screen reader will read the image file name instead. Remember, screen readers, render the alt text into speech or Braille outputs for users who can’t see the content. If just the image file name is being conveyed, rather than the purpose of the image, the experience will be inaccessible and frustrating for users with disabilities.

    When images are identified and described fully by the surrounding text, like an icon that supports surrounding link text, the rules for decorative images apply. When the link text or surrounding text is the same as alt text, it will create a repetitive experience for screen reader users.

  5. People count too! Photos of people should be described fully

    And to the best of your ability! This is because otherwise low vision and blind users are denied important contextual information that sighted users have available to them. When a photo including people is chosen for your website, it was probably selected to show diversity and/or target audiences. It’s important to provide this information to low vision and blind users as well. By describing people in images, you can provide a fully accessible and more inclusive experience for users in the disability community!

    When you’re describing images of individual people, you can either use alt text and a long description or use an informal short description embedded in the alt attribute (or in other words, in place of the alt text). Short descriptions are more common for alt text for images of people and are generally about two sentences long.

    When you are describing people in an image, it’s a best practice to ask the person in the image how they would like to be described. If you can’t ask, you can follow some general guidelines.

    Characteristics you should include are:

    • Descriptions of skin color, not necessarily race or ethnicity. Use descriptions like light-skinned, medium-skinned, medium-light skinned, medium-dark skinned, or dark-skinned.
    • Descriptions of gender presentation instead of assuming someone’s gender. Use descriptions like female-presenting instead of woman, female-presenting child instead of girl, or male-presenting instead of man. There are many different words used for gender expression!
    • You can also use non-binary for folks that do not identify with female or male genders and provide this identity information publicly. Again, it’s best to ask the person directly if you’re able to do so!


    If it’s helpful to understand the context of the image, you can describe additional features of individuals, like hair color and style, height, clothing, age, etc.

Remember, screen readers and other assistive technologies translate alt text through speech and braille outputs, so consider the context in which the image is being used.

Get into the practice of asking yourself….

  • What is the text content talking about?
  • Why was this image chosen?
  • What is it trying to communicate or show?

Keep in mind, the CDC reports that 1 in 5 Americans live with a disability. The result of proactively choosing accessibility will open your website up to reaching a bigger audience while saving you time and money over the long term. Added bonus! Your hard work will also increase SEO while improving the perception of your company and brand.

Are you unsure if your website meets the current requirements for accessibility standards?
Contact us today to schedule an accessibility audit of your site or discuss your accessibility challenges!

This blog was posted by Devin on November 5.
Devin Owsley-Aquilia: light-skinned non-binary person smiling, with dark blonde hair pulled back, wearing a black turtleneck against a grey wall

About the Author

Devin Owsley-Aquilia

Devin is Scrum Master, Agile Master Certified, co-leads the accessibility team and leads complex, enterprise web development for a diverse set of higher ed, consumer, and B2B clients.

Anne Lentino
website content management workflow

Including content managers in these 5 stages of a website redesign is the key to success for any launch.

A top-line goal we hear consistently with every new website design project is: “Content management and workflow must be easier for our staff.” But often content admins are the forgotten user group.

It sounds simple right? A no-brainer? Any CMS (Content Management System) implemented properly should ease this burden for staff, making it easy for them to manage the content. We're often told, “this new CMS will be an improvement over what we have in place today...”

But it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of discovery, uncovering the key insights from user research and UX testing, the creation of UX wireframes and beautiful UI design -- resulting from our hyper-focus on the needs of our users. And before we know it, we’re in the midst of the development process, content migration, QA and accessibility validation, and getting the site to a launch state.

But how do we keep that primary content management goal for staff top of mind throughout the project and ensure we’re meeting staff’s expectations?

As a Product Owner, one of our primary responsibilities is to consider our clients as users too, and look at it from their perspective. The discovery phase of a project is the perfect opportunity to understand the team’s pain points when managing content on their current website.

  • Are content blocks too hard to find?
  • Do content admins have to update the same content in multiple locations?
  • Are there missed opportunities to showcase critical content because there’s no logical place for it?
  • Is it difficult to classify content with the proper tags/taxonomy to drive continued SEO improvements?

