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David Boocock

David Boocock (MA, MS) is a product owner at Sandstorm Design

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 is Sandstorm’s Director of Technology & Data, leading the development, quality assurance, and analytics teams for Sandstorm. He’s boosting our quantitative focus. He’s busy increasing our capabilities in web analytics, website optimization testing, technical SEO, effective SEM and display advertising, privacy, security, 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.

Recent Posts

Anne Lentino
Three female-presenting people and one male-presenting person in front of a large blue inflatable droplet, all smiling at the camera.

Sandstormers Anne Lentino, Emily Kodner, Amanda Heberg, and Nathan Haas at DrupalCon Portland.

Last week, Sandstormers attended DrupalCon 2022 in Portland, where the team enjoyed lots of amazing food (tacos, pizza, dumplings, and charcuterie boards), craft beers, and lovely wines from Willamette Valley. Most importantly, we enjoyed some much-needed face time with our team members – and even got to hang out with a llama. 

From this immersive experience, we wanted to share what’s next for the Drupal platform, as well as the Drupal web development community vision and roadmap. 

Audience members listen to the keynote speaker on the main stage at DrupalCon in Portland.
DrupalCon attendees listening to the vision for the future of Drupal. 

Here are the three key takeaways and what you need to know for the release of Drupal 10:

1. Release Date: December 2022

The update to Drupal 10 is expected to be even smoother than the update from D8 to D9. A few important things to note:

  • Drupal 10 will require an update to PHP 8.1, though with PHP 7 hitting end-of-life in November, most sites should be well-positioned to meet that requirement.
  • Drupal 9 end-of-life is planned for November 2023.
  • Included in the Drupal 10 release are improvements to the Drupal admin, both from a user interface and an accessibility standpoint. We’re excited to see how these changes will improve the experience for developers, administrators, and content managers alike.

2. What’s New: CKEditor 5

GET READY! - the sparkly new CKEditor 5 is coming with Drupal 10 core. We received a demo with the CKEditor 5 team, where we saw strong enhancements related to inline links, working with embedded media, and clearer iconography in the editor itself. 

The latest and greatest, however, is a paid extension for collaboration. In a nutshell: Google docs-level commenting and tracking changes, all within the editor – AND you can download a Word version that retains the track changes features, or a PDF version of the content. #MINDBLOWN

3. Coming Soon: Automated Updates

The Drupal community has been working tirelessly to enable automated updates for core and contributed modules. What we heard (and what we’re most excited about) is that huge steps are being taken to track upgrade readiness and compatibility. There are also two levels of automation: set-it-and-forget-it (via cron) and the push-a-button-and-walk-away version (safer, in most people’s opinion). 

NB: Automated updates will require the website to go into maintenance mode!

Sandstorm will be taking a deeper look at how automated updates fit into our standard maintenance process for our clients. 

A furry white llama takes the stage at DrupalCon.

We were delighted to meet Cesar, the Pantheon Llama, at DrupalCon. 


There’s plenty more to be excited about with this new release - check out the Driesnote from this year to learn more about where Drupal is headed!

This blog was posted by Anne Lentino on May 6.
Anne Lentino

About the Author

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.

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David
Please Stand By - Drupal 7 End-of-Life Extended: What You Need to Know

How Long Will Drupal 7 Be Supported? The Answer Just Changed.

On Feb. 23, 2022, the Drupal Security Team announced Drupal 7’s end-of-life would be extended from Nov. 1, 2022, to Nov. 1, 2023. The Security Team also said they would revisit the end-of-life date for Drupal 7 once again in July 2023, meaning Drupal 7 community support could be extended as far as Nov. 1, 2024.

You’re a Drupal 7 Site Owner. What Do You Do Now?

First, if you’re a Drupal 7 site owner that was staring at that November 2022 end-of-life date in fear, breathe a sigh of relief. Your timeline is no longer crunched – at least not by the end-of-life date.

For the past three years, site owners have been preparing for Drupal 7’s end-of-life.

  1. Some site owners have opted to use the Drupal 7 end-of-life as a reason to complete a long-awaited website overhaul.
  2. Others – more satisfied with their sites – have sought to migrate their sites “as-is” from Drupal 7 to another platform.
  3. And then there’s a third group – site owners that may have felt rushed to complete a new website build.

When your timeline is crunched, you may look to cut corners. But now, if you’re a Drupal 7 site owner, you can slow down and turn your attention back to quality.

UX Research: Key to the Discovery Process

When faced with a hard deadline, site owners may choose to shorten the research and discovery phase. This is understandable – organizations need secure, functional websites first and foremost.

But UX research is a critical part of any website project. A complete discovery process informs…

  • The “who” – the expectations and needs of the users who visit the website.
  • The “what” – the content that needs to be included and the functionality that is essential.
  • The “where” – the locations in which the website will meet the user, from the type of device to where they are in their customer journey.
  • The “why” – the ways in which the website fits into an organization’s larger strategy.
  • The “how” – the tactics employed that will enable the website to drive business goals, whether that means sales, requests for information, or engagement.

