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.
Earlier this year a German court ruled that Amazon’s ‘dash’ buttons violated that country’s consumer protection laws. These super convenient networked devices stick on your fridge or washing machine to order things like laundry detergent and pet food with the simple push of a button. German law requires shoppers to have price information at the time of their transaction. Amazon’s buttons, designed to be convenient, only provided a product logo and a button so users wouldn’t know if a price had increased, decreased or how it differed from competitors.
At Sandstorm, our core eCommerce UX principles include:
- Transparency in pricing
- Giving users the ability to quickly and clearly modify or cancel an order
- Providing ways to quickly decline cross-sells and up-sells
While users have come to expect a standard ‘exit through the gift shop’ process, they are also savvy enough to know that eCommerce sites like Amazon and Expedia may not be showing them the cheapest options first.
Our user research has shown that the current eCommerce shopper is one who will prioritize convenience as much as cost. We refer to this persona as the ‘Energy Manager’. She has little time, is often multi-tasking, desperately craves convenience, and expects competitive pricing. From a saving money standpoint, the Energy Manager will apply all of the coupons and promotional codes she can find and will split orders to use more coupons.
She is also very wary of sites that engage in deceptive practices or make her jump through hoops to complete a transaction. Often these are the sites that do not get return visits.
There Is A Cost For Bad Behavior
While you may be able to frustrate users with complicated interfaces or processes to try and get them to do what you want, ultimately the only thing you’ll achieve is user frustration and brand denigration. Even worse, you’ll probably just earn yourself more customer service calls and brand-eroding, sometimes viral, dreadful complaints across social media channels without achieving the business outcome you desired.
But We Really Want To Sell You That Beer
For example, a Chicago neighborhood movie theater uses its own non-responsive website to sell tickets. The theater uses a drop down for the type of ticket the user would like to purchase.
While lots of folks enjoy a good beer with their movie, it’s apparent that not everyone does because the theater added a note to try and prevent users from making the wrong selection.
So here you have a situation where the theater is defaulting a choice that will make them more money by upselling a beer but have clearly run into the issue of users making the default selection by mistake and then complaining. The resolution to these complaints? Add more copy (i.e. noise) to try and avoid the error.
A transparent, ethical, best practice eCommerce UX solution would be:
This way the user has to intentionally make the selection that applies to them with the most common selection listed first. The business still gets to offer the beer upsell but doesn’t have to deal with as many complaints and no copy is required to work around the error case.
Being Good Pays Off
Users understand that eCommerce sites are businesses and are intended to make money. At Sandstorm, we have discovered that when a businesses’ profit model is clear, it tends to engender more confidence from the user as the best digital experiences are centered around a value exchange (i.e. “I give you my email and you give me a deal”). eCommerce sites that follow UX best practices provide clear pricing information along with relevant up-sells and cross-sells and easy ways for the users to get what they want quickly and easily are the ones who will earn their users’ loyalty. Good UX and good eCommerce will pay off in smoother transactions, less customer support and more repeat business.
Does your eCommerce site provide the pricing transparency and easy shopping experience that users want and good business demands? A great way to find out is with a standardized heuristic evaluation that grades your site on 10 common usability metrics. Contact us to get started.
Since 2005, the Drupal community has gathered at DrupalCon to learn, explore and share. Embracing our “Be Curious” core value, Sandstormers headed for Seattle, WA to the 2019 DrupalCon conference, in order to glean new insights, stay on the pulse of the Drupal roadmap, and uncover better ways to leverage Drupal, all while experiencing the beautiful Pacific Northwest.
Here’s what you need to know from this year’s conference.
1. Don’t wait for Drupal 9. If you’re on Drupal 7, start planning your migration to Drupal 8 now.
Drupal 7 will no longer be community supported as of November 2021. Powerful new features are being released for Drupal 8 every six months, and the path from Drupal 8 to 9 is being engineered to be easy. Moving to Drupal 8 now is the smarter business decision and better investment for most websites.
Why upgrade now instead of later?
Migrating sooner will significantly reduce the delta of the platform, module and architectural changes that need to be addressed. The migration from Drupal 7 to Drupal 8/9 is a significant shift, there’s no getting around that. By upgrading now, you’ll be able to address these changes now, which should put you on a much simpler, less costly upgrade path, once Drupal 9 is released.