Every subsequent phase of the project gives a Product Owner a checkpoint for ensuring efficiency in content management, including:

  1. Content Audit and Information Architecture
    Allowing the client the opportunity to see a list of all of the active pages on their site gives them the chance to clean house. Much like the clean-out before physically moving to a new home, the content audit prompts clients to toss what they don’t need and what’s just taking up space, and optimize content for their end-users. This "housecleaning" (along with user research) drives the development of the new sitemap and a site structure that better reflects the priority of the content that users are trying to find on the site.
     
  2. UX and UI
    If a content audit is akin to housecleaning before a move, UX design equates to looking at a listing on Redfin and envisioning how your belongings will fit. And UI is painting the rooms to match your furniture. (Is this analogy incredibly reductive of these important processes? Admittedly so.)

    UX design helps prioritize the content and calls to action on each page and sketches out how that content might be presented to the end-user. At this stage, the Product Owner considers how that content will be entered onto that page and the workflow for publishing. For example, if we’re looking at an article or post, is there related content (i.e., articles, resources, products) also showcased on the page? Do those appear because we plan to include a list of articles from the same category? Or can they be curated for each new post and manually selected by the content manager? What is most effective for the client's content and workflow processes?

    The UI design phase will refine these priorities and give both teams the opportunity to think through the use of brand assets, the client’s image library, editing of headers and subheads...the list goes on.
     
  3. Sprint Planning & Development
    As the Product Owner or Scrum Master begins grooming the backlog and planning the first sprint and design handoff, the user stories and acceptance criteria need to take both the end-users and the content managers into account. To continue the metaphor, the development phase helps get ready for move-in: making sure that we know how the furniture will get to its final spot in the new house. (Insert Ross from FriendsPIVOT!” joke here.)
     
  4. Training & Content Entry
    Once we’re ready to train the client on how to enter, approve, and publish their content as part of our sprint delivery, we’re in the home stretch - the final walk-through, if you will. And then: it’s move-in day! We’ve set up the client with an intuitive content entry experience - one that improves their team’s efficiency and allows them to keep content fresh, targeted, and relevant on their new site.
     
  5. Refinement & Optimization
    Post-launch provides opportunities for optimizing the experience, both for our end-users and our staff. If we’ve done our job of considering the needs of our content admins throughout the design and build process, then the CMS configuration should have a sound foundation. As content admins are continuing to work within the system publishing content and using workflows to support the content lifecycle, we have opportunities to fine-tune the administrative experience. Rather than making significant changes after the fact, we consider optimization for both sides of the “house.” (See what I did there?)

Thoughtful content management design is one of the best ways to ensure that an organization’s website will continue to scale as the needs of the business evolve. Anticipating the future state of a business, continually revisiting a client’s long-term business goals, and building flexibility into the content management system all ensure that we’re satisfying the needs of the users visiting the site and optimizing the workflow of those maintaining it.

This blog was posted by Anne Lentino on June 24.
Anne Lentino

About the Author

Anne Lentino

Anne, as a Product Owner, enjoys the opportunity to learn about her clients' diverse fields of expertise. She consistently advocates to make the best products to support each client's growing business, while keeping workflow efficiency and creativity top of mind.

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Amanda Heberg
Inclusive Design: Quantitative and Qualitative Research to Drive Award-Winning Gender Report

Find out what Elsevier’s most recent gender research uncovered in the Gender Report 2020: The Researcher Journey Through a Gender Lens.

How do you transform thousands of data points on gender research and make that information inclusive, fresh, consumable, and appealing to a broad set of audiences? How do we not overwhelm users with too much information and strike the right balance of data visualizations, research findings, and key content?

More importantly, how do we represent the progress of gender equality in research, while still communicating the work that still needs to be done to close the gap?

These are the questions Elsevier was grappling with when the research marketing team partnered with Sandstorm to bring the newest Elsevier gender report to life digitally.

Promoting gender diversity and inclusion in research through an evidence-based approach is a critical part of Elsevier’s ongoing research efforts. Elsevier is one of the largest, most well-respected information analytics organizations that helps institutions and professionals progress science, advance healthcare, and improve performance.

