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.
Stay Sane with a Strong Central Brand Experience Strategy
With the complexity that modern marketers are faced with, it is no surprise that many feel overwhelmed. In actuality, this feeling that you are drowning in your own marketing can be avoided with a strong central strategy. In this post we will show you how to get ahead of your marketing instead of reacting to problems on an individual case-by-case basis - or what we call marketing Whack-a-Mole.
How Do I Start?
To start building your brand experience strategy, establish your goals and the measurement of those goals. From there you should delve deep into your organization and document all of the things the organization is doing well, what it could do better and where the gaps are to achieving consistent excellence. Many times this can take the form of a journey map. This helps the organization visualize the challenges and prioritize the work needed to produce great marketing.
Talk to Your Users
Once you have done a thorough analysis from the inside, garner feedback from the outside with 1x1 interviews across your user groups. This will illuminate those things you can’t see due to organizational blindness and will ensure the experience the organization creates exceeds the needs of your user groups.
Look At Possibilities
There are a few other pieces of data that are needed to create a truly inspired brand experience strategy that builds momentum for your organization and, ultimately, your brand. Look at 3-5 competitors in your category. This will give you a sense of where there are opportunities in your category. Don’t stop here. Think about some inspirational brands, approximately three, to see how your brand experience can truly stand out in your category.
Hypothesize, Analyze, Iterate, Plan
After collecting all of this data, take some time to analyze it. Formulate some hypotheses about where you could take your organization. Distill the data into a brand experience strategy that can, at its best, be a guidebook across your organization to define expectations from hiring policies to product development priorities, as well as your marketing communication.
This process will ensure that you can successfully manage your reputation and cultivate the brand experience that you aspire to be. Your brand will clearly, consistently, and quickly convey the story and the reputation you have built.
Here Is How to Make it Healthy Again.
So, I recently heard Michael Fertik speak at SMASH Chicago 2015 and he started his talk with an incendiary statement for a room full of marketing people: “Brand is dead.” I understand why he said this, he was trying to make a point about the depth and breadth of an online reputation and overall footprint of an organization in contrast to a traditionally managed brand.
Reputation Management Is Important
I agree with him on the importance of online reputation management. I also agree with him that managing a reputation is about more than just the marketing materials that are carefully crafted and displayed to the public. I agree with him that business practices, hiring practices, sourcing practices, distribution decisions, operational structures and many other factors that were never supposed to see the light of day are now easily unearthed and actively criticized by the public.
Brand Is Not Dead, It’s Bigger
The one fundamental disagreement I have is that brand is not dead, but more important than ever in this cluttered age of information everywhere, anytime, all of the time. Brand is bigger than it once was, exactly due to the challenges of reputation management.
For example, REI has made an operation decision to close on Black Friday and encourage the public to get outside. This is a tangible representation of their campaign and has fueled their social media. It is fundamentally who they are as an organization and what the REI brand means. Another example is Zappo’s outsize customer service. They made a choice to build service on one metric, making the customer surprised and delighted. This built the Zappo’s brand to what it is today.
Branding is about your entire business, not just your logo. In order to be relevant, your brand must seep through the pores of your organization. It must be lived in how one hires, prices, serves, produces, distributes and communicates. It is the connective tissue of your organization.
Brand Experience Strategy: A Framework
The comprehensiveness of modern marketing has many marketers throwing up their hands and resorting to a scattered Whack-A-Mole approach. The antidote to this frenzied situation is brand experience strategy and planning. Creating a framework that looks at the fundamentals of an organization - like pricing, distribution, the product/service and the overall industry landscape - through the lens of a user gives you a compass to unify your marketing efforts. These users can be anyone who engages with your organization on any level, and there are usually many: employees, investors, customers and potential customers. Getting to know your users, their actions, beliefs, wants and fears, will enable you to cater to them at every touchpoint, building a brand that is big enough to cover everything modern marketing demands of you.
Brand is not dead, it is more relevant than ever. A well-researched brand experience strategy will take your brand off of life support and make it healthy again.
We’re thrilled and honored to be featured by Crain's Chicago Business! In addition to the fun, theatrical and unique half-day photo shoot (a quick shout out to John Boehm for the awesome photos), we were able to share some secrets of hiring success alongside some fellow Chicago business owners. Now, if only we could have brought in our New York office for the shoot. Miss you, guys!