Now that the Drupal 7 end-of-life date has been extended, site owners can complete a comprehensive research and discovery phase. You may be surprised by what your users really need from your organization’s web presence.

A Stretched Version of Minimally Viable

We always advocate for prioritizing new enhancements to a website to ensure the delivery of a minimum viable product at launch. But when faced with a hard deadline, the definition of “minimally viable” can be stretched to the point where the website cannot realistically meet user needs. You’ll end up with a lot of the “minimal” and little to none of the “viable.”

If you’re a Drupal 7 site owner, take a look at your research notes or post-launch backlog to pull out items that can now be completed. Then, compare those items against any reports or strategy documents you may have produced during the project’s lifecycle.

If a new website feature meets user expectations, drives business goals, and positions your organization to compete now and in the future, add it to your definition of a minimally viable product.

To Craft the Website You Want, First Get Rid of Everything You Don't

“Migrate all of it.”

This can be the gut reaction to the question of “what content should and should not come over to your new website?” It is the easiest answer when facing a tight timeline – instead of completing a content inventory and auditing all content on the site, site owners bring everything over. That way, nothing gets missed.

However, this can create a number of problems for the long-term maintenance of the website. An older site’s content could:

  • Not fit one-to-one within a new website’s design.
  • Be no longer relevant to users.
  • Be no longer on-brand.

Additionally, it’s always easier to create new content than to retire old content. A website’s sitemap can start to feel like the junk drawer of a dresser, filled with items long past their use from years or even decades ago.

A website redesign provides a great opportunity to audit existing content and delete non-essential items. A timeline extension can give your organization the time it needs to make the right content choices.

Time Is Back On Your Side. So Is Sandstorm.

Now that time is on your side once more, we encourage you to add more best-practice steps into your website overhaul project:

  • Talk to your users – and understand their needs.
  • Explore exciting new features – and add functionality that drives business goals.
  • Audit your content – and cut what’s no longer needed.
  • Schedule a new launch date – one that relieves the pressure on you and your team.

Since 1998, Sandstorm has helped clients across industries do just that. Whether you’re just starting to evaluate your website needs or want to ensure you’re adhering to required accessibility standards, we’re here to help. Connect with us today.

This blog was posted by David on March 1.

About the Author

David Boocock

David Boocock (MA, MS) is a product owner at Sandstorm Design

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Rachael
Color Alone is Not Enough: 7 ways to support the use of color on your website - paint buckets showing different colors

For many sighted website users, color is a useful way of sorting and coding information. But it’s important to remember that being sighted is not the “default” condition; the World Health Organization estimates that approximately 2.2 billion people have some kind of visual disability. That’s nearly 30% of the world’s population!

People with visual disabilities, including those who are red-green colorblind, blue-yellow colorblind, low-vision, blind, or deaf-blind, may not be able to see the differences between colors, regardless of the level of contrast between them. Therefore, relying on color alone to communicate information could deny important content information to a significant portion of your users.

This isn’t to say that you can’t use color to convey information - in fact, it’s a useful way to reinforce information for users who can perceive color differences. But to ensure that visually disabled users can access your content, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) require that websites include at least one non-color visual cue to communicate the same information. As is often the case, solutions designed with accessibility in mind will benefit non-disabled users as well - including people who prefer to print things out in black and white.

What can I use to support color for accessibility?

There are many different ways that you can visually communicate information that does not require color. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and which mechanism you use depends on your situation and what information you’re trying to convey.

Tools that can be used to support color accessibility may include:

  1. Patterns, fills, & textures (e.g., solids vs. stripes or dotted line vs. solid line)
  2. Symbols (e.g., add an asterisk, checkmarks or X’s)
  3. Adding text labels & cues
  4. Underlining, bolding, or italicizing text
  5. Changing typeface
  6. Increasing or decreasing font size
  7. Adding or changing shapes (e.g., a square becomes a circle)

Common cases where color is used to convey information & alternatives

Charts & Graphs

Color is useful in pie graphs, bar graphs, and other data visualizations to indicate different categories of data. When using color in a chart or graph, it’s best practice to use different tones of the same color (i.e., three different shades of blue rather than red, green, and blue) to ensure that the colors appear different if converted to black and white. Common supporting visual cues for charts and graphs include different fill patterns and text labels for each category of data.

Menus

Color is often used in menus to communicate where a user is currently “located” in a site or which menu item has been selected by the user. Common supporting visual cues here include adding an underline or an outline to the relevant item.

Buttons & Links

Color changes are often used in buttons and links to convey hover states and focus states (i.e., which item is about to be selected by the user if they click their mouse or hit “Enter” on their keyboard). They are sometimes also used to communicate visited states, or which buttons and links were previously selected by the user.

The presence of a link is usually communicated by using an underline and a different text color from the body text. To maintain good UX, you should keep your links underlined. Therefore, changes in the typeface itself could communicate a focus, hover, or visited state (e.g., all caps, bolding, or italicizing the text).

