About the Author

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Emma Thompson
Emma Thompson

As a Junior Digital Strategist, Emma has a background in ad sales and a desire to create strong brand identities.

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Cindy Chau
Cindy Chau

As UX Architect, Cindy has a knack for problem solving combined with a fascination in people.

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Terribeth Beasley
Terribeth Beasley

As a QA Analyst, Terribeth is detail oriented and driven to provide excellence within every project.

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Amanda Heberg
Amanda Heberg

As the Director, Business Integration, 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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Megan Durst, digital strategist
Megan Durst

Building strong client relationships in between running 5Ks

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Bill Kurland, Copywriter
Bill Kurland

Copywriter Extraordinaire

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joshua sovell
Joshua Sovell

As the Marketing Manager Joshua is in charge of crafting the Sandstorm narrative via compelling blog content and community engagement.

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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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John Rausch
John Rausch

Over his 25 years in the advertising industry, John has produced award-winning work for many B2C and B2B clients. He is a passionate believer in the power of the brand and brings a strategic approach to every piece of creative.

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Cubs Game game
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Lisa Goepfrich
Lisa Goepfrich

Lisa is a Digital Strategist who is extraordinarily adept at building visual stories.

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Safina Lavji
Safina Lavji

As a UX Architect, Safina actively empathizes with users to bridge the gap between user needs and what the client delivers. 

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Adam Smetana
Adam Smetana

Adam's busy developing awesome websites for our clients. We'll have an equally awesome bio soon. 

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Nick Meshes
Nick Meshes

Nick is Sandstorm’s Director of Analytics and Technology. 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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Alicia Newland age 5
Alicia Newland

Alicia is an Account Director with 15+ years of experience on the agency side. Her first job as a paper carrier back in the 80’s, planted the seed for her dedication to building solid client relationships and her love of media.

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Tracy Graham
Tracy Graham

Tracy is Senior Designer at Sandstorm. His background in design and photography for print and web with experience in multiple industries makes him a Swiss army knife of creative awesomeness.

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Sean Fuller
Sean Fuller

As a Senior System Architect, Sean is a hands-on developer and technical lead on projects. He works with design and strategist teams from kick off through launch to plan, design and execute technical solutions for client projects. 

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Reilly Willson
Reilly Willson

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

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Amanda Tacker
Amanda Tacker

Amanda is a Digital Strategist with several years of experience on both the agency and client sides, with both B2B and B2C clients.

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Kellye Blosser
Kellye Blosser

Kellye’s unique approach involves a delicate balance of left and right-brained thinking. She most recently hailed from the corporate video world. Here at Sandstorm, she’s excited to bring strategic, innovative thinking to every project.

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Emily Kodner
Emily Kodner

Emily is our Senior Digital Strategist. 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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Megan Culligan
Megan Culligan

Megan knows the importance of picking a winner. With a background in politics and PR, she knows that a successful marketing campaign requires coordination of many moving pieces and a team focused on achieving a great goal. You’ll see her analytical point of view on the blog, providing insight and tactics for success.

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Meaghan Glennan
Meaghan Glennan

Meaghan is a storyteller. From the Granite State to the City of Broad Shoulders, she's created impactful true-life tales about people, places, businesses and events. As she guides Sandstorm's story by directing our marketing communications, you'll see a lot of her unique perspective and style.

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Holly Brinkman
Holly Brinkman

Holly's title at Sandstorm Design is Strategy, Research, and Writing, as she does a little bit of everything. She loves clever advertisements, strong brands, social media, and intuitive web sites.

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Matt Chiaromonte
Matt Chiaromonte

Matt is a copywriter and social media guru in Sandstorm’s Internship Program. With a background in marketing, journalism, and improv comedy, Matt brings equal parts knowledge and entertainment to our little corner of the Internet. When he isn’t generating social media content, Matt can be found enjoying pizza, podcasts, and many other things that begin with the letter “p”.

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Amanda Elliott
Amanda Elliott

Amanda Elliott is the Marketing Coordinator at Sandstorm Design. She absorbs the creative energy from our leadership team and facilitates the team so they can focus entirely on solving client challenges. She is passionate about anticipating needs, solving problems, and making projects fun.

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Sharonda Thomas
Sharonda Thomas

Our newest social media marketing and copywriting intern Sharonda has a passion for producing read-worthy content. Knowledgeable with various social platforms she will combine her communications and journalism background with her love of social media to keep our audience engaged. An artist at heart, Sharonda spends her free time cooking, painting, and barbering.

