Industry Insight

About the Author

javascript hook
Rachael, a white woman with curly, shoulder-length hair, smiles at the camera. She wears a mauve top and a brick building is reflected in the window behind her.
Rachael Penfil

Rachael is UX Manager and co-leads the accessibility team. Rachael advocates for users while keeping client needs in the forefront of her mind.

javascript hook
Tom Jacobs

Tom, President, uses his keen strategic eye to help clients create groundbreaking creative campaigns. And he's been a thought leader appearing on Bloomberg, WGN, NBC, CMO.com, and Wall Street Journal.  

javascript hook
Devin Owsley-Aquilia: light-skinned non-binary person smiling, with dark blonde hair pulled back, wearing a black turtleneck against a grey wall
Devin Owsley-Aquilia

Devin is Scrum Master, Agile Master Certified, co-leads the accessibility team and leads complex, enterprise web development for a diverse set of higher ed, consumer, and B2B clients.

javascript hook
Anne Lentino
Anne Lentino

Anne, as a Product Owner, enjoys the opportunity to learn about her clients' diverse fields of expertise. She consistently advocates to make the best products to support each client's growing business, while keeping workflow efficiency and creativity top of mind.

javascript hook
Laura Chaparro
Laura Chaparro

As Sandstorm's Senior Account Director, Laura helps clients grow their businesses. She has worked at both big and small agencies, with small local and global brands garnering extensive experience in B2B, B2C, and retail marketing.

javascript hook
Amanda Heberg
Amanda Heberg

As the VP, Business Development, Amanda leads new business development, sales, partnerships and marketing strategy across Sandstorm. Amanda collaborates closely with new clients to build strong, long-lasting partnerships while aligning Sandstorm's capabilities to solve client business problems.

javascript hook
Eric Savage
Eric Savage

Eric Savage is a JavaScript Developer with expert knowledge and extensive experience in front-end development.

javascript hook
Jeff Umbricht
Jeff Umbricht

Jeff is an Illinois native with a passion for web development. Making code into great things drives him every day. He’s often busy building awesome experiences for Sandstorm clients, and there’s a high probability that he’s rocking out to metal while he codes.

javascript hook
Nick Meshes
Nick Meshes

Nick is Sandstorm’s Director of Technology & Analytics. He’s boosting our quantitative focus. He’s busy increasing our capabilities in web analytics, website optimization testing, SEO, SEM, display advertising, business intelligence, and personalization.

javascript hook
Emily Kodner
Emily Kodner

Emily is our Senior Director of Client Delivery. She consults with clients, leads projects and works alongside our team of creatives and developers to provide solutions to complex business challenges.

javascript hook
Nathan Haas
Nathan Haas

Nathan is a User Interface Art Director at Sandstorm. He is a proud alum of The University of Tennessee. His main focus was print design, but he soon realized the potential of pixels. This combination of print and interactive gives him a unique view of design possibilities.

javascript hook
Andy Cullen
Andy Cullen

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

javascript hook
Janna Fiester
Janna Fiester

Sandstorm's VP of UX & Brand Innovation, Janna, is a design-thinker. Showcased in several design publications and exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, she is talented in taking nuggets of good ideas and nurturing them into solutions that are always strategic, engaging and visually delightful.

javascript hook
Alma Meshes
Alma Meshes

Alma likes to help get things done at Sandstorm. She's worn many hats in her many years here and knows a little bit about everything.

javascript hook
Sandy Marsico, Founder & CEO
Sandy Marsico

Sandy Marsico is the founder & CEO of Sandstorm®, a digital brand experience agency that turns consumer insights into engaging user experiences through our unique blend of data science, brand strategy, UX and enterprise-level technology.

Industry Insight

Reinvigorating Brands through User Experience Research

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.

This blog was posted by on December 20.
Amanda Tacker

About the Author

Amanda Tacker

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

THIS FILE WAS POSTED UNDER: 
this file was posted under: 
A Friendlier Drupal Admin

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

Sometimes there is a user experience design pattern on a site that justifies something really special. The designs for CNS.org called for 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.

This blog was posted by on December 19, 2014.
Andrew Jarvis

About the Author

Andrew Jarvis

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

this file was posted under: 
Andy
Engineering Custom Technical Solutions in Drupal

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.

 
This blog was posted by Andy on December 16, 2014.
Andy Cullen

About the Author

Andy Cullen

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

Emily Kodner
Neurosurgeons Designing Websites?

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.

This blog was posted by Emily Kodner on December 11.
Emily Kodner

About the Author

Emily Kodner

Emily is our Senior Director of Client Delivery. She consults with clients, leads projects and works alongside our team of creatives and developers to provide solutions to complex business challenges.

Working Hand-in-Hand Even When You Can’t Be Face-to-Face

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.

This blog was posted by on December 5.
Megan Culligan

About the Author

Megan Culligan

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

THIS FILE WAS POSTED UNDER: 
this file was posted under: 
An “Investment” in Rebranding: A Little Collaboration Goes a Long Way

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.

This blog was posted by on December 4, 2014.
Will Biby

About the Author

Will Biby

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

THIS FILE WAS POSTED UNDER: 
this file was posted under: 
http://www.sandstormdesign.com/blog/when-the-competition-gets-tough-the-tough-get-strategic

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.

This blog was posted by on December 3.
Kellye Blosser

About the Author

Kellye Blosser

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

THIS FILE WAS POSTED UNDER: 
this file was posted under: 
5 Tips for Improved Video Marketing

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.

This blog was posted by on November 20.
Kellye Blosser

About the Author

Kellye Blosser

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

Janna
Types of User Research - Part 4: Heuristic Evaluation

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.

[Ed. - Be sure to read the previous posts on user research approaches: In-Depth User Interviews, Card Sorting with Tree Testing, and Usability Testing.]

This blog was posted by Janna on September 9.
Janna Fiester

About the Author

Janna Fiester

Sandstorm's VP of UX & Brand Innovation, Janna, is a design-thinker. Showcased in several design publications and exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, she is talented in taking nuggets of good ideas and nurturing them into solutions that are always strategic, engaging and visually delightful.

this file was posted under: 
What is SEO and SEM?

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.

This blog was posted by on .
Jason Dabrowski

About the Author

Jason Dabrowski

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

THIS FILE WAS POSTED UNDER: 
this file was posted under: 

Pages