Users don’t expect button text to be underlined, so that would be a great way to communicate a state change. You could also add text elements like brackets, or change the shape of the button itself.

Error Messages

Form fields are often outlined in red to communicate an error, such as a mismatched username and password or an empty required field. Adding asterisks or warning symbols are common ways to communicate error messages. To go a step further, consider adding text that explains the error and how to correct it.

Support Color Differences with Visual Cues

Color can be an effective way to communicate information for those who are able to perceive it. But to ensure the most impactful user experience for everyone, WCAG requires that there are additional visual cues to support color differences.


Need help identifying areas to improve your website’s usability? Contact us today to learn more about our accessibility audit.

This blog was posted by Rachael on December 7.
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.

About the Author

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.

Devin
Accessibility keyboard

Adding alternative text (“alt text”) to images seems like a no-brainer when managing your website. But ensuring image alt text is implemented properly and follows ADA and WCAG accessibility compliance is a little trickier than you think.

What is Alternative Text and Why Is It Important?

Alt text is a tenet of inclusive and accessible web experiences for all users and provides users with visual disabilities access to key visual non-text content including photos, infographics, logos, icons, and other images.

Alt text lives in HTML code inside the alt attribute, which is embedded in an image element. It’s important to code this correctly to ensure a smooth, accessible, and delightful experience for users with access needs.

So how do you write good alternative text? Here are 5 best practices to improve your skills.

  1. Identify and convey the purpose of non-text content

    When you have a lot of images on your site to write alt text for, it’s easy to go on auto-pilot and just describe the image. However, this is not going to create an accessible experience for users with visual disabilities (like blindness, deaf-blindness, or low vision), who may be using assistive technologies, like screen readers, to access the information conveyed by images.

    An example is the magnifying glass icon. Good, accessible alt text would be “search” not “magnifying glass” - the aim is to convey the purpose of the text, rather than just a literal description.

    If the image acts as a button or a link, you will need to add the action keyword to initiate, like an icon of a cart. Instead of “add to cart” as the alt text, try “ Click add to cart.” Having the action as part of conveying the purpose makes it easier for users to identify a button or link and is crucial for those that need to speak the action aloud to get the button or link to open.

  2. Remember that screen readers read the alt text aloud

    Screen reader users can program them to translate the text to other outputs, Braille, or voice command devices.

    A quick way to test alt text is to read it aloud to a user that does not know what the image is. If they can identify what the image is trying to convey based on your alt text alone, great!

    However, for optimal results, conduct testing and collaborate with screen reader users and users with disabilities to improve your site’s accessibility and overall user experience. They know how they interact with web content better than anyone else.

  3. Complex images require a long description with alt text

    When the alt text alone is too short to describe your image, you should add a long description (also called an image description). In these cases, alt text is still required and is used as “directions” to point to and access the long description.

    Long descriptions are needed for complex images like graphs, charts, medical illustrations, infographics, detailed photographs, etc. to fully describe the more complex purpose of that image. For example, bar graphs present data that will need to be fully described, as well as the intended conclusion to draw from the data presented.

    You can hide these long descriptions using the appropriate ARIA labels, however, it’s best practice to make them available to everyone. For example, if there is a bar graph on a webpage, users with dyscalculia may have difficulty interpreting the graph and may not use a screen reader to access the text alternatives. A great solution is to have the long description available to all users in the surrounding text near the graph image. So for this, your alt text can look like “Annual Revenue per Quarter, see long description in next paragraph.”

  4. The rules are different for decorative images

    How do you know if an image is considered decorative? If the visual content provides no information, then it is considered decorative.

    Because alt text is required, in this case, you would leave the alt attribute blank, like alt= “ ”. This tells screen readers to “skip over” the image. If you don’t include the empty alt attribute, the screen reader will read the image file name instead. Remember, screen readers, render the alt text into speech or Braille outputs for users who can’t see the content. If just the image file name is being conveyed, rather than the purpose of the image, the experience will be inaccessible and frustrating for users with disabilities.

    When images are identified and described fully by the surrounding text, like an icon that supports surrounding link text, the rules for decorative images apply. When the link text or surrounding text is the same as alt text, it will create a repetitive experience for screen reader users.

  5. People count too! Photos of people should be described fully

    And to the best of your ability! This is because otherwise low vision and blind users are denied important contextual information that sighted users have available to them. When a photo including people is chosen for your website, it was probably selected to show diversity and/or target audiences. It’s important to provide this information to low vision and blind users as well. By describing people in images, you can provide a fully accessible and more inclusive experience for users in the disability community!

    When you’re describing images of individual people, you can either use alt text and a long description or use an informal short description embedded in the alt attribute (or in other words, in place of the alt text). Short descriptions are more common for alt text for images of people and are generally about two sentences long.

    When you are describing people in an image, it’s a best practice to ask the person in the image how they would like to be described. If you can’t ask, you can follow some general guidelines.