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Karen Boehl
Karen Boehl

Karen does a little bit of everything – webmaster, social media manager and search engine optimizer. She can most often be found on Twitter, in the Usability Lab, or happily buried in the Drupal admin menu.

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Jesse Lankford
Jesse Lankford

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

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Jason Dabrowski
Jason Dabrowski

Jason is one of Sandstorm’s designers and also helps keep the office running smoothly. As a veteran of the theatre—from acting to directing, lighting to set design—he knows the value of hard work and a positive attitude. Look for his unique voice on the blog.

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Laura Luckman Kelber
Laura Luckman Kelber

Chief Strategy Officer, Laura Luckman Kelber leads Sandstorm's team of strategists with wisdom from her 20 years of marketing experience. Combining seemingly disparate ideas to solve a problem, Laura unearths unexpected insights to help clients’ fuel their success.

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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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Kyle Lamble
Kyle Lamble

Kyle is your stereotypical bluehat hacker, by day, who wants you to upgrade your browser to support his love for cutting edge web development techniques. By night, he is a curator and publisher of art. Co-founder of Loosey Goosey Art, Kyle spends much of his off time helping artists find their inner potential.

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Will Biby
Will Biby

Will wears many hats at Sandstorm. From writing web content to executing social media strategies, he is quick to act and insistent on a job done right. Will enjoys writing, so expect to hear from him often on the blog.

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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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Derek Vanderlaan
Derek Vanderlaan

Derek Vander Laan is Sandstorm's Senior Design Architect. With 20 years of experience, he designs web sites, infographics, and interactive digital experiences. His creative skills are always at work either at his desk or plotting a prank for someone else's.

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Andrew Jarvis
Andrew Jarvis

Andrew lives in Bucktown with his wife and three cats in various states of hairlessness. When he's not at Sandstorm doing front-end development he is passionate about creating 3D art.

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Michael Hartman
Michael Hartman

As Sandstorm's Technology and Usability Director, Michael leads our developers and usability researchers in creating web sites and applications—both desktop and mobile—that embody our favorite blend: intuitive user experience and dynamic Drupal development.

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Janna Fiester
Janna Fiester

Sandstorm's Executive Creative Director, 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 next-generation brand experience agency that turns customer insights into engaging user experiences through our unique blend of strategy, UX design, user research, marketing technology and analytics.

Industry Insight

Sandy
Sandy Marsico at Solutions Day

Recently I had the honor of speaking at .orgCommunity’s Solutions Day 2017. Usability testing is a big part of how Sandstorm eliminates subjectivity from the creative process, so I wanted to show attendees how usability testing can help drive significantly improved user experiences.

With as few as 5–6 users, usability testing can identify 80% of user issues on a website or mobile app. Our Sandstormers have learned many lessons while performing more than 3,000 usability studies. These are just a few of the findings that can help you.

1. Members want to see real images of their peers.

We performed usability testing for the American Planning Association as part of a redesign of their website. During testing, we learned that their members found the stock photography used on their existing site inauthentic and unengaging.

APA before test

This simple finding led us to use professional photos of real APA members that improved engagement on key pages, including the homepage, Events page, and About Us page.

APA after test

2. Don’t put too many events on the homepage.

The Association for Corporate Growth (ACG) holds 1,200 events for 58 chapters across the globe each year, and they were struggling to find a way to highlight events.

Before we tested, ACG was including 25 events on their homepage, which was harming the user experience.

ACG before test

We needed to make it easy for members to find the events that were of interest, in their location, etc. So we created a featured event section on the homepage that links to an events page allowing users to filter by keyword, chapter, date, and event type.

ACG after test

3. Navigation items that require user action need an active verb in the title.

We made a surprising discovery while testing wireframe designs for a large non-profit organization: users thought the navigation items were too unclear and passive.

By adding active verbs to these items—for example, changing “Theft & Fraud Awareness” to “Prevent Theft and Fraud”—we were able to make the navigation clearer to users and let them know what they would be able to accomplish when visiting the page.

4. People miss content when there’s no visual cue.

Weber was redesigning the website for their grills and accessories and wanted to test several UX changes on a development environment before going live.

One of the issues we uncovered was that users didn’t know that the navigation items in the main menu expanded.

To solve this, we added carets next to the menu titles to indicate action. After making this simple fix, users clearly understood that they would find additional pages in the menu.