[This is second post of a series on choosing a CMS. Check out Part 1, and learn about the importance of your goals and requirements in the process]
Now that you have a solid set of requirements for your content management system (CMS), you can start to explore some different options. To narrow the conversation, it's sometimes helpful to consider them as a balance between simplicity versus flexibility.
5 approaches from simple to flexible
1: No development needed
Starting on one side, you'll find the most simple subscription-based solutions that require no development and minimal setup. As an example, think of a blogging site for which you just need to create an account. The options are limited. It doesn't give you much more than a running list of posts that you can create and edit. Google Blogger and Tumblr are examples. While some border on being social media more than CMS, they are in fact services that allow you to manage your content.
2: Simple and customizable
Moving up from there, you have simple frameworks that provide a medium amount of customization. This can be anything from services like SquareSpace to platforms like Ghost and Wordpress. These are designed to get you up and running quickly, but also allow you to heavily customize your site.
At this level, you can sometimes add basic online stores. You can create a unique look and feel. With something like Wordpress, you can even add some custom functionality. Eventually when dealing with options in this category you'll find that you're trying to do things for which the framework just wasn't built, so you'll move closer to flexibility.
3: Scalable and flexible solutions
The next level up are the more scalable and flexible solutions. Options like Drupal, SiteCore or AdobeCQ are in this category. While they are very different frameworks, they all have some basic preconceived notions about how content should be managed and structured. These are solutions that get you quickly up and going, but they are also intended for heavy customization. Advanced custom functionality can be added on top of them. Some can even be extended to the point where they are more than just a website and terms like "web application" start to emerge.
They are meant to be fast to deploy because much of the structure of how to manage your content has already been determined. However, this ease of deployment and development can sometimes come with the penalty of rigidity. Once you start to stray outside of their assumptions about how content should be managed, things can start to get messy. It's like strapping a howitzer on a sports car. Sure, we can get it to mostly work, but it just wasn't designed to do that.
4: Frameworks for fully custom sites
At the far extreme you find frameworks for custom-built applications that allow for advanced integrations, workflows, relationships and functionality. These are true development frameworks that allow you to build your own CMS or web application. Laravel and Django are two examples that fit in this category. They make sense when basic management of content is a secondary requirement, trumped by custom functionality. Or perhaps the structure of the content is unique enough that trying to get it to fit into some of the options in the previous category would not be ideal.
The primary benefit is that your application is faster because it was built to do exactly what you want. The primary downside is that it may cost more to build because you have more custom code and less community-tested extensions that effortlessly drop into your new site.
5: From the ground up
Of course out at the furthest edge you'll find the "from the ground up" option. This would be to pick a language and build a completely custom solution, without taking advantage of any frameworks. There are reasons that you'd do this, but if you're looking for a CMS, you're probably better off considering one of the many frameworks that exist today.
Proprietary versus Open Source
One of the key decisions is to consider when choosing a CMS whether you want to go with one that is proprietary software versus one that is open-source.
Proprietary software brings licensing fees and/or ongoing hosting fees. These fees are often in addition to the work required to design, configure, customize and host your site. Solutions like SquareSpace, SiteCore, AdobeCQ and others are businesses that provide a service in order to make money.
For some of these, the costs can get quite high (the average AdobeCQ license can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars). This can be fine if the CMS fits your needs. After all, part of what you're theoretically purchasing is the peace-of mind that if something goes wrong, that vendor will be there to help.
In contrast, open-source software is free to download and use. Solutions like Wordpress, Drupal, Django and Laravel are all built by a community of developers and released under open licenses. Generally you want to look for a knowledgeable partner who you feel confident can properly build your CMS solution using one of these frameworks.
A final step is to consider your budget. You can make strategic decisions to create a CMS-based site with a small budget or invest heavily in some items to ensure your site covers the full extent of your needs.
Maintaining your site after launch
A final cost consideration is ongoing maintenance and support. If you are considering a proprietary solution, be sure to budget for the ongoing licensing fees. You should also double check that these fees cover ongoing upgrades and security fixes.
If you are considering an open source solution, be sure to set aside some of your budget to have your developer perform security updates and proactive maintenance. In either case, consider also setting aside some budget for support requests – minor feature requests and other changes to how the site functions. Properly considering your ongoing maintenance and support costs will help you to finalize the amount you have to build your CMS.