    Characteristics you should include are:

    • Descriptions of skin color, not necessarily race or ethnicity. Use descriptions like light-skinned, medium-skinned, medium-light skinned, medium-dark skinned, or dark-skinned.
    • Descriptions of gender presentation instead of assuming someone’s gender. Use descriptions like female-presenting instead of woman, female-presenting child instead of girl, or male-presenting instead of man. There are many different words used for gender expression!
    • You can also use non-binary for folks that do not identify with female or male genders and provide this identity information publicly. Again, it’s best to ask the person directly if you’re able to do so!


    If it’s helpful to understand the context of the image, you can describe additional features of individuals, like hair color and style, height, clothing, age, etc.

Remember, screen readers and other assistive technologies translate alt text through speech and braille outputs, so consider the context in which the image is being used.

Get into the practice of asking yourself….

  • What is the text content talking about?
  • Why was this image chosen?
  • What is it trying to communicate or show?

Keep in mind, the CDC reports that 1 in 5 Americans live with a disability. The result of proactively choosing accessibility will open your website up to reaching a bigger audience while saving you time and money over the long term. Added bonus! Your hard work will also increase SEO while improving the perception of your company and brand.

Are you unsure if your website meets the current requirements for accessibility standards?
Contact us today to schedule an accessibility audit of your site or discuss your accessibility challenges!

This blog was posted by Devin on November 5.
Devin Owsley-Aquilia: light-skinned non-binary person smiling, with dark blonde hair pulled back, wearing a black turtleneck against a grey wall

About the Author

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.

LauraC
Food Export: When a Website Redesign Turns Into a Rebrand: 5 Steps to Getting It Right

The Sandstorm team recently presented at the ASAE Annual Meeting 2021 on “How to Declutter” a brand. In sharing the details of our work with the Food Export Association of the Midwest and Food Export USA - Northeast, we reflected on the journey and how we got there.

It’s not uncommon when undergoing a redesign project, that organizations quickly realize that the new design of the website can be less impactful if the branding does not align. Our partnership started out similarly -- focused first on a redesign and update of the website.

But through primary research via 1:1 stakeholder and user interviews, the team quickly realized there was a deeper need beyond just the website. There was a real opportunity for Food Export to rebrand itself to better connect with its target audiences.

Sandstorm and Food Export pivoted our plan to integrate these 5 Rebranding Steps with the website redesign, in order to invigorate the brand and give it new life:

Step 1: Research, Research, Research

Sandstorm quickly immersed itself in Food Export’s brand, culture, market, and competitive set through primary and secondary research. The team quickly learned that the Food Export Association of the Midwest and Food Export USA - Northeast brands were unclear.

Even the most established companies with a clear mission statement, vision and values, don’t always have a clear brand and brand platform. This can create confusion and without a defined brand, organizations often struggle with trying to communicate everything to everyone. For Food Export, this was evident in the pages of copy walls on the website and dense copy within its marketing materials.

Sandstorm’s goal was to create a clear, distinctive, and cohesive brand. Through 1:1, in-depth interviews (IDIs), the team was able to get a deeper understanding of the brand and positioning by not only speaking directly to its constituents but also reviewing the current market, industry, and competitive landscape.

Step 2: Define the Brand Platform

From there, Sandstorm defined the organization’s desired position in the market and developed a brand platform to guide the personification of the brand. This is comprised of:

  • Brand Essence is the single, simple idea that lives at the core of the brand. And is the internal reason for being.
  • Positioning is the core idea that ultimately sets you apart from your competitors. To work, it must be believable, distinctive, and relevant.
  • Personality defines the character of the brand in human terms to shape the feel and tone of communications.
  • Promise is the way the brand will satisfy expectations, fulfill needs and establish trust.

With the brand now established verbally, the team set out to align this with the visual elements of the brand, beginning with the logo.

Step 3: Refresh the Logo

Brand logo refreshes or updates can feel overwhelming, from aligning on new logo requirements or considerations to getting stakeholder buy-in, to the stress of a global internal and external roll-out. However, this is a critical step to ensure the brand will continue to resonate with its target audiences (current and future).

Logos do not need to change often, but they should be re-evaluated when:

  • Business has evolved by either changing or expanding its offering
  • New competition and market changes occur
  • Speaking to a new audience(s) with new products or services
  • Reflecting new brand platform to bring brands to life visually
  • Aligning with shifts in industry and technology, as a brand’s logo can not only feel aesthetically tired, but the design may not be compatible with trends today

For the Food Export Association of the Midwest USA and Food Export USA - Northeast the latter two were major drivers behind updating the brand. Previous logos had gradients and details that were dated and did not translate to digital mediums.

As a result, the team underwent a refresh of the logo, which helped to not only modernize the brand experience but also deliver important consistency for how the brand should be used across Food Export’s ecosystem.

Step 4: Create the Brand Identity

With logos established, the next step was to complete the rest of the brand identity. The brand identity set out to capture the global opportunities that Food Export offers through use of vibrant colors, bold authentic photography and a layering of elements to create depth and richness to the creative. Branding elements, typography, imagery, font usage, primary and secondary color palettes, as well as example brand applications were developed and then pulled together in the brand guidelines. This serves as the digital ‘rulebook’ for all aspects of the look and feel of the brand and provides important brand consistency for all Food Export’s communications.