Weber after test

5. Using a search icon without an input field confuses users.

While redesigning the website for NOW Foods, we found that users were confused by a small change: we removed the input field for the search bar.

NOW Foods before test

By merely adding the field back to the search area, users could search the site with ease.

NOW Foods after test

Usability testing is a quick, simple way to improve the user experience, whether you’re creating a new site or app or redesigning what you have now. Contact us to learn more about how to execute your own usability test today.

This blog was posted by Sandy on September 29, 2017.
Sandy Marsico, Founder & CEO

About the Author

Sandy Marsico

Sandy Marsico is the Founder & CEO of Sandstorm®, a next-generation brand experience agency that turns customer insights into engaging user experiences through our unique blend of strategy, UX design, user research, marketing technology and analytics.

Michael
Answering the Eternal Question: To Hamburger Menu or Not?

Should you use a hamburger menu for your mobile navigation?

That’s a matter of ongoing debate here at Sandstorm®. It’s a debate we carry out in email chains linking to the latest articles, with subject lines like, “Hamburger menus were (bad/good).”

So I’m here to finally end the debate and offer a definitive answer on whether you should use hamburger menus by saying, “It depends.”

Because that’s the truth: Hamburger menus aren’t uniformly bad or good. It all depends on your audience, your goals, and how best to structure your information so that it serves your users and your needs.

The Myth of the Hidden Menu

In his article Why and How to Avoid Hamburger Menus, Louie Abreu lays out a thoughtful argument against the pattern of using sidebar menus. For him, the biggest issues are:

  1. Low Discoverability—the menu is out of sight and, therefore, out of mind.
  2. Reduced Efficiency—it creates navigation friction for the user.
  3. Navigation Clashing—it clutters up and overloads the navigation bar.
  4. Lack of Glanceability—information about specific items is harder to surface.

But I don’t quite buy the rest of his argument.

Since 2014, when the article was published, hamburger menus have become a common pattern for some of the most highly trafficked sites on the web, including Google and Facebook. And in countless usability studies, we’ve seen that most people don’t mind the ‘hidden’ menu on mobile devices.

The main issue we’ve seen in usability studies is some users don’t understand the three-horizontal-lines ‘hamburger’ icon. This is consistent with an A/B testing experiment conducted by Sites for Profit, which suggests that the three-horizontal-lines ‘hamburger’ icon is less effective than the ‘menu’ label. So there is definitely evidence that supports adding a menu label underneath the icon or simply using the word ‘menu’ instead of the icon.

What users really want is something that’s designed for them, whether it includes a hamburger menu or not—and I’d argue that most users don’t know that this is even a debate.

So how do you effectively use a hamburger menu without alienating users?

Considerations Before Using Hamburger Menus

1. If your navigation structure is small and simple, why not just show it?

Websites with a deep menu structure—like large enterprise software companies—can benefit from hamburger menus. But small websites, like those for a local business, have limited functionality and can display their full navigation. Or you could use one of these emerging patterns for mobile navigation.

2. Label your menu with the word menu.

Our own tests and others have shown that just adding the word ‘menu’ below the hamburger icon increases user engagement. Or ditch the icon and just use the ‘menu’ label.

3. If you have the screen width to display your menu, you should do it.

Avoid hiding your navigation on larger screens. If you don’t have to use a hamburger menu on tablet, then don’t.

4. Nesting can be a problem, if your menu structure is too deep, there’s probably something wrong with your architecture.

The hamburger/offscreen navigation pattern can get tricky if your menu structure is deep and wide. It’s probably not a good pattern to use if this is the case, but the first thing you should do is consider revising your site architecture so it’s less complex.

If you need help with your mobile navigation, Sandstorm can help. From usability testing to user experience design, we’ll help you find the solution that works best for your users.

This blog was posted by Michael on August 31, 2017.
Michael Hartman

About the Author

Michael Hartman

As Sandstorm's Technology and Usability Director, Michael leads our developers and usability researchers in creating web sites and applications—both desktop and mobile—that embody our favorite blend: intuitive user experience and dynamic Drupal development.

Janna
Get in the Gamification and Boost Your Member Engagement

Stronger member engagement. Increased traffic. Connecting with Millennials.

If I just listed everything on your association’s wish list, then gamification has a lot to offer you.

