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James Wynne
James Wynne

James Wynne is Director of User Experience for Sandstorm and has been in digital product development since 1996. He has worked as a UX designer for a myriad of clients including large eCommerce brands, mobile device manufacturers and integrated marketing agencies.

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Andrea Wood
Andrea Wood

Andrea is Sandstorm's Managing Director and leader of our marketing strategy team. Like Goldilocks, she found her "just right" spot at Sandstorm after working in various large international and smaller startup agencies. Andrea loves tackling all kinds of problems and sees them as opportunities to do more, better or differently.

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Karen Bartuch
Karen Bartuch

Karen Bartuch is passionate about data and uncovering hidden insights to help her clients make better business decisions. She enjoys taking an innovative yet evidence-based approach to her work.

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Abbey Galvin, CSM
Abbey Galvin

Abbey is a Senior Project Manager and brings her resourceful and driven nature to Sandstorm Design. She has tons of experience working for associations, non-profits, and political campaigns and is a Certified Scrum Master.  Abbey loves problem-solving complex digital projects.

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Ron Brown
Ron Brown

As a digital strategist, Ron is focused on creating campaigns and unique communications that drive engagement.

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Emma Thompson
Emma Thompson

As an Associate Digital Strategist, Emma has a background in ad sales and a desire to create strong brand identities.

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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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Megan Durst, digital strategist
Megan Durst

Building strong client relationships in between running 5Ks

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Bill Kurland, Copywriter
Bill Kurland

Copywriter Extraordinaire

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joshua sovell
Joshua Sovell

As the Marketing Manager Joshua is in charge of crafting the Sandstorm narrative via compelling blog content and community engagement.

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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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John Rausch
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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Lisa Goepfrich
Lisa Goepfrich

Lisa is a Digital Strategist who is extraordinarily adept at building visual stories.

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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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Alicia Newland age 5
Alicia Newland

Alicia is an Account Director with 15+ years of experience on the agency side. Her first job as a paper carrier back in the 80’s, planted the seed for her dedication to building solid client relationships and her love of media.

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Tracy Graham
Tracy Graham

Tracy is Senior Designer at Sandstorm. His background in design and photography for print and web with experience in multiple industries makes him a Swiss army knife of creative awesomeness.

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Sean Fuller
Sean Fuller

As Technology Director, Sean is a hands-on developer and technical lead on projects. He works with design and strategist teams from kick off through launch to plan, design and execute technical solutions for client projects. 

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Reilly Willson
Reilly Willson

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

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Amanda Tacker
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.

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Kellye Blosser
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.

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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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Megan Culligan
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.

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Meaghan Glennan
Meaghan Glennan

Meaghan is a storyteller. From the Granite State to the City of Broad Shoulders, she's created impactful true-life tales about people, places, businesses and events. As she guides Sandstorm's story by directing our marketing communications, you'll see a lot of her unique perspective and style.

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Holly Brinkman
Holly Brinkman

Holly's title at Sandstorm Design is Strategy, Research, and Writing, as she does a little bit of everything. She loves clever advertisements, strong brands, social media, and intuitive web sites.

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Matt Chiaromonte
Matt Chiaromonte

Matt is a copywriter and social media guru in Sandstorm’s Internship Program. With a background in marketing, journalism, and improv comedy, Matt brings equal parts knowledge and entertainment to our little corner of the Internet. When he isn’t generating social media content, Matt can be found enjoying pizza, podcasts, and many other things that begin with the letter “p”.

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Amanda Elliott
Amanda Elliott

Amanda Elliott is the Marketing Coordinator at Sandstorm Design. She absorbs the creative energy from our leadership team and facilitates the team so they can focus entirely on solving client challenges. She is passionate about anticipating needs, solving problems, and making projects fun.

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Sharonda Thomas
Sharonda Thomas

Our newest social media marketing and copywriting intern Sharonda has a passion for producing read-worthy content. Knowledgeable with various social platforms she will combine her communications and journalism background with her love of social media to keep our audience engaged. An artist at heart, Sharonda spends her free time cooking, painting, and barbering.

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Karen Boehl
Karen Boehl

Karen does a little bit of everything – webmaster, social media manager and search engine optimizer. She can most often be found on Twitter, in the Usability Lab, or happily buried in the Drupal admin menu.

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Jason Dabrowski
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.

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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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Kyle Lamble
Kyle Lamble

Kyle is your stereotypical bluehat hacker, by day, who wants you to upgrade your browser to support his love for cutting edge web development techniques. By night, he is a curator and publisher of art. Co-founder of Loosey Goosey Art, Kyle spends much of his off time helping artists find their inner potential.

