James Wynne is Director of User Experience for Sandstorm and has been in digital product development since 1996. He has worked as a UX designer for a myriad of clients including large eCommerce brands, mobile device manufacturers and integrated marketing agencies.
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.
The mind reading fantasy
How great would it be if someone could read our minds and instantly reflect what we were thinking? Okay, it might be a bit creepy at first, but after we acclimated, it would be pretty fantastic. We would never have to order anything; we would just pay and collect our latte, salad, or sandwich. We would never argue with our spouse. We would always know what our boss wanted. It would be so productive, we would increase GDP by 200%.
Reality sets in
Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in today. So when clients want us to read their minds, we panic—and for good reason. We strive to embed ourselves into our clients’ organizations and businesses, but we are horrible mind readers. When budgets and timelines are tight (they always are), it’s best to align with a creative brief before jumping into creative execution: it saves time and money and prevents angst.
A tool that functions well in reality
Please plan for some time and money to invest in a well-written creative brief when you are planning on giving work to an agency or creative partner. Briefs give the agency time to process all of the information you have given them and think through any questions they may have. This distillation of information is an important step that allows for strategic thinking and alignment. The act of writing a brief is a discipline that requires prioritization and ensures the creative team has the right information before crafting a communication solution for you, the client.
Providing a way for effective creative evaluation across an organization
As a client, you should demand a brief when embarking on a creative project. It has a strong ROI and is the contract between you and the creative team in terms of what to expect when the agency presents creative to you. You should use this brief to evaluate the creative and ensure your internal stakeholders do the same thing. This ensures that your campaigns stay focused and on strategy. A brief also helps take personal preferences out of the equation and forces each evaluator to start to think in terms of your target market.
A simple solution, just add a pinch of discipline
I have worked in many places and with many clients that let the creative brief languish and even disappear. This results in many revisions, escalating budgets, and blown deadlines—not to mention awful creative executions. This is the epitome of the phrase “garbage in, garbage out.”
So if you want to ensure great creative that’s on budget and on schedule, you must invest the time and resources into developing a well-thought-out creative brief that has alignment from all stakeholders in the process. It’s a simple and classic tool that works.
Sunday’s Super Bowl game was one for the ages—unless, that is, you had money on the Atlanta Falcons, who found a way to squander a 25-point lead.
The evening’s commercials featured a kaleidoscope of celebrity cameos, a split-second glimpse of the Budweiser Clydesdales, and the following winners and losers:
Avocados from Mexico’s “Avo Secrets” spot delivers a hysterical spoof of the Illuminati, poking fun at the secret society’s rituals and deflating its pomposity. The full-length version of the spot is literally laugh-out-loud funny.
“You don’t look like you’re from around here” is the line that opens Budweiser’s “Born the Hard Way” spot. The 60-second ad, which tracks Adolphus Busch’s long journey to America, served up one of the evening’s defter political statements on immigration.
Even more moving was “The Journey Begins” from 84 Lumber, which follows a mother and daughter making the daunting trek from Mexico to the United States. Broadcaster Fox had refused to air the original version of the spot, which ended with the pair arriving at a monolithic border wall. 84 Lumber ran a modified version of the spot during the game and invited viewers to visit its site to watch the full-length version, triggering so much traffic that the site crashed repeatedly throughout the evening.
“Go Further” charmingly demonstrated Ford’s commitment to innovation and its promise to help us “move through life faster, easier and better.” The spot provided the evening’s best soundtrack—Nina Simone’s civil rights anthem “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.”
Bai opens its spot with Christopher Walken solemnly intoning the lyrics to the ‘N Sync hit “Bye Bye Bye.” Justin Timberlake, clad in smoking jacket and ascot, delivers a silent but howlingly funny reaction. Perhaps the evening’s best use of a pop song to drive home the brand message.
John Malkovich is by turns furious, ingratiating and threatening as he seeks to wheedle the JohnMalkovich.com domain name from its owner in SquareSpace’s very funny spot that presents a memorable case for securing your domain name before it’s gone.