Making your final CMS decision
With the term CMS covering such a wide range of digital platforms, it's no wonder that many feel overwhelmed when choosing one. Defining your goals and requirements can help you to navigate your options. We've found that walking through these steps is a great way to reduce apprehension, provide clarity and deliver a solid final product. We hope you find them useful also.
[If you enjoyed this post, read Part 1: Goals and Requirements]
Deciding which Content Management System (CMS) to use can be a daunting task. It can be difficult to sort through the plethora of irrelevant recommendations and confusing information to find the best solution. Many of our clients come to us with a rough sense of what they want, but need help making the final recommendation.
How to compare CMS?
Comparing Content Management Systems is challenging because it means different things to different people. The phrase has evolved to cover a range of web frameworks and applications. It is a broad term that covers any program which facilitates content creation and updates (usually on the web). On top of that, many popular CMS options are highly customizable – two sites built on the same framework can look very different.
Going beyond the simple editing of an organization's "About Us" page, modern websites demand a great flexibility in how they handle content. They often need different types of content, each one requiring specific workflows or relationships aimed at solving various goals. For example, consider the differences between a blog post, an event listing, and a product detail page. Each one has unique data associated with it. Each one is organized in different ways. Being able to handle unique types of content while still providing a consistent interface is an important part of any CMS.
A CMS often has other advanced functionality. They pull content in from other systems. Some integrate with different authentication systems. Some have an online stores. Others allow a community of users to login and participate in some way. Still others might pull in raw data from one source to display it to users in a completely new way. These are all managing different kinds of content at some level.
Not every site needs every possible option. So, what does it your site need? It's good to get back to your goals and requirements. Your website has needs that are just as unique as your organization. A needs-based assessment can help to focus your requirements and narrow down the search.
Start by defining your goals. Create a list of what you want to achieve with this new CMS. Starting with your goals will help to focus your efforts.
- What problems are you looking to solve?
- Are you looking to increase your brand perception as part of this project?
- Is increased membership or sales a primary goal?
- If you have a current website, what is it not doing well?
- How will your CMS need to support your organization?
Identify and prioritize your requirements
Once you have a good list, start writing a list of requirements. Some will just require a quick rephrase of a stated goal. Others will lead to a whole new list of items. For example, if your goal is to publish your events calendar online, but your events are currently managed in a different system, integration with that system is a potential requirement.
Next start to prioritize these requirements. Rank your requirements from must-haves to nice-to-haves. This exercise helps you make the most informed decisions as you start to build your budget. Some items might need to come in a second phase after the first version of the site launches.
Eliminate some options from the start
Understanding your organization's technical requirements can also help to eliminate some options. For example, if your IT infrastructure requires you to use .Net, then a Ruby, Python or PHP-based solution (like Drupal) may not be possible. More and more these restrictions are no longer a problem with modern hosting options, but it's one of the first questions to ask.
[Continue to Part 2: Consider Your Options]
Our relationship with Urban Innovations began way back in 2007 when we originally designed their website. So by the time 2015 rolled around, we were all in agreement that it was time to give the site a fresh, new look with a user experience design that would attract new tenants and investors alike.
In addition to the Drupal website development project, we took this opportunity to reflect upon the evolution of the Urban Innovations brand. We worked closely with Urban Innovations to develop their new brand positioning and value proposition to ensure that the web content clearly and directly communicates what visitors want and need to know, all while optimizing the content for search engines.
The end result: an easily updatable, responsive website that communicates the Urban Innovations difference. The tablet and mobile menus make the site easily accessible on any device, and the parallax on the homepage draws visitors into the experience. The commercial and affordable property sections allow Urban Innovations to show off their real estate portfolio while also providing users with pertinent information about amenities and neighborhood details.
Check out the new urbaninnovations.com, and you’ll see why we’re so excited about it!
[This is Sandstorm's 2015 April Fool's Day post. Enjoy!]
Anyone involved in mobile usability or mobile user interface design is familiar with the hamburger menu icon.
But where did this icon come from? Why is it called a "hamburger"? Today we uncover it's interesting origins and how you can change how you use it on your sites to be more user friendly.
Hamburgers and Navigation are Linked Historically
The connection between hamburgers and navigation has a long history. Hamburg the city from which the sandwich derives its name, was once known as one of the busiest port cities in all of Europe. Located on the Elbe, it has easy access to the North Sea and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean. As a hub for shipping commerce for centuries, Hamburg became well known for the production of accurate maps, compasses, and astrolabes.