Step 5: Activate the Brand

With the refreshed visual and brand identity complete, the next step was to internally roll out the brand to get buy-in, input and generate excitement with key stakeholders, employees, and leadership, while delivering the assets they needed. From there, Sandstorm moved into the external launch of the brand, which was tightly integrated with the launch of the website and most prominent digital and print asset - www.foodexport.org.

The new site included personalization (key messaging, personalized pricing options, related content) while providing a much more tailored and focused experience. In addition, Sandstorm updated key brand and visual elements, while modernizing infographics and critical tools like its Program Guide, making it easier for its members to engage with the content.

Measuring Success

Not only has Food Export Midwest and Northeast received incredibly positive feedback on the new brand and website experience, but the analytics show a significant lift in website session duration, overall clicks, and impressions, as well as a much lower bounce rate, so users are finding what they need much more easily in the new experience.

And the icing on the cake was winning a Hermes Gold Award for the work we completed on the brand refresh and website.

Check it out! www.foodexport.org

This blog was posted by LauraC on September 22.
Laura Chaparro

About the Author

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.

Anne Lentino
website content management workflow

Including content managers in these 5 stages of a website redesign is the key to success for any launch.

A top-line goal we hear consistently with every new website design project is: “Content management and workflow must be easier for our staff.” But often content admins are the forgotten user group.

It sounds simple right? A no-brainer? Any CMS (Content Management System) implemented properly should ease this burden for staff, making it easy for them to manage the content. We're often told, “this new CMS will be an improvement over what we have in place today...”

But it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of discovery, uncovering the key insights from user research and UX testing, the creation of UX wireframes and beautiful UI design -- resulting from our hyper-focus on the needs of our users. And before we know it, we’re in the midst of the development process, content migration, QA and accessibility validation, and getting the site to a launch state.

But how do we keep that primary content management goal for staff top of mind throughout the project and ensure we’re meeting staff’s expectations?

As a Product Owner, one of our primary responsibilities is to consider our clients as users too, and look at it from their perspective. The discovery phase of a project is the perfect opportunity to understand the team’s pain points when managing content on their current website.

  • Are content blocks too hard to find?
  • Do content admins have to update the same content in multiple locations?
  • Are there missed opportunities to showcase critical content because there’s no logical place for it?
  • Is it difficult to classify content with the proper tags/taxonomy to drive continued SEO improvements?

Every subsequent phase of the project gives a Product Owner a checkpoint for ensuring efficiency in content management, including:

  1. Content Audit and Information Architecture
    Allowing the client the opportunity to see a list of all of the active pages on their site gives them the chance to clean house. Much like the clean-out before physically moving to a new home, the content audit prompts clients to toss what they don’t need and what’s just taking up space, and optimize content for their end-users. This "housecleaning" (along with user research) drives the development of the new sitemap and a site structure that better reflects the priority of the content that users are trying to find on the site.
     
  2. UX and UI
    If a content audit is akin to housecleaning before a move, UX design equates to looking at a listing on Redfin and envisioning how your belongings will fit. And UI is painting the rooms to match your furniture. (Is this analogy incredibly reductive of these important processes? Admittedly so.)

    UX design helps prioritize the content and calls to action on each page and sketches out how that content might be presented to the end-user. At this stage, the Product Owner considers how that content will be entered onto that page and the workflow for publishing. For example, if we’re looking at an article or post, is there related content (i.e., articles, resources, products) also showcased on the page? Do those appear because we plan to include a list of articles from the same category? Or can they be curated for each new post and manually selected by the content manager? What is most effective for the client's content and workflow processes?

    The UI design phase will refine these priorities and give both teams the opportunity to think through the use of brand assets, the client’s image library, editing of headers and subheads...the list goes on.
     
  3. Sprint Planning & Development
    As the Product Owner or Scrum Master begins grooming the backlog and planning the first sprint and design handoff, the user stories and acceptance criteria need to take both the end-users and the content managers into account. To continue the metaphor, the development phase helps get ready for move-in: making sure that we know how the furniture will get to its final spot in the new house. (Insert Ross from FriendsPIVOT!” joke here.)
     
  4. Training & Content Entry
    Once we’re ready to train the client on how to enter, approve, and publish their content as part of our sprint delivery, we’re in the home stretch - the final walk-through, if you will. And then: it’s move-in day! We’ve set up the client with an intuitive content entry experience - one that improves their team’s efficiency and allows them to keep content fresh, targeted, and relevant on their new site.
     
  5. Refinement & Optimization
    Post-launch provides opportunities for optimizing the experience, both for our end-users and our staff. If we’ve done our job of considering the needs of our content admins throughout the design and build process, then the CMS configuration should have a sound foundation. As content admins are continuing to work within the system publishing content and using workflows to support the content lifecycle, we have opportunities to fine-tune the administrative experience. Rather than making significant changes after the fact, we consider optimization for both sides of the “house.” (See what I did there?)

