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.
At Sandstorm, we do a lot of website maintenance. That can mean many different types of things like development of new site components, updating old content or creating new content. With each of these different types of work there is a popular issue that can cause panic: he or she forgets to clear his or her caches after making the updates.
Nothing changed. Is the site broken?
If you’ve ever maintained a website, or maybe just updated content on one, you may have come across a situation where it looks as though your edits didn’t save. This ultimately leads into what seems like a broken website, but turns out (after consulting a developer) that you just need to “clear your cache”.
What is “cache”?
Like most people, myself included, when this first happens you are probably wondering what in the world is a “cache”. Google will tell you that it is “a collection of items of the same type stored in a hidden or inaccessible place,” but that makes me even more confused. In layman’s terms, cache is a save file that allows web pages to load faster.
When you arrive at a website, your browser takes elements of that page and saves them locally into “cache”. This way, the next time you decide to visit that specific page, your browser is going to remember how it looked the last time and, instead of downloading those pieces again, it will use what is stored in the cache to build the page. This results in a great performance boost. Unfortunately, it can, at least appear to, be a nightmare for content editors who don’t understand why their changes are not showing up on the live site.
It’s an easy issue to address
Even with this knowledge, I still come by this simple issue every so often (so don’t feel bad if you do, too). What you should remember is to clear your browser’s cache, refresh the page and see if your edits are now in place (this is particularly easy on a Drupal site). If your changes are not there after that, then you can run frantically to your local developer or IT department. Assure them that you did clear your cache, and this may actually be a real bug.
Each year we pick two team members (either ux designers or Drupal web developers), who haven’t had the chance to go to DrupalCon, and send them off to soak up the latest trends and developments within the community. This year I was lucky enough to be sent off to Austin, TX for DrupalCon 2014. Besides the wonderful food and the nice break from a cold Chicago, we were able to bring home enough valuable knowledge to influence Sandstorm’s development practices quite a bit.
One of the biggest lessons we were able to pick up was the importance of automation in web development. We have since begun implementing powerful tools such as Git, Grunt, and Bower to continuously integrate updates to the websites we have worked on. Coincidentally, these tools are essential when working with multiple developers on a single project, and this year we have expanded our development team by quite a bit.
Overall, DrupalCon has always been a great influence on the company as a whole. Not just for development, but as well with design and content strategy. The Drupal community is a very welcoming environment, as you would expect from an open source platform, which reflects our core values “learning and sharing” and is why we continue to go year after year.
I am quite proud (and excited) about our constant opportunities for employee learning and sharing here at Sandstorm. It’s even one of our core values. Having worked at other companies, learning and sharing are things that are in the “whenever we have time” category, which often translates into, well, NEVER.
In the past year, my Drupal expertise has grown exponentially thanks to Andy, Andrew, and Will. I already considered myself Drupal-savvy, but I was introduced to new ways to author complex code when the editor “fixes” things that aren’t broken. Drew recently introduced me to posting a new and different kind of content, Events, and how it’s subtly different from other kinds of content that I’ve worked on before.
In addition to Drupal web development and administrative skills, we regularly have meetings where Sandy herself shares with us company overview information, such as how we’re doing year over year (spoiler, we’re doing awesome!) as well as new business or new client wins. For other companies this sort of information would be considered “unnecessary” for everyone outside the C-suite, but at Sandstorm there is a sense of trust, openness, and responsibility. It’s helpful and instructive to know where the ship is headed, not just that I’ve been rowing as fast as a I can. Understanding the work that’s happening outside of my tasks may not be directly applicable to my day to day, but it often makes things clearer and easier to understand, especially when things change.
I’ve worked at a lot of digital marketing agencies, which gives me a unique perspective with regard to how Sandstormers approach projects. One of the biggest and most integral parts of getting any project off the ground is making sure there’s a solid marketing strategy. So for me, it’s refreshing to be part of a team that leads with a user-centered approach.
