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 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.
The days of debating the merits of video marketing are over. With 100 million viewers watching at least one online video per day, it’s no wonder that 87% of content marketers are now integrating some form of video content into their campaigns.
However, while the majority of content marketers are actively employing video marketing, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about optimizing video content for the best results. These five tips will help you create video marketing content that’s worth your investment.
1. Establish a Goal Up Front
Video is a tool for a achieving a goal, not the goal itself. Before you begin, make a solid decision on what you’d like your video marketing content to achieve. Is it spreading the word about a promotion? Driving traffic to your website? Providing answers to viewer questions?
Once you’ve established a clear objective, it will be easier to make use of my next tip...
2. Trim Off the Fat
Because video marketing is viewed as a large expense, it’s common for marketers to try to use one video to send out multiple messages. Resist this urge.
Video audiences are impatient. They hit the play button with expectations and will not hesitate to click away if those expectations aren’t met. If you don’t get to the point, and get to it fast, you’ll be putting on a show for an empty house.
Ask yourself, “what’s the one central message we want viewers to come away with?” and cut everything else. No exceptions.
But wait! What if you have different audience segments, and you need a different message for each one? That brings me to my next tip...
3. One Size Doesn’t Have to Fit All
Contrary to popular belief, video is not an inflexible medium. It can easily be adjusted to meet the needs of different audiences.
The best way to tailor video marketing content is to produce multiple versions. People are often reluctant to do this because they think making more than one video won’t be cost effective. That assumption simply isn’t true. If you plan carefully, you can economize many aspects of production to turn your single video into a video series without draining the bank.
For instance, you may be able to record two voiceover tracks within the same session fee, or recycle footage from one video to the next.
Publish each video in the right place with the right keywords, and your video marketing content will yield much better results.
4. Embrace the Brand
If you want to build brand recognition, your logo can’t do all the work! Many marketers only brand their video content through graphics, but there are many opportunities to solidify your brand within your video marketing content.
- Start with the script. Don’t just proof for message. Take the time to put all dialogue or voiceover in the right voice and tone for your company.
- Think through your casting. The talent featured in your video should be a reflection of your brand personality.
- Consider location. Even if you can’t afford a set stylist, make sure to pull in your brand colors wherever possible. A red mug on the desk or orange curtains in the background can go a long way toward building brand recognition within your video content. Wardrobe offers further opportunities to solidify the brand identity in your audience’s mind.
- Make direction a priority. A good director will take your brand into account in everything from the style of camerawork to the lighting setup. A good editor will consider your brand in the pace and tone of the video, as well as soundtrack selection.
In short, if you want to increase brand recognition, the brand must be present throughout your video marketing content.
5. Don’t Settle
Video audiences have extremely high expectations. They’re used to Hollywood scale productions and are unforgiving of content that falls short of this bar.
No one expects you to have action movie special effects, but they do want to see a clear picture and hear crisp sound without interference (in video terms, this would be referred to as having “high production values”).
More importantly, they want to see content that lands. If your video is supposed to be funny, don’t accept a joke that doesn’t make you laugh. If it’s supposed to tug the heartstrings, don’t settle for a story you don’t care about.
At the end of the day, the extra effort will pay off in higher audience retention and better results.
Putting it All Together
While some of these points may seem intuitive, a vast majority of video marketing ignores these rules. Apply them to your next video and your content will be ahead of the game. With a stronger video component to your content marketing strategy, you are opening your brand to more user engagements and ultimately a higher return on your investment.
A heuristic evaluation is the review of your website or software by a usability expert to identify any usability problems. This typically involves scoring your site against commonly recognized usability best practices (the heuristics) and may also include running through a series of tasks or use cases. It is a more informal research method than usability testing with your end users.
Why should I use this approach?
Heuristic evaluations help:
- Identify usability issues when testing with real users is not possible or practical
- Benchmark your site against recognized usability standards
- Check your site for accessibility issues and Section 508 or WCAG 2.0 compliance
When should I conduct a heuristic evaluation?
