Inside Sandstorm

About the Author

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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.  

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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.

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Eric Savage
Eric Savage

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Andy Cullen
Andy Cullen

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

Inside Sandstorm

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Janna
User Experience Design Firm in Chicago, UX Agency

At Sandstorm, our creative team and user experience design architects provide our clients with partial and/or full access to all phases in our user-centered design methodology. With an onsite usability lab, we can quickly test wireframe prototypes, UX design comps, content comprehension, navigation terminology, conversions, and user flows. UX designers, user experience design architects, writers, and developers collaborate throughout. Below are the 6 steps to our UX design methodology:

Step 1: Define the problem and establish metrics 
To get the most out of your UX research, we start by determining your objectives. For example, are we looking to increase sales, newsletter sign-ups, whitepaper downloads, conference attendance, etc? Or are we trying to reduce bounce or abandonment rates? Maybe we have a new feature or piece of functionality we want to drive more use of? Whatever the objective, we'll help define metric(s) to track your ROI.

Step 2: Conduct user research and develop personas
Starting with 1:1 in-depth interviews, we begin to identify a user's content and functional requirements, purchasing rationale, behaviors, and trends. We mold our user research insights in a form to drive extraordinary creative results through the development of a persona. Personas provide a noticeable advantage by creating a face to represent an entire group. Before deciding on a creative direction, questions are posed related to a specific persona’s motivation, needs, and biases to increase the user’s experience.

Step 3: Map out your customer's journey and identify user flows
Utilizing data visualization in the form of a customer journey map, business stakeholders can quickly see their how their customer interacts with their brand along with an understanding of the steps necessary considerating a variety of scenarios. Developing user flows help identify additional functional and content requirements, in addition to technology rules and necessary integrations. 

Step 4: Explore information architecture (IA) through the eyes of your user 
Centered around the “persona,” our creative UX team develops high-level IA concepts and potential wireframe solutions that satisfy both business and user requirements. This is an open-ended brainstorm to dream up creative solutions without boundaries. When questions arise, a variety of research approaches including card sorting activities and participatory design studies can reduce subjectivity.

Step 5: Create with an iterative, data-driven design process
After selecting the strongest ideas from the brainstorming and information architecture phase, initial creative concepts are designed. The creative is elaborated, refined, and tested to ensure the best user experience taking into consideration both the science and art of aligning with your brand.

Step 6: Conduct usability testing, analyze findings and identify recommendations
The goal is to observe how your customers function in a realistic manner. Starting with real-life scenarios, Sandstorm will observe and take notes while a user performs the task to get to the core of what works and what doesn’t on a website, mobile device, tablet, or application.

This blog was posted by Janna on November 11.
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.

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Sandy
Sandstorm has acquired Jacobs Agency

We are thrilled to share that Jacobs Agency has joined Sandstorm!

Our two independently-owned, award-winning companies have come together as Sandstorm® with operations based in Chicago and satellite offices in Charlotte, Dallas, Denver and Seattle to create Chicago's leading technology-fueled, creative agency. The client list of the new Sandstorm includes organizations like Chicago Skyway, Crown Holdings, Heartland Financial, the National Association of REALTORS®, NOW Foods, Peoples Gas and Treehouse Foods.

“We partnered with Jacobs Agency a number of times over the years and along the way I got to know Tom,” said Sandy Marsico, founder of Sandstorm. “In that time, we learned we have very similar approaches to leading people, serving clients and running a business: do good work for good people.”

Sandy Marsico will remain as Sandstorm’s CEO and Tom Jacobs will become President of the combined agency. Andrea Wood continues as Managing Director. Creative will be led by Janna Fiester, Strategy by Susan Saltwell and Business Development by Amanda Heberg.

“After more than two decades as an independently owned agency, I couldn’t be happier to merge with another independently owned firm sharing my belief in strategically-inspired creative with a scrappy, nimble customer-centered approach,” said Tom Jacobs, founder of Jacobs Agency. “Our combined team and capability position Sandstorm to build stronger brand value for our clients in a time when the first brand exposure customers have is often a digital experience.”

This blog was posted by Sandy on November 5, 2019.
Sandy Marsico, Founder & CEO

About the Author

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.

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What does "Yes, and" mean? Why is it important at Sandstorm?

Since our founding, Sandstorm has followed a “yes, and” approach. What does that mean?

Yes

For us, it’s a matter of how we think in regards to how we solve problems. With our user-centered design approach, we want our clients to know that we hear them. This yields a concept that reflects the needs and requirements from the business and the user. This results in the “yes” concept.