Gamification is all about motivation. It plays on people’s competitive nature and love of recognition to encourage them to accomplish goals. And gamification works wonders. Studies show that gamification can lead to a 150% boost in engagement, which is why more than 70% of the Global 2000 have at least one gamified app.

How can you start taking advantage of gamification’s benefits? We’ve created a quick walkthrough to help you power up member engagement.

1. Add a profile progress bar.

Users want goals and they want to feel like they’ve accomplished something. More than 75% responded to a survey saying that they want an indication of progress.

LinkedIn has mastered this technique to get members to build out their profiles: rewards for completing a profile, clues that offer direction, and tapping into users’ competitive nature to see who is looking at their profile.

Gamification: Add a progress bar

 

2. Include provocative language in the profile form.

Asana challenged its users by asking them to describe themselves in seven words. When they made that switch, their response rate increased 98%. With just a simple form change, you can get your members to be more engaged right from the start.

Gamification: Include provocative language in the profile form

 

3. Use points to incentivize members to come back.

Learning a new language can seem daunting, unless you use Duolingo. The popular language education app grew to 110 million users in just three years, and it keeps those members coming back by giving them experience points for each completed task.

Gamification: Use points to incentivize members to come back

 

4. Award badges for participation.

It can be difficult to get off the couch, but Fitbit encourages users to push harder by awarding badges for milestones. And the awards aren’t just for running a marathon, they start with tasks that the user can actually achieve and build from there.

Gamification: Award badges for participation

 

At Sandstorm®, we can design new and exciting ways to engage your members through gamification.

Watch the video below for more ideas, or contact us to talk about what we can do for you.

This blog was posted by Janna on August 10, 2017.
Janna Fiester

About the Author

Janna Fiester

Sandstorm's Executive Creative Director, 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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Jason
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 Jason on August 2, 2017.
Jason Dabrowski

About the Author

Jason Dabrowski

Jason is one of Sandstorm’s designers and also helps keep the office running smoothly. As a veteran of the theatre—from acting to directing, lighting to set design—he knows the value of hard work and a positive attitude. Look for his unique voice on the blog.

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Sandy
Website personalization from simple to complex

Personalization is the best way to engage your users in a conversation, and it’s increasingly something that they expect from your website. Almost 75% of users prefer to do business with organizations that use personalization to make their experience more relevant; the same percentage of users get frustrated with websites when content has nothing to do with their interests.

I recently partnered with .orgCommunity to help associations better understand how to leverage website personalization. In the webinar Spectrum of Personalization, you’ll see 5 examples of personalization in action, from simple to complex, and take away some tips to help you get started today.

Get inspired! Watch our webinar below.

This blog was posted by Sandy on July 6, 2017.
Sandy Marsico, Founder & CEO

About the Author

Sandy Marsico

Sandy Marsico is the Founder & CEO of Sandstorm®, a next-generation brand experience agency that turns customer insights into engaging user experiences through our unique blend of strategy, UX design, user research, marketing technology and analytics.

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John

It’s hard to create remarkable brand experiences without an inspiring insight into the user. I’ve always considered user insights to be the single most important component of a creative brief, and it’s no surprise that it’s also the most challenging component to develop.

The process of uncovering a meaningful insight starts with understanding the user. You need to know your audience well beyond the demographics. How does he think? What does she feel? Not just about your product or service, but about the category?

It’s critical to understand the difference between an observation (a demonstrable fact about your product/service and your user—the “what”) and an insight (recognizing what motivates them—the “why”). It takes time and effort to sort through the more obvious observations to reveal the insight.

But it’s time and effort well spent. Properly developed and crafted, an insight serves as the inspirational launch pad for creative development, providing the illuminating Aha! that makes the message resonant and meaningful.

The best insights address the solution, not the product/service. As the old saying goes, people don’t want eighth-inch drill bits; they want eighth-inch holes.

What are other elements of a great user insight?

  • It illuminates the user more than the product or service
  • It applies to the category more than the brand
  • It’s single-minded and can be simply stated
  • It’s about the universal and eternal, rather than the trendy

Let’s look at a handful of acclaimed campaigns and the insights that spawned them.

Dove: “Real Beauty”

The insight: Women—who come in all shapes and sizes—had become increasingly exasperated with the narrow portrayal of female beauty in the media.