Thoughtful content management design is one of the best ways to ensure that an organization’s website will continue to scale as the needs of the business evolve. Anticipating the future state of a business, continually revisiting a client’s long-term business goals, and building flexibility into the content management system all ensure that we’re satisfying the needs of the users visiting the site and optimizing the workflow of those maintaining it.

This blog was posted by Anne Lentino on June 24.
Anne Lentino

About the Author

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.

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Amanda Heberg
Inclusive Design: Quantitative and Qualitative Research to Drive Award-Winning Gender Report

Find out what Elsevier’s most recent gender research uncovered in the Gender Report 2020: The Researcher Journey Through a Gender Lens.

How do you transform thousands of data points on gender research and make that information inclusive, fresh, consumable, and appealing to a broad set of audiences? How do we not overwhelm users with too much information and strike the right balance of data visualizations, research findings, and key content?

More importantly, how do we represent the progress of gender equality in research, while still communicating the work that still needs to be done to close the gap?

These are the questions Elsevier was grappling with when the research marketing team partnered with Sandstorm to bring the newest Elsevier gender report to life digitally.

Promoting gender diversity and inclusion in research through an evidence-based approach is a critical part of Elsevier’s ongoing research efforts. Elsevier is one of the largest, most well-respected information analytics organizations that helps institutions and professionals progress science, advance healthcare, and improve performance.

Elsevier’s Gender Report 2020 provides a deeper understanding of the role gender plays in the global research enterprise. It brings improvements in the methodology of inferred gender disambiguation and incorporates new elements, such as career progression and collaboration network analyses and perspectives from researchers.

Elsevier partnered with Sandstorm for high-powered data visualization, helping Elsevier to solidify its positioning as a global information analytics organization and thought leader while showing its commitment to gender diversity and inclusion.

Sandstorm worked collaboratively with Elsevier to provide an updated state of the current landscape including:

  • overall research report strategy and inclusive design
  • marketing content development
  • creative campaign development
  • design of data-driven infographics highlighting work in 10 countries
  • data visualization and reporting for thousands of data points, ensuring the most critical data was consumable and highly usable​
  • integrated marketing and promotion strategy, including promotional marketing assets, key messaging, and content for Elsevier’s online and offline channels -- social, email, web, .ppt, etc., in order to promote and drive engagement for Elsevier’s audiences

Key Gender Report 2020 Highlights*:​

  • Participation of women in research is increasing overall, inequality still exists across geographies and subject areas in terms of publication outputs, citations, awarded grants, and collaborations.​
  • Representation of women in research is increasing, but inequality remains.
  • Effort is still needed to ensure equality for women in terms of publication outputs, citations, awarded grants, and collaborations.
  • Latest findings indicate that disparities still linger with slower growth of articles published by women, higher numbers of women leaving research, and understudied research areas.​
  • Research shows women are not participating in collaboration networks at the same level as men, which may be impacting their career progression.
  • On average, men have more coauthors than women, with a tendency to collaborate with those of the same gender across the subject areas.
  • On a positive note, in terms of research authorship, we are closer to gender parity now than a decade ago, with women continuing to publish for nearly as long as men over the course of their careers.​

Key Gender Report 2020 Insights*:

The past fifty years have seen enormous strides for and by women in research. Women now comprise a greater share of science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM), and medicine graduates than ever before, and there is increased focus and energy on balanced participation, factoring gender into research and research on gender itself.

However, latest findings show that disparities still exist, with slower growth of articles published by women and higher numbers of women leaving research and understudied research areas.

Ultimately, there’s more work to do to address issues that cut across diversity and inclusion.

We are incredibly proud of our work with Elsevier in bringing to light both the progress that has been made as well as the opportunities that exist to close the gap.

*Reference Elsevier’s Gender Report 2020 here: https://www.elsevier.com/connect/gender-report

Hermes Creative Awards - 2021 Platinum WinnerWe are honored to have received the Platinum Hermes Creative Award for our collaborative inclusive design work with Elsevier.

This blog was posted by Amanda Heberg on June 17.
Amanda Heberg

About the Author

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.

Tom
B2B Marketers -- Getting Back to Basics, Post-COVID

COVID Forced Companies to Quickly Pivot to a More Robust Digital Approach. But Now What?

The past year under lockdown has evolved to an increased confidence among many B2B marketers. Whether providing services or products, many B2B companies’ previous digital hesitancy went by the wayside as they found themselves examining their digital presence with a much different perspective.

For many in the pre-COVID era, envisioning how their B2B customers could directly engage with their business via websites, portals, social media, and blogs was somewhat uncertain, let alone trying to figure out how to quickly transition to a thriving, digitally-driven sales and marketing process.

The COVID Effect

Unlike many other changes prompted by COVID-19, B2B companies were forced to examine how to convert their current digital assets from a passive presence towards a more robust digital approach.