Elsevier’s Gender Report 2020 provides a deeper understanding of the role gender plays in the global research enterprise. It brings improvements in the methodology of inferred gender disambiguation and incorporates new elements, such as career progression and collaboration network analyses and perspectives from researchers.

Elsevier partnered with Sandstorm for high-powered data visualization, helping Elsevier to solidify its positioning as a global information analytics organization and thought leader while showing its commitment to gender diversity and inclusion.

Sandstorm worked collaboratively with Elsevier to provide an updated state of the current landscape including:

  • overall research report strategy and inclusive design
  • marketing content development
  • creative campaign development
  • design of data-driven infographics highlighting work in 10 countries
  • data visualization and reporting for thousands of data points, ensuring the most critical data was consumable and highly usable​
  • integrated marketing and promotion strategy, including promotional marketing assets, key messaging, and content for Elsevier’s online and offline channels -- social, email, web, .ppt, etc., in order to promote and drive engagement for Elsevier’s audiences

Key Gender Report 2020 Highlights*:​

  • Participation of women in research is increasing overall, inequality still exists across geographies and subject areas in terms of publication outputs, citations, awarded grants, and collaborations.​
  • Representation of women in research is increasing, but inequality remains.
  • Effort is still needed to ensure equality for women in terms of publication outputs, citations, awarded grants, and collaborations.
  • Latest findings indicate that disparities still linger with slower growth of articles published by women, higher numbers of women leaving research, and understudied research areas.​
  • Research shows women are not participating in collaboration networks at the same level as men, which may be impacting their career progression.
  • On average, men have more coauthors than women, with a tendency to collaborate with those of the same gender across the subject areas.
  • On a positive note, in terms of research authorship, we are closer to gender parity now than a decade ago, with women continuing to publish for nearly as long as men over the course of their careers.​

Key Gender Report 2020 Insights*:

The past fifty years have seen enormous strides for and by women in research. Women now comprise a greater share of science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM), and medicine graduates than ever before, and there is increased focus and energy on balanced participation, factoring gender into research and research on gender itself.

However, latest findings show that disparities still exist, with slower growth of articles published by women and higher numbers of women leaving research and understudied research areas.

Ultimately, there’s more work to do to address issues that cut across diversity and inclusion.

We are incredibly proud of our work with Elsevier in bringing to light both the progress that has been made as well as the opportunities that exist to close the gap.

*Reference Elsevier’s Gender Report 2020 here: https://www.elsevier.com/connect/gender-report

Hermes Creative Awards - 2021 Platinum WinnerWe are honored to have received the Platinum Hermes Creative Award for our collaborative inclusive design work with Elsevier.

This blog was posted by Amanda Heberg on June 17.
Amanda Heberg

About the Author

Amanda Heberg

As the VP, Business Development, Amanda leads new business development, sales, partnerships and marketing strategy across Sandstorm. Amanda collaborates closely with new clients to build strong, long-lasting partnerships while aligning Sandstorm's capabilities to solve client business problems.

Janna
How color can help with website accessibility

Color is a critical part of a brand. A branded color palette creates a beautiful experience, differentiates from one’s competition, and drives how users/consumers perceive and engage with a brand.

We all know the brand colors should be as consistent as possible in all marketing tactics, including digital, email, print, email, in-store, etc. This consistency is key in building a coherent brand experience and instilling consumer confidence. However, the colors defined via printed materials sometimes do not translate well into the digital space. Many times colors are not dark enough or too similar. This is especially clear when we consider the requirements for an accessible digital experience.

Digital branded experiences for all users

Many of your website users have some level of color deficiency–1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women in the world. Using the term color blindness is not accurate since 99% of all colorblind people are not really color blind but have a color deficiency.

Knowing many of your users will have some form of color deficiency, one must review the brand colors to be accessible. If not done, not only could your brand integrity be impacted or just not legible, your user experience could be hindered.