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Will Biby
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.

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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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Derek Vanderlaan
Derek Vanderlaan

Derek Vander Laan is Sandstorm's Senior Design Architect. With 20 years of experience, he designs web sites, infographics, and interactive digital experiences. His creative skills are always at work either at his desk or plotting a prank for someone else's.

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Andrew Jarvis
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.

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Michael Hartman
Michael Hartman

As Sandstorm's Technology and Usability Director, Michael leads our developers and usability researchers in creating web sites and applications—both desktop and mobile—that embody our favorite blend: intuitive user experience and dynamic Drupal development.

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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

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.

Colors do not play well in all marketing tactics

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.

Accessibility is more important today than ever before

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.
  • Goggle 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?

Tone up your branded 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.

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.

Checking 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.

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.

Ratio, WCAG… What???

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 of our clients determine AA compliance is their goal. Only one has tackled AAA.

But you are not in this alone. Sandstorm conducts 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.

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, 2020.
Nick Meshes

About the Author

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.

Amanda Heberg
How the Agile Process Helped Launch a Boat (Show)

The Agile Process

Scrum? Agile? Waterfall? Kaban? You likely have heard of these concepts and maybe adopted some version to your software, application or website development projects.

In its simplest form, Agile methodology is a project management process.

Scrum comes from the sport of rugby, where in a scrum formation everyone plays a specific role working towards a quick adoption of strategies. In complex projects just like on the rugby field, scrum facilitates team collaboration and iterative progress towards a goal. Teams practicing Scrum use Agile methodology.

As a Scrum Master, I make sure the team lives agile values and principles and follows team processes and practices. The responsibilities include establishing an environment where the team can be effective and clearing obstacles along the way.

For a look into how we put all this into practice, here is work we did recently in partnership with the nation’s leading trade association representing boat, marine engine, and accessory manufacturers, the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

The Challenge

The National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) has an expansive ecosystem of websites across multiple business units and the boat, marine engine, and accessory manufacturer audiences it serves. Primary among these websites are more than 15 websites that serve the Boat Shows happening across the country, like the Chicago Boat Show (www.chicagoboatshow.com), which hosts hundreds of thousands of attendees.

Over the past two years, NMMA made significant investments in Acquia (Drupal’s Platform as a Service, PaaS) and moved its websites to the Acquia Cloud and Digital Experience Platform (DXP), with the goal of centralized site and application management and reducing the time required for labor-intensive infrastructure management.

Following the transition to Acquia, NMMA asked for Sandstorm’s support against clear goals for the project of providing centralized management of the multisite environment, uniform content blocks and streamlining code as well as fully optimizing the site for performance, SEO, user flow and content administration.

The Solution

The highest priority for NMMA was tackling the Boat Show sites, as there were UI updates and improvements that needed to be implemented. We also needed to re-architect the multi-site management so the collection of roughly 15+ sites used consistent theming, features and components along with the set-up of continuous integration. This meant creating a deployment structure to support clear data management of the different sites, including content blocks and forms and controlling the changes to be tested through one branch.

Given the time-sensitivity and breadth of the work needing to be done, Sandstorm and NMMA collaborated through an Agile development methodology, using the Scrum framework. This supported a combined Sandstorm & NMMA team with clear roles, an ability to prioritize what stakeholders needed the most, and the ability to adhere to a tight timeline with productive, incremental sprints.

Each sprint was prioritized by NMMA to include enhancements, structural updates, and process improvements while keeping close management of the backlog, so we could reprioritize as the needs of the business shifted. Sandstorm led a daily scrum where the full team communicated tasks, updates, challenges, etc., which provided a continuous cycle of teamwork-led solutions each day.

The Results

There were several successes from an agile-led partnership for both NMMA and Sandstorm, including:

  • Improved administrative user experience and streamlined management of the NMMA Boat Shows websites within the multi-site framework.
    • Allowing for one branch update to affect multiple sites and changes to be adapted faster with no rework for the individual sites.
  • Improved technical documentation. By managing development features and notes via Jira cards, we were able to instantly improve technical documentation and help structure the deployment processes.
  • Stronger NMMA ownership. With an integrated approach and stronger team-wide knowledge and documentation of the systems and processes, NMMA was able to take more ownership of the product and had the tools in place to support current and future team members.
    • This was key for the multi-site deployment process and management of the separate databases per show site.
    • The development and deployment process can be controlled by the NMMA team and not one single team holds the keys to that process alone.
    • The NMMA team became sufficiently knowledgeable in managing their improved Acquia & Drupal 8 website’s structure and can stand on their own.
    • This allows NMMA to leverage Sandstorm’s expertise for future code enhancement implementations instead of spending budget resources on day-to-day management.