The research that revealed this insight led to the creation of a breakthrough marketing strategy: “To make women feel comfortable in the skin they are in, to create a world where beauty is a source of confidence and not anxiety.” The campaign built on this strategy looked like nothing the industry had seen before. The launch of the campaign received substantial media coverage from mainstream news broadcasts and publications, as well as talk shows and women’s magazines. Parent company Unilever has estimated the media coverage to be worth more than 30 times the purchased media.

California Milk Processor Board: “Got Milk?”

The insight: People wait until they’re out of milk to realize that they should buy more.

During a consumer focus group on milk held 25 years ago, someone said, “The only time I even think about milk is when I run out of it." The insight revealed by that remark became the foundation for a campaign that entertainingly presented what might happen if you allowed yourself to run out of milk. The “Got Milk?” campaign achieved over 90 percent awareness in the U.S., and the tagline has been licensed to dairy boards across the nation.

Old Spice: “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like”

The insight: Wives and girlfriends are more likely to buy men’s body wash than men are.

Consumer research revealed that for years Old Spice had aimed messaging for its body wash and hair care products at the wrong audience. The first commercial, featuring actor Isaiah Mustafa, was an overnight sensation and became a cultural phenomenon. Sales surpassed expectations and today Old Spice is the number one selling brand of body wash for men in the U.S.

At Sandstorm, our thoughtful, scientific approach to user research reveals illuminating insights on which effective brand strategies are built. For example:

Ensono: “Operate for Today. Optimize for Tomorrow”

The insight: Chief information officers are looking for resources to help them not just keep the data center running, but deliver strategic innovations that drive revenue.

Extensive primary and secondary research revealed how the role of our user, the CIO, was evolving. CIOs were increasingly being expected to make strategic contributions in the boardroom, moving from a traditional “build-and-feed” model to a construct that could be described as “dream and direct.” We developed a brand campaign for our client Ensono (which provides IT infrastructure management outsourcing) that positioned Ensono as “the company that dreams,” helping CIOs address their current needs and deliver on tomorrow’s objectives.

We developed the new name and brand identity for Ensono, designed and developed its new website and created an expansive portfolio of marketing materials. In one year, the site saw a 703 percent increase in total page views, an 859 percent hike in unique visitors and a 955 percent increase in lead form submissions!

We’d be delighted to help you find the unexpected user insights that deliver an enhanced brand experience. Contact us today to get started.

This blog was posted by John on May 18, 2017.
John Rausch

About the Author

John Rausch

Over his 25 years in the advertising industry, John has produced award-winning work for many B2C and B2B clients. He is a passionate believer in the power of the brand and brings a strategic approach to every piece of creative.

Nick
Drupal vs. Wordpress

Over the years, Sandstorm® has built websites on content management systems (CMS) using a variety of programming languages: Python, .NET, and PHP to name just a few. These programming languages support CMSs like Django, Kentico, and Joomla, respectively. Two of the most popular CMSs are Drupal and WordPress, built on PHP.

A common question we hear from clients is whether they should use Drupal or WordPress. While there’s no right answer, there is an answer that’s right for you. Each one has its place, so we've laid out where you can gain the most benefit from each CMS.

The Benefits of Drupal

Speed and Performance

When it comes to a scalable CMS that can support high-volume traffic and vast libraries of content, Drupal beats out WordPress. Not only does Drupal offer better performance out of the box—including default cache features that help pages load faster—it’s more robust for handling complex projects with lots of functionality.

Security

Drupal is favored by many top companies and government agencies, including whitehouse.gov, for its enterprise-level security. Drupal has a very active security team with a stringent review process for plugins and a robust permissions layer that provides nuanced limitations for user access.

WordPress, on the other hand, is a popular target for hackers whose malicious attacks often succeed due to fully coded plugins compromising security. Additionally, WordPress doesn’t provide the flexibility in tailored permissions that Drupal does.

Lead Conversion

When it comes to getting leads through web contact forms, WordPress requires third-party tools like Gravity Forms or JotForm, which will cost you extra.

With Drupal, web form functionalities are already built into the platform, so you don’t need external tools. Drupal can also enable rules and set up triggers so that when someone fills out a form on your website they receive an SMS message from your company, which helps with lead nurturing efforts and potential conversions.

The Benefits of WordPress

Ease of Use for Small Businesses

Since WordPress started primarily for less tech-savvy bloggers, small businesses with a junior development team benefit the most from the platform. Additionally, most writers and content managers have some experience with WordPress, so there's little need to train them on the platform.