Packed with visual puns, TurboTax’s “Humpty Hospital” spot delivers an effective product demo amid the hilarity. When the yolk starts trickling, I dare you not to laugh.
Skittles’ “Romance” ad was the latest in a long line of inane “people will do anything to eat (insert product name here)” spots.
Kia’s “Hero’s Journey” ad, starring Melissa McCarthy, spent a glacier of money on special effects for a spot that, while aimed at the ecologically aware, actually belittled the efforts of environmentalists.
In a commercial for Sprite, basketball superstar LeBron James refuses to tell us to drink Sprite. Sorry, LBJ—not very funny.
Need help telling your brand’s story? Sandstorm helps clients build their brands and develop the strategies to effectively deliver their stories to their target audiences. Let us help you today.
For awhile there, in the land of web design, it seemed that sans serif fonts were taking over. Arial, Verdana, Geneva, and even san-serif itself. Google got in on the action too, ditching its long time faith in serif fonts for its new logo a few years back.
Serif fonts have come back into vogue. Errol Morris, filmmaker and author, ran an experiment in the New York Times in 2012. Readers thought they were merely reading an essay and deciding whether or not they agreed with a statement about security. This was, supposedly, to tell whether they were optimists or pessimists, however Morris was actually testing something else. He was testing fonts. He chose several serif and sans-serif fonts to see if readers showed a favoritism toward any type of font. Which font was more convincing? Baskerville, a serif font, won hands down.
I’m guessing one study from 4 years ago isn’t enough to get you back on the serif train. Well, just this year, another serif font Times New Roman, was voted “most trusted typeface” by UK company, solopress, following a survey of 1,000 people (Comic Sans came in second place, so no survey is perfect).
That’s not all, though. The US National Library of Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control, as well as others in the crossroads between government and medicine recommend a serif font: “Serif fonts are usually easier to read than sans-serif fonts. This is because the serif makes the individual letters more distinctive and easier for our brains to recognize quickly” (PDF).
A few google searches will show you that serif fonts have a reputation for readability, but also for conveying nostalgia and authority.
One of our recent clients, Vibrant (Formerly DHCU) came to us with a rebrand. For this client, we needed a way to merge the fun and friendly atmosphere of their business, while not undermining the trust and reliability you’d expect from a financial institution. Our solution was a mix of exciting and engaging color for their brand married with a serif font for their logo to keep their brand grounded in the financial world.
If your website could use a new look, or you're looking to build trust and confidence with your brand, Sandstorm can help.
Now get your serif on (go ‘head, be gone with it).
Everyone makes predictions on the next big trend for 2017. This year, we ditched the crystal ball to give you actionable UX strategies that will drive growth and innovation in your organization.
1. Tap into your data and do something with it
Are you collecting tons of data but not using it? Are you looking at pages of reports with no actionable information? These are lost data mining opportunities that can help prioritize initiatives and allow your business to expand or pivot. When data is combined from multiple sources and analyzed properly, it can help you make more informed digital marketing decisions that can save marketing dollars or drive additional revenue. For 2017, commit to creating an analytics strategy to regularly uncover insights from your data.
2. Stop guessing and simply talk to your users
Take the subjectivity out of internal meetings and go straight to the source. It’s easier and cheaper than ever before to have quick and meaningful conversations with your users through social, one-to-one phone interviews, in-person at conferences and events, and usability studies. (Did you know you only need 5-6 users from a particular user group to identify 80% of the usability issues?)
3. Build a customer journey map
Brand engagements are moving off computer screens to cell phones, tablets, wearable tech, gaming consoles, and even smart devices like refrigerators. Understanding all the various touch points along your customer’s journey is critical to providing the consistent, personalized brand experience they expect.
4. Look outside your industry for inspiration
It’s easy to see what everyone else is doing within your industry. To identify white space opportunities for your organization, look up and out (e.g., if customer service is your differentiator, look at Southwest Airlines or Disney). Businesses in other industries may have already solved the problem you are looking to tackle—it just takes a little mindshift to find them.