And

We then go a little farther. We’re a bunch of thinkers and dreamers. We explore fresh concepts and see where it takes us. This result is something that meets the users' needs but in a form that goes beyond their expectation. This concept is Sandstorm pushing ourselves creatively and in effect pushing our clients, too. This is the “and.”

This is a creative marketing term now, but where did it come from?

The terminology for “yes and” came from the theater. Actually, just a few miles from our Chicago office. Starting with the Compass Players and Second City then later at iO, this concept is used to create improvised stories. For the improviser “yes and” means “yes, I hear you and understand the information you’re presenting, and I’m going to add something to heighten our interaction.” 

An illustrative example

Consider this scenario, Person 1 steps on stage and says “This paper is despicable. I’m going to have to give you an F.” Person 2 in her head thinks: Yes, I am a student and you’re the teacher. We’re in a classroom. I’m failing, and I think it’s because I wrote about a subject you don’t approve, and responds “Well, it’s probably because you don’t respect the intricacies of the writing of Stephenie Meyer.”

From there the scene goes forward because of “yes, and”-ing. It can go into a conversation about how the teacher and student have different ideas of high art, or can go on to show that the teacher really loves “Twilight” and the student is just a bad writer.

But this could have only developed because of the “yes, and.” Had she only “Yes”-ed it would have played out like this:

Person 1 says “This paper is despicable. I’m going to have to give you an F.” Person 2 in her head: Yes, I am a student and you’re the teacher. We’re in a classroom. I’m failing, and she responds “I’m a terrible student.”

That adds no information, and it doesn’t make anything more interesting. In effect, it ends any progression by cutting off the potential of what could happen.

“Yes, and” implications for storytelling in marketing

As this concept creates scenarios on stage for improvisers, this can also be directly applied to how a business’ or an overall creative concept’s story is told. This can cover overarching campaigns, visual creative executions, and content marketing. Keeping an open mind while editing and writing, enables the writer to fully take on the role as a storyteller. This involves removing parameters and preconceptions to open opportunities to craft a story. The end result is interesting and involving instead of dry content that is primarily facts, figures, and business-talk.

Yes, of course, you need data within your words, but the reader needs more than just that to keep reading. By making each content interaction a storytelling opportunity, you’re engaging the reader actively and driving them to want more.

Back at Sandstorm

By “yes, and”-ing at Sandstorm we listen to what our clients want, what they expect, and then add to it to make something greater. We could only “yes,” but that would keep our project in neutral. It’s the “and” that helps move concepts forward and gets everyone to think and imagine in a whole new way.

Following a “yes, and” philosophy enhances our collaboration both internally and with our clients. We open the doors to all possibilities and sometimes surprise ourselves, too. By coming to a project of any kind with an open mind, we can see truly what is possible. This heightened thinking allows us to produce results that help clients exceed their goals and move their business forward.

This blog was posted by Sandy on August 16.
Sandy Marsico, Founder & CEO

About the Author

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.

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Sandy
Chicago User Persona Development Services

We mold user research to drive extraordinary creative results through the development of a "persona." A user persona (also called a UX persona) is a fictional character created to represent a particular market segment. This character is given a name, picture, biography, and personality. Sandstorm uses personas in the same way that an actor looks at a role. Before deciding on a creative direction for the UX design concepts, questions are posed related to a specific persona's motivation, needs, and biases to guarantee the usability of a particular website or application.

persona development example


Personas provide a noticeable advantage by creating a face to represent an entire group, and can be an ideal to way gather content and functional requirements, and prioritize features. It can be difficult considering a whole audience's point of view, but from the perspective of a persona (or a face to represent an entire group), it makes the audience seem more real.

Our UX and creative team ask the question "What would Rita do?" instead of "What would a pediatrician, 37–58 years old, with a private practice, 15+ years experience, living on the West coast, do?" Personas result in a user experience designed for the user.

Our methodology for developing user personas: 

  1. Identify initial audiences and possible scenarios
  2. Write protocol for the research (may include in-depth user research, surveys, card sorting, participatory design, etc.)
  3. Schedule participants, mock the study with the moderator and note taker
  4. Conduct research to gather insights to validate initial beliefs or discover new audiences and scenarios
  5. Analyze results, build personas and list of scenarios
  6. Use personas as references for recruiting participants for usability testing 
  7. Design the UX from the user personas, scenarios, and usability research results  

To see how UX persona development differs from traditional demographics, request a proposal on user persona development today.

This blog was posted by Sandy on March 5.
Sandy Marsico, Founder & CEO

About the Author

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.