Creating accessible brand experiences is good UX

UI designers use color to help identify key call-to-actions through buttons and text links. We also use color as a navigation element and to establish visual hierarchy. But if those CTAs or that navigation is missed since the user cannot read the button label or the navigation is not legible due to lack of contrast, what will this user do? Well, they will leave your site and go to your competition.

Still not convinced you need to focus on accessibility? Here are a few things to consider:

  • Inclusion and reach. Between 10-20% of internet users experience disabilities. Ensuring proper access extends your reach and your ability to fulfill your mission.
  • It is the law. Just as you would make sure your building has hand ramps and elevators for wheelchairs and braille on signs, we need to take specific steps to ensure your digital experience and content is available to all visitors. Over the last few years, lawsuits related to the accessibility of websites have increased by nearly 10 fold.
  • Google bonus! Most accessibility improvements also improve search engine optimization since they make your markup and metadata clearer and more robust.

Now that you know why accessibility is so important, how do you go about making sure your brand colors are accessible?

1. Tone up your brand colors

At the beginning of a new project, the Sandstorm user-interface designers study all the colors in a branded palette. We use two online tools to identify how the colors should be used. These tools help us segment the palette into tones that can be used as buttons, navigation, color blocks, text links, and those colors that cannot or those that need to be adjusted for use on the web. 

2. Build an accessible color palette

https://toolness.github.io/accessible-color-matrix/
We found this easy to use color palette builder. It allows you to quickly look at a range of colors on various backgrounds to see if they meet a contrast ratio of 4.5:1. When they do, great. When the colors don’t pass, we can immediately fine-tune the hue to identify the values that do pass.

3. Check color contrast

https://webaim.org/resources/contrastchecker/
WebAIM’s contrast checker is a go-to tool for making sure the text color and background you are using are accessible. It provides instant feedback for WCAG AA and WCAG AAA ratings. If your head is spinning with WCAG and ADA lingo, don’t worry. It’s a lot to soak in and we want to help. Determining the level of accessibility can be defined through the level of WCAG accessibility. Most organizations determine AA compliance is their goal, but healthcare organizations for example, often strive for AAA.

Once we have studied the colors, Sandstorm reviews the accessible colors with the client and their brand team through the creative process as well as an updated color palette. We never just change a palette, rather we embody a “Yes, And” mindset to review the colors and accessibility considerations collaboratively with our clients so they are informed and understand the rationale. You are not in this alone. We conduct accessibility audits and can help to prioritize your list of issues. Our approach combines automated scans of your site along with a manual review of the accessibility of the brand including content, colors, and interactions. All of this resulting in a detailed report, which we review together to determine high priority areas.

4. Schedule continued accessibility reviews

Once your brand is validated and accessibility is made a priority, it’s important to not let all the hard work fade away. And color contrast is just one aspect of creating a truly accessible web site. There are always ways to improve, and your brand should never be left to stagnate. Select a timeframe that’s manageable and something you can adhere to. We recommend quarterly, to reassess your digital brand and make sure you address any new issues.

Good accessibility is good usability. Let us help you make your digital brand accessible. Contact us today to schedule a time to review the accessibility of your website!

This blog was posted by Janna on November 23.
Janna Fiester

About the Author

Janna Fiester

Sandstorm's VP of UX & Brand Innovation, Janna, is a design-thinker. Showcased in several design publications and exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, she is talented in taking nuggets of good ideas and nurturing them into solutions that are always strategic, engaging and visually delightful.

Nick

As we partner with clients to reimagine how to drive their businesses forward, one request we’re often asked is how to use Artificial Intelligence (AI). As AI continues to evolve, so does the practicality of how and when to use it.

In the midst of rapidly changing customer demands, it’s more important than ever to make websites and digital channels more beneficial and highly relevant for users while improving the overall customer experience. Through the use of AI-enabled web analytics, brands now have access to the insights they need to inform more relevant and targeted content delivery.

Here are 3 examples to leverage AI on your website:

1. Intelligent Chatbots
One of the most common applications of AI on websites are intelligent chatbots that have a “conversation” with the visitor, acting as a customer support specialist to direct them toward relevant content and offerings, then verify that it achieved the desired outcome. The chatbot can direct users to self-service tools, human support staff, or alternative methods of contact as needed.