With this implemented Scrum framework, the combined Sandstorm and NMMA teams were able to build features efficiently, easily prioritize work and progress through the project quickly and successfully.

Want to learn how our integrated Agile and Scrum methodology can help move your development efforts forward? Contact us today to learn more!

This blog was posted by Amanda Heberg on February 26.
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.

Sandy
Chicago Usability Consulting and Website Usability Testing

Website usability testing consistently demonstrates value by creating the optimal user experience BEFORE the cost of development begins. 

With an onsite usability lab, mobile testing equipment, and remote testing capabilities (perfect for COVID-19), working with Sandstorm is like having your own in-house user research and usability department. We've conducted 3,400+ hours of UX research and usability studies globally for everyone from tech start-ups to Fortune 500 organizations, retail commerce to membership organizations, on mobile devices, tablets, and desktops. Our usability service and methodology were developed by a Ph.D. in Human Factors.  

Below are the 5 most commonly asked questions regarding usability testing.

website usability testing example


1. How does it work?
Our website usability testing involves watching people trying to use your website for its intended purpose. Starting with real-life scenarios, Sandstorm will observe, record, and take notes while a user performs the task to get to the core of what works and what doesn't on your website.

Website usability testing allows us to determine whether or not users can accomplish specific goals. It is part of our user experience design philosophy that allows us to collect first-hand behavioral data from real users. Each usability test consists of creating a test plan, conducting the study with actual users, analyzing findings, communicating results, and making design recommendations based on our findings. As a result, we save development time and money and reduce guessing and subjective arguing.

2. How long does it take?
On average, a series of usability studies can be conducted over 1-2 days. The entire process including protocol development, recruitment, scheduling, and testing lasts about 3-4 weeks. 

3. Where do you conduct the study?
Usability testing can be done anywhere -- onsite in our usability lab, across the globe, or virtually based on your requirements. This flexibility has become much more important in the midst of the pandemic.

4. What is my end result? 
A full website usability report including the usability study details as well as key findings AND a recommendation for every finding (most reports don't - that's where our consulting comes in). Upon request, we also provide detailed presentations that highlight our findings and include audio and visual of users participating in the usability study. We can also create detailed wireframes, flow diagrams, or design updates based on our findings to get you to your end result quicker. 

5. Where do you get your participants from? For B2C clients, recruiting from the extensive Sandstorm network and supplementing with social media works great. For B2B organizations it's often a combination of our client providing contact info of customers (or members); social media recruiting; and if it's a specific request (c-suite, etc.), we include a recruiting firm in our search. People are happy to provide their feedback, and we always pay a gratuity. 

Did you know we only need 5-6 users to uncover 80% of your usability problems? Happy to chat about our website usability testing - reach out!

This blog was posted by Sandy on December 1.
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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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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Andrea Wood
Designing History: The OI Centennial Website

How do you tell the story of saving a 2,000-year-old language over 9 decades, using fragments of tablets and inscriptions on ancient winged bulls to reveal a 6,000-year-old culture? Or tell the story of 100 years of research exploring 10,000 years of history?

This was our charge when we took on the responsibility for creating the Oriental Institute’s centennial site. To tell the stories that are the beginning of us, our lives as humans, together.

Founded in 1919, The Oriental Institute (OI) at the University of Chicago is a leading research center and world-renowned museum devoted to studying the civilizations of the ancient Middle East. The OI Museum exhibits one of the largest collections resulting from archaeological fieldwork in the Middle East, including more than 350,000 artifacts with roughly 5,000 on display on the University of Chicago campus.

Originally funded by a handful of visionaries including James Henry Breasted and John D. Rockefeller Jr., the OI has been a groundbreaking institution for over a century.

The Challenge

With a centennial approaching and over 10,000 years of stories to tell, the OI had a new challenge: find an interactive storytelling way to share the wealth of information uncovered over the years as well as present new expeditions and discoveries going on today. The OI needed a partner to create a digital experience celebrating its Centennial year and showcasing its 100 years of connecting ancient places, people and issues. The OI selected Sandstorm to lead this effort.