Where It's a Toss Up

Supportive Community

Drupal and WordPress users have created diverse global communities that offer international conferences like DrupalCon and WordCamp; local training events and Meetups; and active forums where users can ask questions and learn more about the platform. While the WordPress community is larger than Drupal’s, it’s uncommon that you would run into an issue with either platform that someone hasn’t encountered, and solved, before.

Search Engine Optimization

It doesn’t matter to Google which platform you use, and both platforms offer excellent plugins and modules to help you with your SEO, including Yoast for WordPress and Content Optimizer for Drupal.

At Sandstorm®, our experts have extensive experience developing, designing, and writing in Drupal, WordPress, and many other content management systems. We’d love to find the one that’s right for you.

This blog was posted by Nick on May 1, 2017.
Nick Meshes

About the Author

Nick Meshes

Nick is Sandstorm’s Director of Analytics and Technology. 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.

Sean

Now more than ever, digital security is something that needs a thoughtful approach.

From Yahoo! to the DNC, large, high-profile security breaches are filling the news and making security a hot topic for everyday conversation. There are so many hacks that even data visualizers are struggling to make sense of them all. Which is why 2017 will be the year that companies finally realize the value and necessity of security for their digital properties.

Whether cause or effect, our increasing reliance on technology correlates with the spike in frequency, size, and severity of security breaches. At Sandstorm®, we're big fans of Steve Gibson and his podcast Security Now, where he talks about the race to keep up with new security threats. With each new security improvement developers release, hackers are ready to uncover weaknesses. Over the years, this has brought us to a place where both the threats—and the necessary defenses against those threats—have reached a level of complexity that can seem daunting.

From Convenience to Security

The complexity and automated nature of modern attacks has changed the industry’s view on the lengths hackers are willing to go to. Now, we have to assume that there is always someone looking to exploit opportunities and weaknesses.

While these are just a few examples of the risks and remediations that companies need to consider, they illustrate the many different attack vectors that developers need to address. The trick is to do the following:

  • Define the requirements
  • Identify the risks and determine the solutions
  • Design a highly functional application that still puts the user first

Trend #1: Rise of the Botnets

Botnets are a major reason for the increase in security issues. As an industry, we’ve known for some time about the danger of improperly patched or unsecure computers and servers that get infected with malware. But in the last few years, risk has increased exponentially due to the prominence of the Internet of Things (IOT). We have an explosion of internet-connected devices (light bulbs, refrigerators, dishwashers, teddy bears) with many of them rushed to market without regard for security.

Night of the Living Malware

Malware programs target these vulnerable systems to create zombie armies of infected computers that work together to feed on sites. The most recent and well known is the Murai botnet, the code of which was released as open source and has since spawned a plethora of derivations. That's right; you heard me. They’re multiplying, evolving, and getting smarter like a creature out of a bad horror movie.

How bad is it? Projections as of 2016 suggested that 35% of all internet traffic consisted of malicious bots. That's a lot of zombies wandering around looking for your server's brains.

GhostBot in the Machine

Another recent example is GiftGhostBot. This attack came to light in March 2017. Bots are brute forcing the pages that allow customers to check the balance on their gift cards. These bots keep guessing gift card numbers (at an estimated rate of four billion requests per hour) until they get one that has a remaining balance. They can then use that gift code to steal from the gift card holder.

What makes this GiftGhostBot particularly sinister is its sophistication. First, the attack is distributed across multiple compromised devices, servers, and computers—which means there’s no way to track and block these requests by IP. Second, the bots have been set up to use over 740 different user agent profiles, meaning they masquerade as different browsers and operating systems to confuse attempts to filter out their traffic. Vendors might add CAPTCHAs or completely remove these pages to remediate the issue. This is just another example of the exponential scale and complexity of attacks that have shifted the conversation towards security.

What You Can Do

  1. Your best defense is keeping your systems up-to-date. Apply security updates to all technology in your ecosystem in a timely manner (including websites, servers, computers, employee mobile devices, etc.).
  2. Be sure to spend the time to review all new features and components of your digital products with an eye for potential vulnerabilities. Always overestimate the lengths someone would go.
  3. When in doubt, engage a knowledgeable specialist to help review your security configuration.