Sandstorm implements solutions that support chat functionality directly in content management systems (CMS) like Drupal with its Chatbot module, but can also integrate third-party chatbot tools like Botsify and others.

2. ‘Look-a-Like’ Models
AI can also include tracking a visitors’ activity for common patterns of search, navigation, and conversion events – identifying “look-a-like” models that can guide similar visitors to content of improved relevance. This often adds a recommendation engine like on Amazon. Artificial intelligence and machine learning relies on the quality and quantity of useful data, including indexed content of the site and applying taxonomy and relationships, utilizing the CRM database, incorporated community platform data, and tracking visitor activity.

3. Personalization
Highly relevant, personalized experiences can be created using platforms like Kentico or Acquia Personalization with its built-in personalization features, but can also integrate third-party marketing automation platforms that leverage AI like Hubspot or Marketo.

In addition to information on the website and data about activity on the website, Sandstorm leverages tools that provide omnichannel tracking including social media and targeted email to drive personalization that informs and improves user experience on the website.

Artificial Intelligence is also baked into analytics platforms like Google Analytics to highlight insights on visitor behavior and trends that can be leveraged to prioritize content creation and identify where to make changes to the website to best support your visitors.

Sandstorm implements Google Analytics on all of our website development projects, or in conjunction with additional native analytics platforms like Adobe Analytics or other platforms. Supplementing the automated insights of these platforms, Sandstorm also provides advanced data research and reporting services, leveraging tools like Google Data Studio and Tableau.

In How AI can shape the future of UX, Sandstorm CEO Sandy Marsico shared “AI and predictive analytics help to determine what the user wants, needs, or does next. AI assists in adding insights, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.”

And while not a replacement for human analysis, AI does play an important and evolving role. “We’re all trying to predict the future,” she says. “AI won’t figure out the problems we need to solve — AI helps us have a deeper understanding of our user so we can tailor our content and messaging to anticipate motivations and behaviors.”

Looking to use AI to drive your business forward? Contact us today to schedule a time to connect!

This blog was posted by Nick on October 12.
Nick Meshes

About the Author

Nick Meshes

Nick is Sandstorm’s Director of Technology & Analytics. He’s boosting our quantitative focus. He’s busy increasing our capabilities in web analytics, website optimization testing, SEO, SEM, display advertising, business intelligence, and personalization.

Janna
What are In-Depth User Interviews and when should you use them.

Whether you’re building a new website from the ground up or looking to improve your existing site, involving users in the design process is a crucial step to meeting both your users’ needs and your organization’s goals. There are 4 types of user research that all contribute to the success of your design process.

  1. In-depth user interviews
  2. Card sorting and tree testing
  3. Usability testing
  4. Heuristic analysis

Use these methods to gain insight on what your users want, what’s working well on your site and where you need to make improvements.

In a perfect world you’d employ all or most of these techniques in your design process, but if you have a limited budget (and who doesn’t) you’ll want to invest in the research method that provides the most benefit for your needs. Over the next few weeks I will be discussing each approach individually outlining their benefits and drawbacks. This week we have in-depth user research interviews.

In-Depth User Research Interviews

User interviews help you uncover what’s important to your users and what they want from your site. This helps you create user stories and determine content and functional requirements before you start your web development.

Going a step further, the results can be used to develop personas to guide you through the entire design process. We recommend one to one interviews (which can be done over the phone or in person) with 10–12 users from each of your user groups.

Why should I use this approach?

In-Depth Interviews answer the following questions:

  • How do I understand my users?
  • What features would bring the most benefit to my site and users?
  • What do users think about our brand compared to our competitors?
  • How should we be engaging our customers?

What do they achieve?

The benefits and results of user interviews include:

  • Developing user stories and requirements.
  • Ensuring you’re spending your budget on the content and functionality that will bring the most value to your users and your organization.
  • Aligning organizational goals with user goals

It’s always a good time to talk to your users.