The Solution

Sandstorm and the OI team underwent a thorough UX and creative UI process while leveraging the new branding that was being designed specifically for the Centennial and the rebranded identity for the OI itself. The primary goal was to deliver an interactive, high-touch, narrative experience while showcasing the incredible depth of research projects and overall work of the OI. 

In addition, a key goal was to drive users to engage with the OI: registering for the Centennial Gala, donating, becoming a member, visiting the museum, or even adopting a dig. Making sure these CTAs and conversions link back to the main OI site was key, while also elevating the Centennial as a major milestone for the organization. 

Sandstorm implemented a new Drupal 8 instance for the OI centennial site and configured the CMS for design flexibility in the future. Over the course of a few months, Sandstorm transformed key content related to the OI’s history, research projects, fieldwork, and museum collection into a well-curated, digital microsite experience.

“The OI needed a website that would display a wide range of media types with pictures and videos but we really wanted to focus on interactive elements as well and find the most engaging way to display their research to users,” said Jeff Umbricht, lead developer of the Centennial site. “With work all over the world, we decided to create an interactive map that presents a visual navigational tool to explore key discoveries.”

To encourage museum visits and membership, Sandstorm also included an easy to access events page for visitors to experience OI events throughout the year.

Key elements of the experience:

  • Emphasis on displaying a wide range of information in a concise, scannable way.
  • Extending Drupal modules and features for strong content editor control and flexibility.
  • Interactive map to display research efforts in key locations in the Middle East. The solution provides an ideal balance of performance and interactivity.
  • Mobile-first approach that ensures the user has the same level of interactivity and scannability from any device.
  • Built targeting WCAG 2.0AA accessibility standards

Results

With the website complete, the University of Chicago has begun promoting the Oriental Institute’s Centennial, which kicks off in September with a Centennial Gala followed by a public event and includes activities throughout the 2019–2020 academic year. 

Visit oi100.uchicago.edu to learn more and be sure to visit the museum in person on the University’s campus in Hyde Park Chicago.

“Sandstorm’s work creating a digital experience for our Centennial celebration is a key element of our year-long effort focused on sharing not just the legacy and historical impact of the OI in understanding, revealing, and protecting the earliest human civilizations, but also recognizing that through our ongoing research and public outreach we can offer new ways of thinking about what connects us and why.”

- Dr. Kiersten Neumann, Curator of the Oriental Institute Museum, and Research Associate and Communications Associate of the Oriental Institute

Sandstorm wins Marcom Gold AwardHermes gold award 2020

 
This blog was posted by Andrea Wood on September 26, 2019.
Andrea Wood

About the Author

Andrea Wood

Andrea is Sandstorm's Managing Director and leader of our marketing strategy team. Like Goldilocks, she found her "just right" spot at Sandstorm after working in various large international and smaller startup agencies. Andrea loves tackling all kinds of problems and sees them as opportunities to do more, better or differently.

Janna
ACOEM's New Website Wins a dotCOMM Gold Award for It’s Intuitive UX and Enriched Member Experience Built In Kentico

About

American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) is the leading association of medical professionals who advocate and oversee the health of workers, the safety of workplaces and the overall quality of environments.

The Challenge

ACOEM’s website and several related microsites utilized an outdated technology, an ineffective user experience that did not reflect the mission of the association nor the user needs of the occupational and environmental medicine community. The content was extremely deep and relied on a poor search experience, which often led to users contacting the help desk, putting unnecessary strain on their staff, or abandoning the site.

Goals of the redesign included: ensuring the site informed users about occupational and environmental medicine (no tree-doctors need apply); Single sign-on for critical member benefits; reaching emerging professionals entering the workforce (career ops, connecting with peers, educational content); and offering special interest communities to connect and increase member engagement.

The Solution

The new site needed to be clean, intuitive, mobile-first with integrated faceted search, while delivering a robust administration experience for ongoing content management by ACOEM staff.

ACOEM wanted the new site to work from the existing marketing materials, but not be a slave to the printed brand. Sandstorm knew going straight to visual UI layouts would not give the teams the opportunity to work together—to “Yes, And”, which is one of Sandstorm’s guiding principles for our creative work. Because of this, Sandstorm began the UI process with brand/mood boards in order to gain alignment on the visual direction. Once a brand/mood board was selected, Sandstorm quickly transitioned into visual user interface designs with a mobile-first strategy.

We also identified the navigational structure was going to be broad and deep resulting in a dense navigational structure. ACOEM was extremely motivated to use a unique mobile-first drawer pattern for the navigation on all viewports. This innovative navigation resulted in a very clean experience that was user-friendly and unique within the association space.