Thus, the best way to get from one port to the next was, in effect, to use “Hamburger Navigation.” In fact, it is believed that the beloved sandwich came to the U.S. as the Hamburg steak served to passengers on the Hamburg-America Line steamships.
Its "Iconic" Origin
The history of the hamburger menu icon is quite unclear. While conducting our research, we encountered the earliest depiction of three parallel lines being clicked. Below you will be this example from Egyptian hieroglyphics. We are unsure whether actually touching these would have triggered a secret passage or simply were used as a guide for readers, i.e. “you are going in the right direction.”
At the time of hieroglyphics, hamburgers didn’t exist (nor did Hamburg the city). How did these Egyptian and German roots “stack up” to be the icon we know today?
One hypothesis is that while most Egyptian tombs were being excavated in the early 20th century, the popularity of the hamburger as a sandwich was rising. The more likely hypothesis is that that three horizontal parallel lines looks like a hamburger, albeit a minimalist one. (Taken literally, it looks much more like a grilled cheese or a filet-o-fish.) Or so we thought.
Finding the hamburger menu online
We did some Internet excavation of our own using the Wayback Machine. We reviewed a number of websites related to fast food burger joints. Here we encountered a revelation, the first McDonald’s website and what did we find? A hamburger menu.
While this icon directed users to the restaurant menu to order food, it’s clear that this is the first, and most literal use of this now beloved means of getting from page to page on a website. This visual cue being paired with with the historical aspect of “Hamburger Navigation,” is quite possibly the result of a happy accident.
Even today, Five Guys Burgers and Fries uses a hamburger icon for all iterations of their responsive websites.
How can we make these icons more appealing to users?
You may also be aware of some of the research related to the position of the hamburger menu and whether or not including a label with the word ‘menu’ above or below the icon increases users understanding of the icon (it does).
While we’ve adopted the practice of including labels with icons to improve user understanding and reduce the cognitive load, we’ve been experimenting with a variety of designs for the hamburger menu icon. In particular we wanted to answer the question, can a more realistic hamburger icon affect the site’s user experience? If so, what factors contribute to a better experience? Below are some of the icons we tested along with their results.
Result: Users experienced minimal usability issues but felt the overall site experience was missing something.
Recommendation: Consider toppings to improve visual appeal. Remember, users navigate with their eyes!
Result: Very few usability issues uncovered. 85% of users tested found this to be the most satisfying version.
Recommendation: Your go-to icon for most audiences. Consider adding a fried egg and bacon to enhance the experience.
Result: Users anticipated a longer menu due to the additional layers. Some users felt tired after navigating.
Recommendation: A/B test to determine the appetite for site pages from your users.
Result: Inconclusive, very few users were able to complete all tasks in the study. Caused confusion among international audiences.
Recommendation: Less is more. May be useful when you need to increase the size of your user base.
Result: Tested well with children.
Recommendation: Avoid the use of ketchup.
Result: Great usability but the experience came across as dry.
Recommendation: Consider toast as possibility instead of a kaiser roll or spice it up with some hot sauce!
Result: No usability issues uncovered but users were generally dissatisfied with the experience.
Recommendation: Not suitable for the main menu. Save this for the side navigation on the desktop version.
The more delicious the user perceives the hamburger to be, the better the user experience. Get to know your users, preferences vary depending on the use case.
Hieroglyphics - https://4815162342execute.wordpress.com/lost-themes/hieroglyphs/
Grilled Cheese: http://monosnap.com/file/omYgQ6PlveSIeEXUPezbKMEZdLc21e
If you haven’t realized yet, this post is a complete joke. Happy April Fool’s. Here’s the real history of the hamburger icon.
Sandstorm is proud to once again be involved in Drupal MidCamp. MidCamp (also known as the Midwest Drupal Camp) is an annual event held in Chicago that brings together people who use, develop, design, and support Drupal. This year’s MidCamp will be March 19-22, 2015 at the UIC Student Center East.
Sandstorm is a bronze sponsor this year, and we’ve got web developers, strategists, and web designers attending. Last year, I had the pleasure of speaking about user research techniques, which was a blast. This year I'm looking forward to mingling with regional Drupal developers and attending sessions on Drupal 8, "headless" Drupal, and automated testing.We're also on the look out for another solid Front End Developer here at Sandstorm. If that's you, get in touch.