This should be the first step if you are redesigning your site, converting to be a responsive website, or starting a new site from scratch. It’s also a good place to start if you are looking to make big changes to an existing site. Quite simply, if you’re not talking to your users, you’re missing opportunities. No matter where you are in the process if you haven’t spoken to your users, do it now.

I’m ready, where do I begin?

Depending on the number of user groups you select, the interview process takes two to four weeks to complete. Below is a six step outline based on how I (and Sandstorm) conducts user interviews:

  1. Identify your research goals. What questions are you trying to answer?
  2. Determine what types of users (user groups) will participate in the study. A user group is a set of users who have similar goals or use cases on your site or application. This is different from demographics.
  3. Write a protocol, that’s a fancy word for the list of questions you’re going to ask your users.
  4. Recruit and schedule the interviews. Interviews can be conducted over the phone to make it convenient for the participants. We recommend offering a gratuity or incentive to participate.
  5. Conduct the interviews, 30 to 45 minutes each should be good.
  6. Analyze the results and develop your user stories, requirements and/or personas. The results can also be helpful in making business decisions about the scope of your project.

Is there a way to simplify?

Here are a few hints to help your interviews and process go smoothly and give you better results:

  1. Ask a mix of open-ended and behavior based questions. For example, what’s the primary reason you visit website.com? Tell me about the last time you visited website.com, what did you visit for? Tell me 3 things you like about it? Tell me 3 things you would like to see improved?
  2. Allow space for follow up and probing questions like, can you tell me more about that? Can you give me an example?
  3. Be consistent, follow up questions may vary but be sure to follow your protocol with all participants. You’re looking to identify trends, so you’ll need to be consistent in your research methods.

You get results

The result of your In-Depth User Research Interviews is a user research report with user stories, content and functional requirements and personas. This can fuel your design and even reconsider your product and how you market it. Since you now have data on who your target is, you’re equipped with a powerful tool to serve them better than ever.

[Read the second post in this series on user research: Card Sorting and Testing Trees.]

This blog was posted by Janna on May 4.
Janna Fiester

About the Author

Janna Fiester

Sandstorm's VP of UX & Brand Innovation, Janna, is a design-thinker. Showcased in several design publications and exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, she is talented in taking nuggets of good ideas and nurturing them into solutions that are always strategic, engaging and visually delightful.

Amanda Heberg
How the Agile Process Helped Launch a Boat (Show)

The Agile Process

Scrum? Agile? Waterfall? Kaban? You likely have heard of these concepts and maybe adopted some version to your software, application or website development projects.

In its simplest form, Agile methodology is a project management process.

Scrum comes from the sport of rugby, where in a scrum formation everyone plays a specific role working towards a quick adoption of strategies. In complex projects just like on the rugby field, scrum facilitates team collaboration and iterative progress towards a goal. Teams practicing Scrum use Agile methodology.

As a Scrum Master, I make sure the team lives agile values and principles and follows team processes and practices. The responsibilities include establishing an environment where the team can be effective and clearing obstacles along the way.

For a look into how we put all this into practice, here is work we did recently in partnership with the nation’s leading trade association representing boat, marine engine, and accessory manufacturers, the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

The Challenge

The National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) has an expansive ecosystem of websites across multiple business units and the boat, marine engine, and accessory manufacturer audiences it serves. Primary among these websites are more than 15 websites that serve the Boat Shows happening across the country, like the Chicago Boat Show (www.chicagoboatshow.com), which hosts hundreds of thousands of attendees.

Over the past two years, NMMA made significant investments in Acquia (Drupal’s Platform as a Service, PaaS) and moved its websites to the Acquia Cloud and Digital Experience Platform (DXP), with the goal of centralized site and application management and reducing the time required for labor-intensive infrastructure management.

Following the transition to Acquia, NMMA asked for Sandstorm’s support against clear goals for the project of providing centralized management of the multisite environment, uniform content blocks and streamlining code as well as fully optimizing the site for performance, SEO, user flow and content administration.

The Solution

The highest priority for NMMA was tackling the Boat Show sites, as there were UI updates and improvements that needed to be implemented. We also needed to re-architect the multi-site management so the collection of roughly 15+ sites used consistent theming, features and components along with the set-up of continuous integration. This meant creating a deployment structure to support clear data management of the different sites, including content blocks and forms and controlling the changes to be tested through one branch.