You can conduct an evaluation to:
- Improve an existing system when you are unable to do a usability study
- Gauge the current user experience when you take over maintenance or management of an existing website or application
- Meet certain site compliance standards (such as 508 or WCAG 2.0)
A second option for usability testing
While we prefer testing with end users, a heuristic evaluation is a reasonable substitute for a usability study when a study with your site users is not possible or practical. There are some things to keep in mind when you decide to make this substitution:
- You will be missing the context and nuances of testing with real site users, particularly in uncovering issues with content and labeling
- A heuristic evaluation doesn’t necessarily prioritize the issues found
When clients come to us to test an existing site, it usually doesn’t make sense to do both a heuristic evaluation and a usability study. You get the most insight by testing with your users in a usability study, but if that’s not possible, a heuristic evaluation is a reasonable substitute.
How do I conduct a heuristic evaluation?
Here is an outline of a process to follow:
1. Define your heuristics. There are several good lists available online. Jakob Nielsen has developed a standard list of website heuristics that are commonly used. We’ve adapted several sources to create our own set of heuristics. From a high level you want to answer some basic questions like:
- Is the system intuitive to use?
- Is the user experience consistent?
- Does the user have a sense of control?
- Is it clear to the user what they should do?
- Is it clear to the user where they are in the system?
- Does the system provide feedback to the user about how to correct errors?
- Is help provided?
- Is the user interface aesthetically pleasing?
Some of the questions we use to get there include:
- Are navigation and page titles easy to find and use?
- Are links easy to identify?
- Are font sizes and spacing easily readable?
- Is the color contrast between design elements stark enough for easy legibility?
- Is it clear what each action does?
- Is it clear what path to take?
- Are error messages provided and are they clear and easy to understand?
- Does the site work well on multiple devices and smaller screens?
2. Conduct the analysis. We use a collaborative form on Google Drive to list the heuristics, score each one, and note our comments. When practical, we have more than one usability expert conduct the analysis and compare notes.
3. Analyze the results. Then you can make improvements to your site.
The end result of this evaluation is a research report with key findings and recommendations.
Putting all user research methods together
There is both an art and science to all of the research methods covered in this four part series. This is particularly true when it comes to interpreting results and finding solutions. What looks like a single usability issue might actually be a symptom of a larger problem.
Some answers will be clear while others may require a bit more digging. In any case, you will inevitably find ways to improve the user experience. With practice, the art of user research and testing will come.
The real key is to talk to your users and involve them in the design process. It’s important to talk with them about their needs for your site and your business. By listening to your users, you’ll be on your way to building valuable and intuitive experiences that will keep them coming back.
We’ve all been there. People talk about Search Engine Marketing and Search Engine Optimization and we just nod and smile. We then wonder, “What is Search Engine Marketing and Search Engine Optimization?” Well, here’s an overview and why you should care.
What is Search Engine Optimization?
When you have a website, or even just a page, you want to make sure people can find you. If you’re selling a product, a service, retail, wholesale, or soliciting nonprofit donations, Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, helps bring people to your website.
How does that work?
Search engines like Bing, Google, and Yahoo! (the “SE” in SEO) regularly index the Internet, crawling around and noting what kind of content is on websites across the web. Whenever someone searches for “socks” or “melamine,” search engines look for websites with those keywords and phrases and display them on their results pages. This is sometimes called organic optimization because the result order happens by way of natural or “organic” indexing of sites. These positions cannot be purchased, but can be influenced by optimization.
Okay, so how do I “optimize?”
Keywords and key phrases! If you’re selling melamine sock organizers, it helps to periodically research what words and phrases your potential customer uses in searches. Do they look for “melamine sock caddy” more often? Perhaps they’ve adopted slang or creative spellings such as “sox” or phrases like “getting my socks in a row.”
When you’ve identified the keywords and key phrases your customers and potential clients are searching for, you can start making sure they’re included in your website pages, blog posts, social media posts, and any company profiles you have on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, or other websites.