You don't have to be a developer to get something out of MidCamp. There are plenty of promising sessions for people new to Drupal and project managers working with the CMS. We hope to see you there, and have some fun!
Congratulations on launching your new Drupal website. You can now rest assured that you never have to think about it again. It will automatically generate revenue and keep itself running for decades to come. Pat yourself on the back and have a drink. Your website is complete.
Well... this might not be entirely true.
In reality your website is never really finished. Just like with a car or home, things degrade over time. Your website is no different and you need to have a website maintenance plan.
What is website maintenance?
It is the process of keeping your website up to date and running smoothly. It involves applying security patches, monitoring web server performance, and maintaining your code base. This is on top of maintaining your content, products and/or users. You gotta do that, too. Major reasons to have a maintenance plan include security, performance, backups, and other considerations.
Hackers are always looking for ways to compromise websites through new techniques or insecure code. It’s critical your website remains as secure as possible. This often involves applying security patches or software upgrades both at the code and server levels. One advantage to open source software like Drupal, is the community of developers finding security holes and contributing patches.
This is also a double edged sword. Once hackers identify a security hole, they can exploit it by targeting unmaintained sites. You are running a huge risk if you’re running a Drupal site and not keeping up with Drupal core and module security upgrades.
Performance affects the amount of time it takes for your website to load for a user on their device. This includes time to complete transactions like adding a product to a cart or submitting a form. Good website performance is good usability. Users will abandon a poorly performing website never to return. It’s also good for search engine optimization (SEO).
We include performance testing and tweaking as part of the launch process. Yet, performance can degrade over time as code, content, or the server environment changes. Perhaps your site’s traffic has increased and now requires more resources to meet user needs. Wouldn’t that be great? It is great if you’re monitoring your traffic, server performance, and page load times so you can ramp up to meet the demand.
Another component of a good website maintenance strategy is a solid backup and restore plan. Most web hosts keep some level of back ups and will either restore your site as part of your hosting package or for a fee.
While this provides a safety net, they usually only keep a short window of backups. You may need to restore your site to an earlier point than your host has kept. Or you may need to restore to a point since your host’s last backup. A defined backup strategy allows you to quickly bring your site back online whatever the case may be.
Each website page links to internal pages and external websites. These links can change over time as content expires and changes or as sites get redesigned. Keeping an eye on broken links and updating or adding redirects when urls change should be part of your maintenance plan. Broken links are detrimental to your SEO.
It’s a good practice to test and confirm that each of your web forms are working as expected, this may include contact us, event registration, and newsletter signup forms. Hopefully you’re seeing regular submissions, but it’s possible another update affected these forms. We like to confirm everything is still working after applying other updates to a site.
Development and staging environments
When implementing development updates, you should avoid deploying new code and patches to your live website. It’s important to have a separate deveopment environment for developing and testing new features and security updates. You use a staging environment to review and confirm these updates before releasing them on your live website.
The value of maintenance
The cost of website maintenance outweighs the cost of fixing problems caused by a lack of maintenance. A website maintenance plan is an added level of insurance against security and server-related issues that can cause grief and lost revenue. At the end of the day, a well-maintained site is another component of a great user experience.
Need help with Drupal website maintenance? Get in touch.
The American Academy of Pediatrics came to us with a great goal. They were planning a project in conjunction with the National Center for Medical Home Implementation (NCMHI). It would be a fun, educational microsite specifically built for the pediatrics community. Excited about the possibility of creating a healthcare microsite with a twist, we came on board.
The microsite’s mission is to educate users about a concept known as a “medical home.” The term refers not to a place, but to a system of proven best-practices for providing healthcare to kids. If we do our job well, the microsite will help clinics put these practices into action. The impact on children’s lives will be phenomenal.
Creating the site was a collaborative process. We worked closely with NCMHI to determine a user experience design that everyone from government policymakers to parents to pediatricians would find to be a useful, intuitive tool. We were able to give it a look that’s playful while still giving context to the information the site delivers. From there, we built the site using responsive web development so it would function smoothly for users on any device.
The microsite recently launched and we couldn’t be happier with the results. If you’re interested in seeing the final product, check out NCMHI's responsive website.