Turning these 4 UX strategies into priorities in 2017 will give you quantitative and qualitative rationale to make better (and less subjective) digital marketing decisions.
Let's face it, some blogs are just boring. Blogs aren't white papers. They are stories written by people. Opinions, levity, original ideas, relevant humor, these are things that all humans have, and corporate blogs should be no different. That doesn't mean that it can't be “professional.” None of those attributes disqualify anyone from being seen as an expert; it just means that it should have some life! But how?
Tune Your Tone
Tone is tricky, and corporate blogs have a history of tonal shortcomings. Finding your tone will come from your culture:
- the attitudes of your employees
- the environment of your office
- the creativity of your work
Don't stifle these things. Each of them goes into what makes your company unique and can drive your content strategy. One of the best ways to share that uniqueness is with a company blog.
Craft Your Conversation
In The Corporate Blogging Book, Debbie Weil says there are three Cs of blogging, "be conversational, cogent, and compelling." Blogs should start dialogues with your audience, not force rhetoric down their throats. Caterpillar regularly uses their blog to engage in relevant discussions with their audience. Maintaining a conversational tone is key to avoiding a boring blog. Have some fun — you can have an expert voice and still have a heart. It can be a fancy three-piece suit with a silly tie. Also, don't forget to follow up with audience comments to keep the conversation going. Check out web app company 37 Signals blog.
Be, Befriend, or Buy a Blogger
You have established a tone and crafted the conversation you want to have with your audience, but there is still one more big hurdle. You may be the foremost thinker in the area of international toothpaste distribution, but that doesn't necessarily make you a blogger. If you look to your innerself and don't find a blogger, chances are there is someone capable within your office. It is easier, and smarter, to dictate your ideas to someone who already has a grasp on tone, than to try to "discover" it yourself. If all else fails, hire someone. Finding someone who can succinctly capture the voice of your company, while still being entertaining and conversational is essential to beating the boredom! Are you ready to breathe life into your corporate blog?
I can finally break my silence.
In July, I was lucky enough to be a part of the first ever screening for Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them. While sneak peek screenings seem like a nice movie treat, the studio did it to gather user research on the film. So, in exchange for my feedback, I got to see a highly anticipated holiday movie months before anyone else. I also signed my life away so that I wouldn’t leak any spoilers before the movie was released.
But now that Newt Scamander’s beasts have escaped I can share my viewing experience with you.
First off, the movie I saw wasn’t even finished. The Demiguise and other beasts were barely animated, and some scenes didn’t have CGI effects at all (we just saw captions about what was supposed to be going on). Also, they added a completely new supporting character and announced Johnny Depp’s cameo as Grindelwald; the movie has clearly changed.
The interesting thing is that the studio still wanted feedback on this uncompleted version of the movie. It was finished enough that it ran as a coherent story that could be critiqued, but it was also early enough in the process that changes could be made without costing a fortune.
Sandstorm® follows a similar path in project management: We test or get client feedback multiple times throughout a project to gather insights and make small changes along the way. This allows us to create informed designs, manage our resources better, and avoid redoing work because everyone was not on the same page.
To find the insights the studio was looking for they utilized 3 user research methods:
- Survey –Everyone in the theater was asked to fill out a 6-page survey. This included demographic info on the viewers, previous interest in the Harry Potter universe, and what we did and didn’t like about the human characters, beasts and the movie in general.
- Focus Group – A handful of people stayed behind to participate in a focus group and give more feedback on the movie.
- Observation–The studio had people stationed all over the theater ready to record the audience reaction (i.e., did a certain scene get the laugh they were expecting?).
This mix of research methods resulted in both qualitative and quantitative data that the studio used to tweak the movie and the marketing strategy for optimal appeal to no-majs and wizards alike.
Sandstorm is ready to apply these research methods, and many more, to help create a magical brand experience for your business.