Trend #2: Are You a Robot? – Identifying Friend From Foe

If you’re thinking this is all about the rise of the machines, you might (or might not) be happy to hear that humans still play an important role in threatening your business’s security. While botnets have increased the quantity of attacks, the level of sophistication for attacks has also dramatically increased. In some areas, malicious entrepreneurs have even turned to crowdsourcing to enhance automated attacks. Take CAPTCHA as an example. When those annoying pictures were too much for some bots to circumvent, unscrupulous companies paid real people to fill them out. Bots passed the CAPTCHAs back to humans whose answers were fed back to the bots so they could proceed with their attack.

Invisible ReCAPTCHA

This resulted in concerns with the CAPTCHA as a solution for determining bot from human. While still used, it was understood that this solution is not 100% effective. Recently, however, Google updated their reCAPTCHA service with their new Invisible reCAPTCHA. Maybe you’ve seen this: It’s a simple checkbox that says “I am not a robot.” Because so much information on your behavior has been compiled by Google, it can compare your digital fingerprints and activity against its vast repository of analytics to determine if you’re a real person. Or that’s the theory anyway; the new service has just rolled out and we're excited to see how it matures.

Mollom

Mollom is another service we recommend, specifically for Drupal projects. It takes form submissions on your site and checks the content to see if it looks like bot-generated content. If it does, the content is flagged. This technique analyzes content to protect against spam, relying on the consolidation of massive amounts of examples to understand how to proceed.

What You Can Do

  1. You can do is realize that identifying bots is not as straight-forward as it seems. They have gotten very good at pretending to look like real users performing real actions on your site.
  2. Shift your thinking to a place where you assume that hackers and spammers are probably smarter (or at least more persistent) than you. Look at each element of your digital products as a place where a bot might pretend to be a human and consider what they might be able to do.
  3. Layer different preventative techniques. Don't assume that one fix is enough and have a contingency plan for is a bot does get past your defenses.

Trend #3: Moving to SSL

Another major trend for 2017 will be the push for secure socket layer (SSL or HTTPS) traffic for everything. This has been an important shift for security in the last few years. Previously, SSL was only considered important for highly sensitive data, but a few things have pushed us into a world where regular HTTP traffic is considered unsecure.

Man in the Middle

First, a number of tools have come out that make watching the traffic of someone else on your network very easy to do. This allows a person to see the sites you are visiting and even steal your username and password. This is generally referred to as a man-in-the-middle attack resulting in session hijacking. Traffic over HTTPS helps to protect against that because your browser and the server are essentially communicating via a secret language that only they can understand.

Man on the Side

Second, browsers pulling in content over regular HTTP can't 100% confirm where the content they’re displaying came from. There have been a few complicated attacks over the past few years where malware was sent to site visitors instead of the assets they were expecting. This is generally referred to as a man-on-the-side attack. The attempted attack on GitHub in 2015 is an example of this. Moving towards HTTPS traffic gives the browser certainty that the content it received is the one it was expecting.

Pushing the Transition

If you’re thinking all of that sounds scary, you're not alone. Google agrees and has started to roll out changes to the Chrome browser—you've probably noticed that grayed out "not secure" message near the URL. Additionally, if you log in to a site over regular HTTP, you may also notice a red "not secure" message. This is meant to push websites towards SSL, and it’s only the start. Google has announced additional plans to clearly mark all traffic as not secure going forward.

What You Can Do

  1. Work with your hosting provider or website developer to purchase an SSL certificate from a reputable vendor.
  2. Have those same partners review your SSL configuration to confirm that you’re using strong protocols and ciphers that have not been deemed to be compromised.
  3. You may also need to review your site to confirm that you don't have any mixed content errors, which is when HTTPS pages are referencing insecure HTTP resources.
  4. While you're at it, complete a full review of your server configuration.
  5. A full penetration test or security scan may also be a good investment.

How Sandstorm Can Help

This is just the start of the conversation and we've only covered a few topics. Whether you’re moving your current website to SSL or want to ensure your new website is developed with the latest security in mind, we utilize the technology and techniques that make sure you’re protected.

This blog was posted by Sean on April 13, 2017.
Sean Fuller

About the Author

Sean Fuller

As a Senior System Architect, Sean is a hands-on developer and technical lead on projects. He works with design and strategist teams from kick off through launch to plan, design and execute technical solutions for client projects. 

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Bill Kurland
Content Marketing

Content marketing is the cornerstone of any successful digital marketing strategy, but it’s not enough just to create compelling content. You also have to think through how users engage with your content.

Since almost 90 percent of users are less likely to come back to a website after a bad experience, you really have to create a great experience right from the start. But don’t worry; creating compelling, user-friendly content isn’t as hard as it sounds. With a few simple changes, you can pack a serious punch. In fact, you’re probably following some of these best practices already.