Sandstorm’s UX and Kentico-certified development team worked collaboratively to build the page layouts using a form-based model instead of an open structure. This approach enabled the site to embody a consistent user experience while making site content and image updates intuitive and easy to manage for the ACOEM team. Knowing search was fundamental to the overall user experience, we leveraged Kentico’s tagging, categorization, Google sitemap, and Smart Search to significantly improve the relevancy and findability of key content; in addition to integrating with Fonteva’s AMS to deliver a personalized member experience.

The website was a critical part of ACOEM’s overall digital transformation journey led by our partner, .orgSource, as they helped modernize the technology landscape including new software for the AMS, finance and workflow analysis.

The Results

The dotCOMM Awards honored the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and Sandstorm with a Gold award honoring excellence in web creativity and digital communications in the association space. Check out the new ACOEM site.

The 2019 dotCOMM Awards is administered and judged by the Association of Marketing and Communication Professionals (AMCP), one of the largest, oldest and most respected evaluators of creative work in the marketing and communication industry.

Since launch in January 2019, ACOEM has seen significant improvement, including:

  • User interactions (sessions) increased 32%
  • Return visitors increased 18%
  • New users (no prior sessions) increased 13%

Sandstorm continues a strong partnership with ACOEM and provides ongoing UX/UI improvements, development and AMS integration support and maintenance for the site, including data analytics in order to drive key insights for optimization. In addition, to further extend the Kentico platform, Sandstorm is underway with building much improved Member and Find a Provider searchable directories that leverage key user data stored in Salesforce (Fonteva), as these are highly visible (and highly utilized) features of the site.

This blog was posted by Janna on August 20, 2019.
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.

Sandy
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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Janna
How to make your website more inclusive by design

If your website was a physical location, would you build it without access for people with disabilities? Of course not. You’re not a heartless monster. But a surprising number of websites forget about the needs of people with disabilities. Inclusive design seeks to change that.

The principle behind inclusive design is creating products and services that everyone can use. Not only does that provide accessibility to your website for people with disabilities, it creates a better experience for all of your users.

Color contrast is a big part of inclusive design and web accessibility. As one of the most important tools in our utility belt, color choice is a big part of a designer’s work. We use it for emotive and illustrative purposes. Red, for example, can be a great color to highlight importance and urgency. Contrasting it with white type can help draw the eye, and that color combination is great for getting users to address alerts.

So what happens when a user has difficulty seeing the color red? Well, it turns out that white text on a red background is completely invisible to people with color blindness—something we discovered during one of our usability studies. In fact, there are a number of color combinations that cause problems for the visually impaired.

Luckily, there are organizations like World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to create standards for accessibility issues like color contrast. In fact, W3C went so far as to establish extensive Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, and the web community responded by developing tools that help designers create more inclusive sites.

Some of those tools, like WebAIM and Colorable, focus specifically on color contrast. To meet WCAG, normal, non-bolded text should have a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1; for large text it should be at least 3:1.

What else can you do to start making sure your website is more accessible and inclusive?

1. Add Alternative Text to Images

“Alt text” is essential to web accessibility. Assistive technology, such as screen readers, relies on alt text to turn images into braille or speech for the impaired.

Most content management systems, like Drupal or Kentico, include an alt tag field for images. Start with your company logo, then add descriptive alt text for each image on your site.

2. Use the Right Heading Structure

Correctly ordering the HTML headings on each page makes it much easier for screen readers and the visually impaired to navigate your site. While design considerations might require this order to shift, try to follow it where you can. At the very least, make your page title and h1 consistent—it’ll help the people using screen readers to make sense of the content.

3. Stop Using “Click Here”

For many reasons, please stop using “click here” as link text. Not only does it make content seem outdated, “click here” is a vague and confusing link description for people who use screen readers. Instead, use strong verbs that tell users what you want them to do and what they get in return:

  • Register for the event
  • Request more information
  • Download this report

4. Utilize Free Web Evaluation Tools

In addition to color contrast tools, enterprising developers have created lots of free tools that evaluate your website’s accessibility.

WAVE, for example, provides a breakdown of errors, alerts, and features in a list form and a visual overlay so you can identify opportunities to improve your site.

Web accessibility isn’t a cut-and-dried, check-it-off-the-list process. But when you design with all of your users in mind, you make your website a more inclusive place to be. And who doesn’t want to be a part of that?

This blog was posted by Janna on August 2.
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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