As more brands tap into the power of stories to transform their identities and elevate their market presence, content marketing strategies become ever more essential.
Smart companies make their brand story the cornerstone of their content marketing strategy, ensuring the content they create across all media is aligned to the right platforms and consistent with the brand narrative.
“Marketing is no longer about the stuff you make,” Seth Godin reminds us, “but about the stories you tell.”
And for good reason—stories are a powerful tool in human communication. From the tales of the hunt shared by our primitive forbears as they crouched around the fire, to the well-worn narratives we tell children at bedtime, stories provide an integral means of connecting.
But what is it about stories that makes them so powerful?
Research indicates that the human brain responds to the descriptive power of stories in deeply affecting ways, influencing both the sensory and motor cortex. To read a story—or have one told to us—is to feel an experience and synchronize our minds with the subject of the story.
In a recent Princeton study, researchers call this synchronization neural coupling.
Through neural coupling, a speaker and a listener share a story that allows their brains to interact dynamically. During the process of storytelling, similar brain activity occurs in both people simultaneously, affecting the same areas of the brain.
If the story is effectively told, the listener’s brain activity mirrors the speaker’s activity. Successful neural coupling produces greater comprehension, understanding, anticipation and receptivity.
The net effect of these qualities is trust. A storyteller can literally generate trust in the audience.
But how do you achieve this?
Here are a few characteristics of a compelling story:
- It's true. Make truth the foundation of everything you create. Your marketing content should feature real people, real situations, genuine emotions and facts. It should explain, in terms people can relate to, how your brand adds value to the lives of your customers.
- It's human. Even if your company sells to other companies, focus on how your products or services touch the lives of actual people. Empathy for the target is essential. When writing about people, be specific enough to be believable and universal enough to be relevant.
- It's original. Your story should offer a fresh perspective: What's interesting about your brand? Why should people care?
- It serves the customer. If your brand story comes off feeling corporate-centric, you’ve lost the target and may never get them back. People want to read about themselves—so make sure that’s what your brand story is all about.
A great story, expertly told, builds a strong bond with your audience. Incorporating storytelling into your content marketing strategy helps you make a powerful connection and deliver your message in a profoundly personal way.
Sandstorm helps clients develop content marketing strategies and write brand stories that resonate with target audiences and build the key elements that produce trust. Let us help you write yours.
There is an insane amount of content being produced today, and it’s only going to accelerate. Content Marketing Institute reports 69% of marketers are creating more content now vs. just 1 year ago, and 48% of marketers say they publish content either daily or multiple times per week. In addition, highly-funded, rapidly growing online education startups (Khan Academy, edX, Coursera) are potentially putting your association’s educational content at risk and adding to the content storm.
To help cut through the noise, a content strategy—or a “content framework”—can be your association’s filter as you plan, develop and manage your content. How nice would it be to have the confidence to say “yes” or “no” to a content topic based on your content strategy, not to mention leadership support?
To start crafting your content strategy, follow these 5 steps:
Step 1 - Know the problem you are trying to solve
Have you defined the goals your association is trying to reach via content (increase member engagement, attract new members, increase event registrations, etc.)? Knowing from the beginning what your goals are, and getting alignment from your team, will create a more focused content strategy. It sounds basic, but I can’t tell you how many times goals are misaligned, not written down and not agreed to.
It’s also important to get to know your members’ goals. People are afraid they are not relevant anymore because they can’t keep up. Meet people where they are at—keep people relevant. If you did nothing today, but used relevancy as your filter, how much content would you have left? How useful is some of your existing content from just a few years ago?
Step 2 - Really get to know who you are trying to reach
Understanding whom you are writing for is key to content strategy, but you should not assume anything. Do your research to confirm who your members are and uncover new insights. You can conduct 1-1 user research interviews with your members and non-members to learn what type of content they want from you, identify content needs during a usability study, or even send out a survey if your association doesn’t already do that too often. For the best results, speak with members, instead of just your board and volunteers.