The forced shutdown and remote working behaviors caused by the pandemic created a flurry of upgrades to websites. SEO, marketing automation, and content all with the hope of delivering a better quality online customer experience.

But in the absence of a strategically driven approach, technical and content upgrades are really just a first step. To realize the full business benefits of a cohesive digital marketing effort, companies should do one thing well: Know your customer better than ever before.

Audience Identification

Yes, this is a basic starting point, but you would be shocked at how many companies forget to keep their audience and the audience needs as the key driver towards marketing. Without fully understanding your audiences, marketing efforts will not be as effective, especially post-COVID.

Unlike B2C customers, B2B purchases are more dynamic and often made by or influenced by more than one individual. Having multiple stakeholders can alter your content, the digital tools, and the service portals you utilize to ensure a quality digital experience.

The good news is many B2B companies have transactional data that can assist towards identifying the ideal customer profile. Using transactional data can expose the buyer, the influencer, past purchase cycles, titles of purchasers, and in some cases audience pain points. It’s critical to use this transactional data to start forming a base target profile.

Research, research, and research.

Interview your customers to round out your understanding of their expectations. Many B2B companies just assume their repeat customers are being satisfied by your product or service pre, during and post COVID. Implement a more thorough research model around why they purchase and how their purchase behavior has changed since the lockdown. Really understand what tools and content they have engaged with to formulate purchase decisions and what they expect to experience with your organization can enrich your ideal customer profile.

Bottom line, what are the common challenges, needs, and objections that this group of people face in their role, and how does your product or service add value.

Analyze Your Competitors

Define your ideal customers further by examining what your competitors are doing. How has COVID changed the way they do business? Review their digital content, how are they messaging, what unique position are they using to address customer pain points, what digital tools are they using to create a quality online experience.

Create Personas

Gathering data from transactional resources, audience research, and competitive activity will allow you to start formulating an in-depth understanding of your ideal customers.

Buyer personas are the foundation of your company’s digital marketing strategy. They will set the tone for all of your company’s marketing material, content creation, and strategy for your entire CX experience.

Once created, a detailed buyer persona can provide a template for how all of the digital tools in your company interact with your ideal customer. This will include everything from your brand voice, your website information, which channels you use to interact with your audience, and much more.

Going Forward

Customers expect a high-quality remote experience, and companies must strive for improvement in this area if they want to cut sales costs and increase customer satisfaction.

Many companies have pivoted and invested in improved digital tools. Those addressing their audience needs and expectations first will experience a better return on their investment as we enter the post-COVID phase.

Take the time to fully understand your audience before investing in your next-generation website, blog, or any digital tools you are using. The future has changed, and smart B2B companies are changing with it.

This blog was posted by Tom on April 20.

About the Author

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.  

Janna
How color can help with website accessibility

Color is a critical part of a brand. A branded color palette creates a beautiful experience, differentiates from one’s competition, and drives how users/consumers perceive and engage with a brand.

We all know the brand colors should be as consistent as possible in all marketing tactics, including digital, email, print, email, in-store, etc. This consistency is key in building a coherent brand experience and instilling consumer confidence. However, the colors defined via printed materials sometimes do not translate well into the digital space. Many times colors are not dark enough or too similar. This is especially clear when we consider the requirements for an accessible digital experience.

Digital branded experiences for all users

Many of your website users have some level of color deficiency–1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women in the world. Using the term color blindness is not accurate since 99% of all colorblind people are not really color blind but have a color deficiency.

Knowing many of your users will have some form of color deficiency, one must review the brand colors to be accessible. If not done, not only could your brand integrity be impacted or just not legible, your user experience could be hindered.

Creating accessible brand experiences is good UX

UI designers use color to help identify key call-to-actions through buttons and text links. We also use color as a navigation element and to establish visual hierarchy. But if those CTAs or that navigation is missed since the user cannot read the button label or the navigation is not legible due to lack of contrast, what will this user do? Well, they will leave your site and go to your competition.

Still not convinced you need to focus on accessibility? Here are a few things to consider:

  • Inclusion and reach. Between 10-20% of internet users experience disabilities. Ensuring proper access extends your reach and your ability to fulfill your mission.
  • It is the law. Just as you would make sure your building has hand ramps and elevators for wheelchairs and braille on signs, we need to take specific steps to ensure your digital experience and content is available to all visitors. Over the last few years, lawsuits related to the accessibility of websites have increased by nearly 10 fold.
  • Google bonus! Most accessibility improvements also improve search engine optimization since they make your markup and metadata clearer and more robust.

Now that you know why accessibility is so important, how do you go about making sure your brand colors are accessible?

1. Tone up your brand colors

At the beginning of a new project, the Sandstorm user-interface designers study all the colors in a branded palette. We use two online tools to identify how the colors should be used. These tools help us segment the palette into tones that can be used as buttons, navigation, color blocks, text links, and those colors that cannot or those that need to be adjusted for use on the web. 