1. Write content that’s scannable.

Like most readers, you’re probably skimming this article. Nielsen Norman Group, a leading UX research firm, found that 4 out of 5 users scan web pages looking for important information and fewer than 2 in 10 read word by word.

To deliver useful information to your users, your content needs to be scannable. You can make your content more user-friendly by following these best practices for web content. Start with the top 10 pages your users visit the most on your site and apply these principles:

  • Think mobile first—look at how your content displays on a device.
  • Use meaningful sub-headings instead of overly clever ones.
  • Turn items listed in a paragraph into a bulleted list.
  • Keep paragraphs to a single idea, and keep them concise. Paragraphs can have just 2-3 sentences.
  • Edit your content, then edit again.

2. Use hyperlinks within your body content—and make them stand out.

Hyperlinks—the colorful text that links to other pages—are essential to a great user experience. They serve as signposts on the road to discovery and help users explore your content in a meaningful way.

Underlined text in a contrasting color is the best way to communicate a hyperlink, and it’s what most users expect. Using a longer phrase of three or four words is more engaging than a single keyword, and using really engaging language related to the link is even better.

Just remember not to overdo it; two to three links on a page is plenty for content of 450 words or less.

3. Create engaging and attractive calls to action.

Whether you’re trying to increase newsletter signups, encourage engagement, or promote an event, an appealing call to action (CTA) will improve your results.

What’s the key to an enticing CTA? Use a vibrant color from your brand style to draw attention to buttons, and give them a consistent look and feel. Use verbs in your CTA copy 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

If you follow these tips, you’ll be able to make quick optimizations that have a real impact on your site. Your current users will praise the improved usability, share more of your content, and you’ll have laid a solid foundation for attracting new users who are essential to growing business.

This blog was posted by Bill Kurland on March 23, 2017.
Bill Kurland, Copywriter

About the Author

Bill Kurland

Copywriter Extraordinaire

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Safina
World IA Day 2017

I attended World IA Day in Chicago a few weeks ago and was inspired by one of the speakers. In user experience, and particularly in information architecture, we often draw analogies to physical spaces and buildings. Extending the same analogy, one speaker shared a personal story about a seven-day excursion she took to build a mud hut.

Their team was cruising through the build, and what should have taken seven days was nearly complete in three. Unfortunately, just before they could put the doors on, the walls came tumbling down. They rushed the process, didn’t take the time to let the mud dry, and skipped steps that were fundamental to allowing the natural materials to take hold.

The lesson she learned was that, much like physical spaces, digital spaces can come crashing down if you rush the process. Whether you’re building a cathedral or a website, you start with a goal, work through the mess (information architecture, user research, usability testing) and draw up the plans (blueprints or wireframes) so you can create a concrete product users can easily move through.

Constructing Your Information Architecture (IA)

Information architecture not only makes information easy to find, it helps us create experiences that are intuitive and easy to navigate. IA provides the digital signposts and clues that help users remember where things are located and how to move through a design, system, or interface. IA helps prevent issues of findability and scalability while answering questions like:

  • How is this structure organized?
  • How is the content labelled?
  • How will it meet the needs of the organization?
  • How will it meet the needs of the people using it?

Listening to this story I couldn’t help but nod along and think of the clients I work with. I hear clients say customers can’t find products or they really want to simplify and condense the information. Clients often don’t realize they have an information architecture problem, but it really is key to completing a digital project.

The most important thing to remember is that the way an end user approaches a website can be vastly different than the way an employee approaches their company website—what may seem intuitive to someone within the business might not make sense to their clients or customers.

Without carefully thought-out IA we can’t expect products, apps, or websites that are easy to navigate. Even if websites look beautiful, without a strong structure they can create a disorienting user experience, and issues with findability and scalability will abound.

Have You Built the Right IA?

Ever hear employees, clients, and users say this about your website:

  • "We create new content but don’t know where to put it."
  • "It always takes me a while to find the right information."
  • "I can’t find the products I’m looking for."

Then it sounds like your information architecture could use some restructuring. We’re here to help you, from card sorting through to sitemaps and wireframes.

This blog was posted by Safina on March 6, 2017.
Safina Lavji

About the Author

Safina Lavji

As a UX Architect, Safina actively empathizes with users to bridge the gap between user needs and what the client delivers. 

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