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Sandy
Chicago User Experience Research Firm

How well do you know your customers? How much insight do you have into your user's experience with your product, web site or mobile application? We've conducted over 3400+ hours of user research interviews and usability studies, and there's always a learning moment.

Our user experience research includes web site surveys, web analytics reviews, and in-depth interviews with your customers and potential users to uncover common goals, needs and wants, and how your customers use your application or website. Our one-on-one conversations uncover a common set of tasks performed on your website — all enriching the user experience design.

dashboard requirements from user experience research


Why conduct user experience research? User research provides us with tangible insight into how people interact with your brand (i.e. the user experience). Discover how your users absorb information, how they expect to use your product or web site, and what motivates them to use you over the competition. The information we collect will help you understand the behavior of your users and drive the development of the information architecture and wireframes.

How long will it take? Studies can be as short as 2-3 weeks, or as long as 3-4 months depending on the number of user groups, organizational goals, recruiting factors, and budget. 

Your end result? A comprehensive report to walk you through the research process, including: interview outlines, noteworthy comments, user opinions, and content/functional requirements. We can take the research even further and break down our recommendations by user group, and give each user group a name, face and personality through the development of a "persona."

Want to learn how to quickly gain insight to enhance your user experience? Request a proposal today. 

This blog was posted by Sandy on February 5.
Sandy Marsico, Founder & CEO

About the Author

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.

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Sandy
2018 Holiday Party

What an extraordinary adventure it’s been! Twenty years ago, You’ve Got Mail starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks had just come out. Modem speed had to be considered when we were designing websites. And it was easy to get a .com URL.

Reflecting on the past two decades, It’s the Sandstormers (past and present) who have made this company what it is today. Together, we’ve taken risks, competed for the best Halloween costumes, traded playlists, compiled crazy travel stories, sent a lot of memes, devoured a lot of guacamole, and created long-standing Sandstorm traditions.

So in honor of 20 years, here are 20 fun memories we’ve created together:

1998

Sandstorm launches our first website in Flash.

2002

We relaunch our website in HTML and get our first web lead, Careerbuilder.com — thank you for working with us for over a decade!

2003

We partner with ReVive Center for Housing & Healing (formally Cathedral Shelter) and donate our time to create their annual report (which we continue to do today).

2005

Sandstorm moves into our first official office space of 1,000 sq. ft.

2005

We celebrate the holidays by sharing tapas at Cafe Ba-Ba-Rebba!, which has now become a Sandstorm tradition.

We ate so many bacon wrapped dates we lost count!

2006

First Guac Off (Janna Fiester wins with her fancy roasted peppers!)

2006

Sandstorm launches our UX practice and wins our first Fortune 500 client.

2008

Sandstorm expands to a new office right off the ‘L’ line. It was so loud Mike had to put up plexiglass over our windows to help mute the train.

Who remembers us saying, “Hold on a second the train is going by… Okay, you can talk again.”?

2008

We build our own usability lab and within days conduct a study for American Academy of Pediatrics.

2009

We expand office space again and add new huddle rooms.

2010

Our first Super Secret Event: All the Sandstormers go to see Harry Potter.

2011

We expand. Again! This time, Sandstorm moves back into our first building and into Sandy’s dream office space in suite 300.

2011

Our first time on the Inc. 500/5000.

2012

We win Fortune’s Top 100 Fastest Growing Inner City Companies in America Award for the first time.

2014

2014

Our office space expands, and we reclaim the original office we had in 2005.

2016

Sandstorm launches our data practice.

2016

We finally redesigned our logo (thank you for your unwavering patience Janna and Nathan!)

2017

We build a new chef’s kitchen, our Hogwarts library, and the Idea Lab as part of our continued expansion.

2018

Today, Sandstorm celebrates 20 years by paying it forward with the Night Ministry, bagging lunches, and donating hundreds of pajamas for homeless youth.


How does one even begin to say thank you to everyone that has made celebrating 20 years in business possible? We have an amazing team, some of the smartest people I have ever met, solving some really interesting problems with technologies that didn’t even exist when we started. Thank you hardly seems enough.

To our clients: Thank you for your collaboration and partnership to create better digital brand experiences together. Because of you, we’ve gotten the chance to grow individually and as a company. I could never thank you enough. And I’m honored that so many of these relationships grew into long-lasting friendships.

To everyone at Sandstorm: Thank you for making Sandstorm yours. From moving furniture and leading social events, to bringing the warrior spirit to your work every day, your drive and passion and fearlessness to create is inspiring, and so much fun to be a part of. It’s an honor to work with you. And a special thank you to Mike Marsico, Alma and Nick Meshes, and Janna and Tim Fiester for believing in our vision to build a different kind of agency from the beginning.