In addition, by moving to Drupal 8 now, your ongoing investment in the platform will sustain as you upgrade to Drupal 9. Short-term investments in Drupal 7 (custom development, modules, features, etc.) may need to be re-written once you’re ready to upgrade.
2. Your website speed directly impacts your revenue.
Speed matters- that’s not new. But the disparity between fast sites and slow sites continues to grow. It’s simple: the slower the site, the less revenue you’ll generate. If your site loads in less than 5 seconds, you’re generating about 2x more revenue than if your site was slower.*
…And if that isn’t convincing, consider Amazon, who loses 1% of sales for every 100 milliseconds of increased response time.
3. Seriously consider adding GraphQL to your Drupal environment.
GraphQL (www.graphql.org) is a querying language for APIs and acts as a common language between services and applications. GraphQL was created originally by Facebook as a data-fetching API, so it needed to be powerful, yet easy for product developers to use. Today it powers hundreds of billions of API calls per day.
Why does it make sense?
GraphQL is a powerful choice for businesses who have many disparate services and offerings that need to communicate as it serves as a common language between them. Think of it as the glue that binds the business’ functions together. For example, with GraphQL, the sales app can ask the inventory app if an item is in stock and if either app gets rewritten or modified the communication between the two will not break.
In addition to the simplification of service-service communication, apps using GraphQL can be quick even on slow mobile network connections. While typical REST APIs require loading from multiple URLs, GraphQL APIs get all the data your app needs in a single request.
"I think GraphQL wins my heart because it changes human behavior" - Garrett Heinlen, Netflix
In addition to Netflix and Facebook, companies like Shopify, Walmart, Yelp and the New York Times have embraced GraphQL.
4. Advanced Automated Visual Testing will be a massive step for QA.
Humans can’t detect the most subtle changes in a site but Advanced Automated Visual Testing can. With an automated system for finding discrepancies, we can expect shorter soft release cycles and a larger device operating matrix – making the job easier for QA. This also equates to reduced costs and time savings in identifying those sticky, small bugs.
There are many tools available to enable automated testing in the development cycle, such as WebdriverIO (https://webdriver.io/).
By leveraging the power of automated testing, QA can focus on meaningful work instead of “spot the difference” games.
5. Improving accessibility can produce a clear ROI.
Many companies think about accessibility as it relates to legal compliance. That's a valid concern, but improving your accessibility also presents a huge business opportunity. Improving accessibility can mean increasing the reach of your site by up to 20%.**
Beyond making your content more available to more users, your efforts will likely also drive more traffic through the natural SEO benefits of having well-structured content.
Improving the accessibility of your site is a lifestyle, not a one-time event. Contact us to schedule your Drupal Accessibility Audit.
Concerns with Drupal 7’s end of life for your existing Drupal site? Need a place to start?
Contact us to schedule your Drupal 8 Readiness Assessment to see if moving from Drupal 7 to 8 is right for you!
For more DrupalCon details, check out the State of Drupal presentation: https://dri.es/state-of-drupal-presentation-april-2019
*Joe Shindelar. “Gatsby & Drupal”, DrupalCon Seattle 2019
**Aimee Degnan, Caroline Boyden. “Accessibility Deep Dive”, DrupalCon Seattle 2019
The National Business Institute is a professional association providing continuing legal education (CLE) for attorneys and paralegals for over 35 years and delivering over 18,000 in-person and on-demand resources.
While NBI’s live seminars and OnDemand resources lead the industry, their website and subscriber experience were trailing behind. NBI partnered with Sandstorm—to create a personalized, user-centric (and most importantly, revenue-driving) experience for existing subscribers, transactional customers, and prospects.
Sandstorm began with user research that identified the motivations and expectations of each type of customer. Then, we crafted a myriad of user flows based on user groups, extensive site map, navigation, wireframes and creative to align each step in the purchase process with those expectations.
By conducting usability testing, we uncovered user needs, expectations, and insights, including:
- The use of key statistical information vs. the use of customer testimonials on the homepage was much more impactful to key audiences.
- Including specialty credit details in the search results, since this is a key identifier in the selection of a course and purchase process for users.
- Users wanted stronger use of colors throughout the experience, but still honoring the blue that NBI was well-known for.