Step 3 - Establish your association’s voice & tone
All of your content needs to sound like it is coming from 1 voice, even though you probably have several people writing for you. You may even have volunteers, sponsors, and members writing too! Will you speak in the first person or third person? Conversational, formal, or business casual? Defining this as part of your content strategy will help create a unified voice and tone across channels, and give you guidance as you write, edit and govern your content.
Step 4 - Align your stakeholders and focus your communication
Build a content strategy statement, that can be used as a dual-filter, to omit what content you don’t need and to produce new content in line with your goals. Just like a garden, you need to weed out underperforming content to allow other content to thrive.
Step 5 - Develop a content plan
A content plan helps you define your channels, audience, purpose, topics and goals. Understanding where to deliver your content can be just as important as what content you create. Don’t feel like you need to use every channel, and reuse or edit content to fit the platform and audience (a presentation can be a webinar, video, slideshare or a blog). It’s also really great to have a plan so you know where to put that last video that was just created, or photos from your annual meeting. Many associations blast the same content to every channel, even though they know they shouldn’t, simply because there was no strategy or plan.
Without a content strategy, your association may be wasting a lot of time, money and resources. Relevant content comes from the intersection of what you think is important and what interests your members. I’m confident that your association can create stellar, focused and insightful content by taking a little time upfront to develop your content strategy.
Prefer some help?
Sandstorm® has been helping associations conduct member research, identify content requirements, and craft their narratives through content marketing for almost 20 years. And our in-house team of UX strategists and website engineers build beautiful, data-driven websites that make content easy to find, easy to consume, and easy to share. Reach out if you want to talk through how we can help!
As healthcare costs continue to rise, value-based care has emerged as a way to improve patient care and reduce costs. Value-based care departs from the traditional fee-for-service model where physicians and facilities are paid for the tests and procedures they supply, and instead institutes a patient-centered system that pays doctors and hospitals based on the quality of care they provide.
Prominent employers, private health plans, and the federal government have embraced the shift from fee-for-service to value-based payment models—including accountable care organizations, bundled payments, and patient centered medical homes—but widespread adoption has been slower than expected.
A study from Quest Diagnostics and Inovalon (PDF) implies that the adoption rate has been hindered by a lack of tools for professionals to succeed in a value-based care system. Nearly two-thirds of physicians and health plan executives said that they do not have the tools needed to succeed in a value-based care system.
It’s unlikely that this will remain an issue for long, as solutions that advance value-based care initiatives, such as health apps, are a primary focus among innovators in medtech, according to PwC’s Health Research Institute. Half of the top ten medical device companies are offering customized solutions independent of any product offerings, while 70 percent are shifting toward services-based offerings.
Many of the top healthcare technology advances to watch for 2016, as identified by the ECRI Institute, point the way toward value-based care. Mobile stroke units, wireless wearable sensors, and miniature leadless pacemakers will have significant effects on patient care and allow medical professionals to provide a holistic service inside and outside of a healthcare facility.
Sandstorm is currently working on several projects that incorporate analytics into medical and health applications and offer tools for healthcare professionals to succeed in a value-based care system. One of these innovative projects is an iPhone app for physicians and medical coders that allows them to:
- Track the number of patients moving through a facility
- Identify trends in diagnosis within facilities and across regions
- Assess physician performance
- Ensure the quality of care provided
This application can increase efficiency by enabling reassignment of patients and doctors to facilities based on need, and allowing hospital administrators to identify trends in patient care and illness to offer more effective treatment.
For medical professionals, the app will address one of the most common barriers to mobile technology in healthcare: a lack of internet connectivity in hospitals. The app will offer an offline mode, which will allow doctors to continue tracking their work as they make their rounds. Once their device reestablishes a Wi-Fi connection, the app will immediately upload data back to the server.
At Sandstorm, we’re looking forward to providing more innovative tools to providers and organizations throughout the healthcare industry that enable the implementation of a value-based care system.