Given the time-sensitivity and breadth of the work needing to be done, Sandstorm and NMMA collaborated through an Agile development methodology, using the Scrum framework. This supported a combined Sandstorm & NMMA team with clear roles, an ability to prioritize what stakeholders needed the most, and the ability to adhere to a tight timeline with productive, incremental sprints.

Each sprint was prioritized by NMMA to include enhancements, structural updates, and process improvements while keeping close management of the backlog, so we could reprioritize as the needs of the business shifted. Sandstorm led a daily scrum where the full team communicated tasks, updates, challenges, etc., which provided a continuous cycle of teamwork-led solutions each day.

The Results

There were several successes from an agile-led partnership for both NMMA and Sandstorm, including:

  • Improved administrative user experience and streamlined management of the NMMA Boat Shows websites within the multi-site framework.
    • Allowing for one branch update to affect multiple sites and changes to be adapted faster with no rework for the individual sites.
  • Improved technical documentation. By managing development features and notes via Jira cards, we were able to instantly improve technical documentation and help structure the deployment processes.
  • Stronger NMMA ownership. With an integrated approach and stronger team-wide knowledge and documentation of the systems and processes, NMMA was able to take more ownership of the product and had the tools in place to support current and future team members.
    • This was key for the multi-site deployment process and management of the separate databases per show site.
    • The development and deployment process can be controlled by the NMMA team and not one single team holds the keys to that process alone.
    • The NMMA team became sufficiently knowledgeable in managing their improved Acquia & Drupal 8 website’s structure and can stand on their own.
    • This allows NMMA to leverage Sandstorm’s expertise for future code enhancement implementations instead of spending budget resources on day-to-day management.

With this implemented Scrum framework, the combined Sandstorm and NMMA teams were able to build features efficiently, easily prioritize work and progress through the project quickly and successfully.

Want to learn how our integrated Agile and Scrum methodology can help move your development efforts forward? Contact us today to learn more!

This blog was posted by Amanda Heberg on February 26.
Amanda Heberg

About the Author

Amanda Heberg

As the VP, Business Development, Amanda leads new business development, sales, partnerships and marketing strategy across Sandstorm. Amanda collaborates closely with new clients to build strong, long-lasting partnerships while aligning Sandstorm's capabilities to solve client business problems.

Sandy
Chicago Usability Consulting and Website Usability Testing

Website usability testing consistently demonstrates value by creating the optimal user experience BEFORE the cost of development begins. 

With an onsite usability lab, mobile testing equipment, and remote testing capabilities (perfect for COVID-19), working with Sandstorm is like having your own in-house user research and usability department. We've conducted 3,400+ hours of UX research and usability studies globally for everyone from tech start-ups to Fortune 500 organizations, retail commerce to membership organizations, on mobile devices, tablets, and desktops. Our usability service and methodology were developed by a Ph.D. in Human Factors.  

Below are the 5 most commonly asked questions regarding usability testing.

website usability testing example


1. How does it work?
Our website usability testing involves watching people trying to use your website for its intended purpose. Starting with real-life scenarios, Sandstorm will observe, record, and take notes while a user performs the task to get to the core of what works and what doesn't on your website.

Website usability testing allows us to determine whether or not users can accomplish specific goals. It is part of our user experience design philosophy that allows us to collect first-hand behavioral data from real users. Each usability test consists of creating a test plan, conducting the study with actual users, analyzing findings, communicating results, and making design recommendations based on our findings. As a result, we save development time and money and reduce guessing and subjective arguing.

2. How long does it take?
On average, a series of usability studies can be conducted over 1-2 days. The entire process including protocol development, recruitment, scheduling, and testing lasts about 3-4 weeks. 

3. Where do you conduct the study?
Usability testing can be done anywhere -- onsite in our usability lab, across the globe, or virtually based on your requirements. This flexibility has become much more important in the midst of the pandemic.