2. Build an accessible color palette

https://toolness.github.io/accessible-color-matrix/
We found this easy to use color palette builder. It allows you to quickly look at a range of colors on various backgrounds to see if they meet a contrast ratio of 4.5:1. When they do, great. When the colors don’t pass, we can immediately fine-tune the hue to identify the values that do pass.

3. Check color contrast

https://webaim.org/resources/contrastchecker/
WebAIM’s contrast checker is a go-to tool for making sure the text color and background you are using are accessible. It provides instant feedback for WCAG AA and WCAG AAA ratings. If your head is spinning with WCAG and ADA lingo, don’t worry. It’s a lot to soak in and we want to help. Determining the level of accessibility can be defined through the level of WCAG accessibility. Most organizations determine AA compliance is their goal, but healthcare organizations for example, often strive for AAA.

Once we have studied the colors, Sandstorm reviews the accessible colors with the client and their brand team through the creative process as well as an updated color palette. We never just change a palette, rather we embody a “Yes, And” mindset to review the colors and accessibility considerations collaboratively with our clients so they are informed and understand the rationale. You are not in this alone. We conduct accessibility audits and can help to prioritize your list of issues. Our approach combines automated scans of your site along with a manual review of the accessibility of the brand including content, colors, and interactions. All of this resulting in a detailed report, which we review together to determine high priority areas.

4. Schedule continued accessibility reviews

Once your brand is validated and accessibility is made a priority, it’s important to not let all the hard work fade away. And color contrast is just one aspect of creating a truly accessible web site. There are always ways to improve, and your brand should never be left to stagnate. Select a timeframe that’s manageable and something you can adhere to. We recommend quarterly, to reassess your digital brand and make sure you address any new issues.

Good accessibility is good usability. Let us help you make your digital brand accessible. Contact us today to schedule a time to review the accessibility of your website!

This blog was posted by Janna on November 23.
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.

Nick

As we partner with clients to reimagine how to drive their businesses forward, one request we’re often asked is how to use Artificial Intelligence (AI). As AI continues to evolve, so does the practicality of how and when to use it.

In the midst of rapidly changing customer demands, it’s more important than ever to make websites and digital channels more beneficial and highly relevant for users while improving the overall customer experience. Through the use of AI-enabled web analytics, brands now have access to the insights they need to inform more relevant and targeted content delivery.

Here are 3 examples to leverage AI on your website:

1. Intelligent Chatbots
One of the most common applications of AI on websites are intelligent chatbots that have a “conversation” with the visitor, acting as a customer support specialist to direct them toward relevant content and offerings, then verify that it achieved the desired outcome. The chatbot can direct users to self-service tools, human support staff, or alternative methods of contact as needed.

Sandstorm implements solutions that support chat functionality directly in content management systems (CMS) like Drupal with its Chatbot module, but can also integrate third-party chatbot tools like Botsify and others.

2. ‘Look-a-Like’ Models
AI can also include tracking a visitors’ activity for common patterns of search, navigation, and conversion events – identifying “look-a-like” models that can guide similar visitors to content of improved relevance. This often adds a recommendation engine like on Amazon. Artificial intelligence and machine learning relies on the quality and quantity of useful data, including indexed content of the site and applying taxonomy and relationships, utilizing the CRM database, incorporated community platform data, and tracking visitor activity.

3. Personalization
Highly relevant, personalized experiences can be created using platforms like Kentico or Acquia Personalization with its built-in personalization features, but can also integrate third-party marketing automation platforms that leverage AI like Hubspot or Marketo.

In addition to information on the website and data about activity on the website, Sandstorm leverages tools that provide omnichannel tracking including social media and targeted email to drive personalization that informs and improves user experience on the website.

Artificial Intelligence is also baked into analytics platforms like Google Analytics to highlight insights on visitor behavior and trends that can be leveraged to prioritize content creation and identify where to make changes to the website to best support your visitors.

Sandstorm implements Google Analytics on all of our website development projects, or in conjunction with additional native analytics platforms like Adobe Analytics or other platforms. Supplementing the automated insights of these platforms, Sandstorm also provides advanced data research and reporting services, leveraging tools like Google Data Studio and Tableau.

In How AI can shape the future of UX, Sandstorm CEO Sandy Marsico shared “AI and predictive analytics help to determine what the user wants, needs, or does next. AI assists in adding insights, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.”

And while not a replacement for human analysis, AI does play an important and evolving role. “We’re all trying to predict the future,” she says. “AI won’t figure out the problems we need to solve — AI helps us have a deeper understanding of our user so we can tailor our content and messaging to anticipate motivations and behaviors.”

Looking to use AI to drive your business forward? Contact us today to schedule a time to connect!

This blog was posted by Nick on October 12.

About the Author

Nick Meshes

Nick is Sandstorm’s Director of Technology & Data, leading the development, quality assurance, and analytics teams for Sandstorm. He’s boosting our quantitative focus. He’s busy increasing our capabilities in web analytics, website optimization testing, technical SEO, effective SEM and display advertising, privacy, security, business intelligence and personalization.

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