To my advisory and peer advisory boards: Thank you for providing me with the direction and confidence to lead, sharing your pride in our growth, and for your encouragement through the challenges.

To my family and friends: I couldn’t have started this journey, or continued this growth, without you believing in me.

I’m super excited for what comes next,

This blog was posted by Sandy on December 31.
Sandy Marsico, Founder & CEO

About the Author

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.

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Sandy
Chicago Web Design Firm, Company, Agency

Inside the mind of our creative web design team

We work hard. We design hard. We push our own creativity and the creative expectations of our clients with our "yes, and" philosophy. We have this undeniable desire to make our clients feel "wow'd" when they see our design concepts. And we often work late getting each concept just right so it's aligned creatively, strategically, and research-based reducing the subjectivity of our work. 

Our software interfaces, data visualizations, and web design transformations are driven by our usability expertise. The big difference in our creative execution is our practical thinking along with a desire for beautiful web design. We ask, "Can our users find the information that they need with this particular web design concept?" and "Does this work represent our best work?"

This blog was posted by Sandy on November 14.
Sandy Marsico, Founder & CEO

About the Author

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.

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Sandy
Sandstorm Shares Its Good Fortune

It’s an honor to be on Fortune’s list of the 100 Fastest Growing Inner City Companies for the fifth time. But it also gives us pause. Because while we’re extremely lucky to continue experiencing growth, large parts of Chicago—the city we call home—are struggling.

So instead of taking this moment to pat ourselves on the back, we’re rolling up our sleeves.

We’re partnering with our neighbors at The Night Ministry, who support Chicago’s homeless population. On November 9th, we’re hosting a lunch-and-learn event for our team members, where they’ll gain knowledge about this amazing charity, then create care packages using items we donate. And we’re encouraging you to #ShareYourGoodFortune with The Night Ministry and with us on social media. Together, we’ll make an even greater impact on those who need our help!

This blog was posted by Sandy on October 15.
Sandy Marsico, Founder & CEO

About the Author

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.

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Hermes Platinum Award

The Hermes Creative Awards has honored Sandstorm Design with a platinum award for the agency’s redesign of the CLR Brands® website. The award winners were announced by the Association of Marketing and Communication Professionals (AMCP), which administers the annual Hermes Creative Awards international competition.

Sandstorm’s reconstruction of the CLR Brands® website—which showcases CLR® and Tarn-X®, two of America’s favorite household cleaning products—delivered a clean, intuitive design and a significantly upgraded user experience. The site was built on the Kentico EMS platform, which enables enhanced integrated marketing automation, site searchability and personalization.

Kentico named the CLR Brands® website one of its top 10 sites in June.

The Hermes Creative Awards recognize the messengers and creators of traditional and emerging media. The annual competition is judged by the AMCP, an international organization consisting of thousands of creative professionals. Entries are received from corporate marketing and communication departments, advertising agencies, PR firms, graphic design shops, production companies, and web and digital creators.

This blog was posted by on June 19.
John Rausch

About the Author

John Rausch

Over his 25 years in the advertising industry, John has produced award-winning work for many B2C and B2B clients. He is a passionate believer in the power of the brand and brings a strategic approach to every piece of creative.

Sandstorm takes Hermes Gold for Accuity ad

Sandstorm Design was honored with a gold statuette at the Hermes Creative Awards. The award was presented to Sandstorm for its impactful print ad for Accuity’s payments data products. This year’s award winners were announced by the Association of Marketing and Communication Professionals (AMCP), which hosts the annual Hermes Creative Awards competition.

Sandstorm’s breakthrough ad was targeted at professionals at financial technology companies who develop products for the payments industry. The ad dramatizes the catastrophic consequences of choosing the wrong provider of payments data, and created an industry stir when introduced at the annual global Money 20/20 conference.

Accuity Ad - Fintech

The Hermes Creative Awards are an annual international competition recognizing and celebrating the messengers and creators of traditional and emerging media. Entries are judged by the AMCP, an international organization consisting of thousands of creative professionals. Marketing materials across a wide range of categories are submitted by corporate marketing and communication departments, advertising agencies, PR firms, graphic design shops, production companies, and web and digital creators.

This blog was posted by on June 19.
John Rausch

About the Author

John Rausch

Over his 25 years in the advertising industry, John has produced award-winning work for many B2C and B2B clients. He is a passionate believer in the power of the brand and brings a strategic approach to every piece of creative.

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