So, what is Search Engine Marketing?
Search Engine Marketing, or SEM, is the umbrella term for, well, all forms of search engine marketing. Whereas SEO focuses only on organic search results, SEM includes paid advertising on search engines. Google, Bing, Yahoo!, and others sell advertising space in the form of search results.
When someone searches for “socks” or “melamine,” they will find ads beside the organic results, organized by keyword bids and ranking in addition to relevance. These ads are typically at the top of search results, before the organic spots, or in a sidebar to the right.
So, how does that work?
There are a couple different services search engines offer. Perhaps the most commonly known service is Pay-Per-Click, or PPC. This displays ads alongside search results for a set period of time and within your budget.
You only pay when your ads are clicked on by users and you can set a budget that fits your business. (So, you don’t end up owing a search engine your first born.) If your budget is set at $20 per month, the search engine will offer up your ad until you reach your limit. When the $20 worth of clicks are achieved, the ad stops showing and you won’t be charged further.
You should care!
Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Marketing are important foundational pieces in your marketing activities. Search engines are a pivotal driver of traffic to websites. More traffic means more opportunity for sales, donations, new clients, or readers.
If you don’t have an expert in-house you can easily find a partner to help get your SEO and SEM campaigns off the ground, or steer them in a more focused and effective direction. No matter what your target, business model, or traffic goals are, SEO and SEM can effectively scale your digital presence.
Lately there has been a significant uptick in clients approaching us to help them better differentiate themselves in a more crowded and complex marketplace. Many of these clients have been doing business as usual for years with several marketing tactics in place, but have noticed that they are not quite getting new customers like they had historically.
They are at a loss with how they can instigate growth without significantly increasing their marketing budgets.
A Way for Companies to Stand Out
The most effective tool that we use at Sandstorm to assist our clients stand out effectively is to define a positioning. Our process takes into account the cultural DNA of our clients’ organizations, disruptive aspects of their offerings and aligns what they offer with rational, emotional, and motivational drivers of their markets.
This information is distilled into one statement that represents what the organization means to their customers and future customers – a positioning statement.
What Does it Mean to Have Positioning?
Positioning in marketing does exactly what it’s name suggests. It positions a company strategically in an attainable aspirational direction. Although one sentence, it is a powerful discipline that forces the organization to focus on what it stands for and what that means for its customers and potential customers.
This focus is critical in the frenetic pace of a digital society. It gives clarity and purpose to every marketing decision that needs to be made and makes sure your target market easily and readily understands your brand and why they should care.
Arriving at a Positioning Statement
The best positioning statements are built from thorough primary and secondary user experience research. At Sandstorm we utilize UX practices to enhance the insights we get with our primary research. This means giving the respondent the opportunity to expound on what is important to them and less about what the protocol might assume is important. A more organic, conversational approach allows us to garner more insights with less respondents, saving time and money.
Our secondary research is also more fluid and organic. Instead of listing out the marketing tactics and individual messaging across a set of competitors, we look at overall trends inside and outside a specific industry. That way we can more clearly find white space opportunities for our clients. This actually takes a bit more time than traditional secondary research, but it pays off with greater differentiation for our clients and a stronger overall position.
The Value of a Positioning Statement
With cross-functional collaboration and a distributed workforce, it’s more and more difficult to align an organization on what they offer to customers. A positioning statement is a tool that can align an entire organization and create clear boundaries for decision-making. It also ensures that all marketing decisions on product changes or developments, pricing and distribution are aligned to portray a consistent and differentiated offering to the marketplace.
Ensuring Your Communication Provides Maximum ROI
Finally a good positioning in marketing, used correctly, guarantees all of your organization’s marketing communication is focused. Every time a potential customer encounters your brand online, in-person or in advertising they will receive the same message. This amplifies your difference and delivers a stronger ROI on your marketing communication.
If you think your company is ready for strategic repositioning, please email me directly. We would love to move you forward in the marketplace.