4. What is my end result? 
A full website usability report including the usability study details as well as key findings AND a recommendation for every finding (most reports don't - that's where our consulting comes in). Upon request, we also provide detailed presentations that highlight our findings and include audio and visual of users participating in the usability study. We can also create detailed wireframes, flow diagrams, or design updates based on our findings to get you to your end result quicker. 

5. Where do you get your participants from? For B2C clients, recruiting from the extensive Sandstorm network and supplementing with social media works great. For B2B organizations it's often a combination of our client providing contact info of customers (or members); social media recruiting; and if it's a specific request (c-suite, etc.), we include a recruiting firm in our search. People are happy to provide their feedback, and we always pay a gratuity. 

Did you know we only need 5-6 users to uncover 80% of your usability problems? Happy to chat about our website usability testing - reach out!

This blog was posted by Sandy on December 1.
Sandy Marsico, Founder & CEO

About the Author

Sandy Marsico

Sandy Marsico is the founder & CEO of Sandstorm®, a digital brand experience agency that turns consumer insights into engaging user experiences through our unique blend of data science, brand strategy, UX and enterprise-level technology.

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Janna
How to make your website more inclusive by design

If your website was a physical location, would you build it without access for people with disabilities? Of course not. You’re not a heartless monster. But a surprising number of websites forget about the needs of people with disabilities. Inclusive design seeks to change that.

The principle behind inclusive design is creating products and services that everyone can use. Not only does that provide accessibility to your website for people with disabilities, it creates a better experience for all of your users.

Color contrast is a big part of inclusive design and web accessibility. As one of the most important tools in our utility belt, color choice is a big part of a designer’s work. We use it for emotive and illustrative purposes. Red, for example, can be a great color to highlight importance and urgency. Contrasting it with white type can help draw the eye, and that color combination is great for getting users to address alerts.

So what happens when a user has difficulty seeing the color red? Well, it turns out that white text on a red background is completely invisible to people with color blindness—something we discovered during one of our usability studies. In fact, there are a number of color combinations that cause problems for the visually impaired.

Luckily, there are organizations like World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to create standards for accessibility issues like color contrast. In fact, W3C went so far as to establish extensive Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, and the web community responded by developing tools that help designers create more inclusive sites.

Some of those tools, like WebAIM and Colorable, focus specifically on color contrast. To meet WCAG, normal, non-bolded text should have a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1; for large text it should be at least 3:1.

What else can you do to start making sure your website is more accessible and inclusive?

1. Add Alternative Text to Images

“Alt text” is essential to web accessibility. Assistive technology, such as screen readers, relies on alt text to turn images into braille or speech for the impaired.

Most content management systems, like Drupal or Kentico, include an alt tag field for images. Start with your company logo, then add descriptive alt text for each image on your site.

2. Use the Right Heading Structure

Correctly ordering the HTML headings on each page makes it much easier for screen readers and the visually impaired to navigate your site. While design considerations might require this order to shift, try to follow it where you can. At the very least, make your page title and h1 consistent—it’ll help the people using screen readers to make sense of the content.

3. Stop Using “Click Here”

For many reasons, please stop using “click here” as link text. Not only does it make content seem outdated, “click here” is a vague and confusing link description for people who use screen readers. Instead, use strong verbs that tell users what you want them to do and what they get in return:

  • Register for the event
  • Request more information
  • Download this report

4. Utilize Free Web Evaluation Tools

In addition to color contrast tools, enterprising developers have created lots of free tools that evaluate your website’s accessibility.

WAVE, for example, provides a breakdown of errors, alerts, and features in a list form and a visual overlay so you can identify opportunities to improve your site.

Web accessibility isn’t a cut-and-dried, check-it-off-the-list process. But when you design with all of your users in mind, you make your website a more inclusive place to be. And who doesn’t want to be a part of that?

This blog was posted by Janna on August 2.
Janna Fiester

About the Author

Janna Fiester

Sandstorm's VP of UX & Brand Innovation, Janna, is a design-thinker. Showcased in several design publications and exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, she is talented in taking nuggets of good ideas and nurturing them into solutions that are always strategic, engaging and visually delightful.

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