Having worked on the strategy for a technology and sales consulting firm, I’m totally sold on our methodology. By conducting in-depth user research, a thorough competitive analysis, and taking a look at industry trends, we were able to find a “white space” opportunity for our client to disrupt the market. Our brand positioning, thorough digital marketing plan, and key messaging repositioned them in sales training and SaaS.
I’m so looking forward to launching the new brand and seeing how all of the user experience research has paid off. It’s incredibly validating to see how hard work and a strong methodology reinvigorate a brand in a crowded space.
I am so proud to be part of such a talented team.
At Sandstorm, we put a lot of care into ensuring our front end website interfaces look PERFECT. We match the designs to pixel perfection from IE8 to iOS8. But we don't stop there. I wanted to take a moment to highlight some of the unsung successes in the user administration side from the past year for our Drupal web development projects.
Drupal admins can be a little overwhelming to site administrators, so we've been flexing our muscles to pare down and improve the interface for our clients. Here are three things I thought worthy of giving you a little peek under the covers!
Slimmer Admin Menus
A standard Drupal admin menu:
Our sleek pared down menu for client admins:
The Editable Fields Module
We value efficiency, and when data needs to be fixed across multiple nodes we are usually able to solve such problems with things like Views Bulk Operations. But sometimes there's no way around the need to touch every node. Sometimes a human mind has to make a decision about every one of a specific content type. Sad, but true. So when that happens, the Editable Fields module is our friend.
Here's a custom Drupal Admin view that lets our content administrators quickly and easily edit multiple nodes without navigating from page to page:
Highly Configurable Blocks
Here are some examples of the many variations of this design pattern on just one page:
And here you can see the controls used to create these variations.
Site administrators are able to edit these blocks in real-time, clicking checkboxes on the left and watch the block preview update on the right! This is a very large site, so this UX design pattern had to be flexible enough to do different jobs on hundreds of different pages.
We wanted to strike a balance between flexibility, efficiency, and consistency. This was a lot of fun, and would obviously be overkill for many situations, but when it's called for, it's very rewarding for the Drupal web developers and content admins.
One Final Tip
Sometimes it makes sense to theme Drupal's administration pages, and sometimes it just makes infinitely more business sense to use one of the default themes like Seven for the admin. One compromise we recommend is developing your own version of your favorite default theme and use that as a starting point. Don't feel like you have to brand it like the rest of the site. The Administration pages need no decoration, but it is important to use your own version so that you at least have stylesheets that you can jump in and edit where need be. This preserves the efficiency of a default theme while providing the flexibility to make customizations.
I really enjoy engineering technical solutions. When one of our clients told us that their Single Sign-On (SSO) vendor would not be ready for site launch, I jumped at the opportunity to help build an alternative method. Instead of authenticating users using the third party system with a contributed Drupal module, we would need to switch gears and authenticate against their existing in-house system. To do, so we developed a custom Drupal module that authenticated users, created their Drupal user account, and brought over the necessary user specific data fields.
This approach used a centralized authentication site that passes a token back to the requesting site, which is then verified for validity. Ultimately implementing this solution allowed the client’s multiple systems to share one login method and keep users logged in while navigating between them.
I particularly enjoyed solving the problem and ultimately coming to the client’s rescue. We’ve launched their site, which you can read about in Emily’s post, and have this added knowledge to help our clients in the future.
Looking back at 2014, one of my favorite website projects was cns.org, the responsive website for the Congress of Neurological Surgeons built in Drupal.
Why was it my favorite? Because they were strategic and truly embraced user-centered design.
A focus on user needs
User-centered design takes the subjectivity out of the decision-making process. We didn’t have to define user needs because we had talked to users firsthand. And, as it turns out, neurosurgeons are some of the most direct and decisive users that we’ve ever interviewed.
Because we interviewed stakeholders, we knew the organization’s priorities and were able to strike the right balance between business needs and user needs (hint: you can’t meet the first without meeting the second).
Navigation designed by users
Who better to organize the navigation than the users themselves? We asked CNS members to sort cards (each corresponding to a page on the site) into groups and create labels for the groups they made. Those labels became our navigation. Best practices can tell us how many menu items to have or how flat or deep to make the navigational structure, but only users can really tell us how to intuitively group and label pages and sections.
User tested designs
A neurosurgeon’s time is particularly hard to come by. To ensure we had adequate participation in our usability study, we took our wireframe prototype to the CNS Annual Meeting where we had a captive audience. This was a great opportunity to identify potential stumbling blocks and to allow users to weigh in on areas where there had been internal debate.
We love making great user experiences, and we are able to make the best experiences when we talk to users early and often. That’s why this was one of my favorite projects of 2014.
Work relationships are often like family, you don’t really get to pick them. To have the opportunity to continue to work with people you gel with is a privilege and we’re lucky enough to have several of these engagements.
Part of the Team
One marketing partnership that I work closely with is MathWorks. Our relationship is a testament to their patience and willingness to take in an external agency and guide us along the in’s and out’s of their business. We have become a part of their team going on three years, supporting their internal creative team for successful global events, among many other responsibilities.
The amount of work we’ve done with them has grown exponentially. We’re now leading several projects within their internal organizational structure, providing creative support, and working in conjunction the MathWorks creative team to support global marketing events.
Your Presence is a Present
I’m grateful for the expansion of the business side of the relationship, but I’m particularly glad for the opportunity to personally deepen the partnership and grow relationships with their team. The highlight of the past year was when our team went to the MathWorks headquarters near Boston to meet their team in person (the East Coaster wannabee in me was thrilled).
At the end of the day, the work is very important, but it’s essential to remember the impact you have on the people you interact with day in and day out. I cannot say enough positive things about having the opportunity to meet them face to face. Being in the same room made us feel like true coworkers and partners.
So today, I wanted to share how thankful I am to have had the last year elevating a great brand and working with a great group of people. With clients like them, it’s easy to carry out our mission - to do good work for good people.
One project I particularly enjoyed being a part of is the marketing for Ellwood Associates. In case you didn’t know, Ellwood delivers thoughtful investment consulting for endowments, healthcare, high-net-worth individuals, and families.
This year Sandstorm reimagined their brand based on extensive user research we conducted in 2013. (I was involved in that part of the project, too.) As the creative team worked on logos and brand boards, I got the opportunity to work alongside Ellwood to revise all of their web content. Based in their positioning, we crafted a voice and tone for the brand that represent their extremely thoughtful approach.
Being active in the research portion of the process, I knew the audience’s needs and I knew how they spoke–literally, I heard how they talked about their businesses through the interview. It was rewarding to build website content after being involved with every step along the way. This has resulted in clear and thoughtful copy that meets Ellwood’s needs, user needs, and best practices, too.
As a thoughtful client, their attention to detail with marketing echos their attention to detail when consulting for their clients. I’m excited for the launch of this new brand and to see how their new marketing efforts impact both their business and the marketplace.
Doing competitive research is never an easy process. It’s like looking for buried treasure, only you have no map and you’re not sure what the treasure looks like or where you might find it. Experience has taught me that there’s always treasure, but sometimes it takes a lot of digging.
This summer, our team was in the middle of an expansive competitive set, looking at a very crowded space. We were repositioning a brand, so what we needed to find was something unique about our client that would set them apart from the many, many competitors they were up against. After weeks of research, we put all our findings together and there it was: an area in which our client excelled that all of their competitors were neglecting.
We got to work on the positioning and compiled a detailed presentation illustrating the research and strategy behind it. A few days before the due date, everything was set...
Then one of the competitors unveiled their new website. It was sleek, contemporary and focused. And it applied the same strategy we had just laid out for our client.
So what did we do? We hunkered down and dug some more. Three very busy days and a couple of take-out dinners later, and we had located another space, built another marketing strategy and hit the deadline.
The fact is, these things happen. Sometimes your perfect plan comes crumbling down. However, I’m proud that we have a team who doesn’t give up when that happens, but who stand up, dust themselves off, and give it another go.