Because findability and conversion were primary goals, we needed to determine how to best integrate a robust search throughout the experience. The final site includes multiple layers of search exposed within the experience to ensure users can quickly and easily find desired courses and find them in the format they wish to consume them.
Personalization was also key. Sandstorm worked closely with NBI’s development team to build in targeted courses based on a users’ geolocation and schedule (recommended courses, happening soon, and best sellers).
As NBI was shifting its business model to more emphasis on a subscription model vs. one-off courses, the conversion path to becoming a subscriber needed to be clear and slightly varied experience from an individual visiting the site for the first time.
And, knowing the mobile experience was critical to these users, we crafted and deployed a fully responsive designed experience, including personalization based on returning users vs. new users to the site.
Finally, we extended the user experience and creative via front-end development and collaborated closely with NBI’s in-house development team to ensure the experience seamlessly integrated with NBI’s back-end CMS, technology and complex e-commerce systems.
The Hermes Creative Awards honored the National Business Institute and Sandstorm with a Gold award for the agency’s redesign of the NBI website.
The 2019 award winners were announced by the Association of Marketing and Communication Professionals (AMCP), which administers the annual Hermes Creative Awards international competition.
In addition, the website has experienced significant improvement, including:
- Organic SEO positioning has increased by 20%
- Conversion rates are up 12% year over year
- Experienced higher search and filtering traffic that converts at a much higher rate than the prior site experience
- Received extremely positive feedback from its subscription-based customers via the streamlined and much-improved checkout flow
“Thank you for your help. The site looks great and we couldn’t be happier with what you did for us.”
Jim Embke - Managing Director, National Business Institute
The Society of Actuaries (SOA) is the pre-eminent association for the actuarial profession. With over 30,000 actuaries as members, the SOA’s mission is to advance actuarial knowledge and the ability of actuaries to provide expert advice and solutions for financial, business and societal challenges.
In line with their mission, the SOA wanted to take the conceptual idea of an Actuarial Toolkit and bring that to life in Drupal 8 as a web application. The SOA's existing Glossary App needed to be redeveloped into a web app, in addition to incorporating data from multiple websites.
The SOA kickstarted the project internally with some baseline requirements and initial design mock-ups to support the reimagined Actuarial Toolkit. Sandstorm was able to quickly collaborate with the SOA and build upon the work completed, in order to begin transitioning into more detailed user experience and technical requirements.
The SOA partnered with Sandstorm in order to build an interactive web application that delivered a variety of online resources for actuarial candidates, actuaries, and actuarial analysts. We identified with the SOA that Drupal 8 would be the optimal platform that would offer a high level of flexibility and a scalable development framework to support the desired interactions along with a robust mobile experience.
With a Drupal-based solution and our proposed technical architecture, we were able to provide a scalable framework for the SOA to expand and grow to support the other SOA applications. The goal was to make it simple for the SOA to build out new solutions over time, without significant investment each time. The architecture also supports opportunities to transition to a headless Drupal solution (if desired in the future), which could be used to drive native mobile apps.
In addition, the Actuarial Toolkit supports the longer-term vision and consolidation of its online tools to support the Actuarial Profession.
The Actuarial Toolkit includes the following features:
- Interactive Actuarial Glossary including over 500 peer-reviewed definitions, concepts and practice area terminology for those working with Actuarial Science
- Bookmarking to save favorite pages in the toolkit
- Flashcard function to display glossary terms saved for quick access and review
- Main hub for practice areas, giving users access to pre-defined mathematical definitions and data templates used in the profession including curated live illustrations of actuarial and mathematical concepts using R
- Integrated Single Sign-On experience with the SOA’s Association Management Software system and website so users can move seamlessly through the entire web experience
The SOA launched the new Actuarial Toolkit after working for many months curating the content and finalizing the industry definitions and terminology to ensure a highly usable, high-touch, personalized experience. Overall feedback has been incredibly positive from the SOA membership and community, not only offering an interactive suite of tools to advance learning in the profession but also giving the users even more personalized experiences that they can control.
As part of our annual review process we use the start, stop, continue retrospective technique. We've found it's a great way to recognize successes and opportunities for growth for individuals, teams and organizations. Thinking about the digital transformations we've seen with associations lately, below are some retrospectives on what we see trending with membership organizations.
Creating a culture of data. Using data to inform your decisions and weaving that into everything you do is critical to success. We are working with an association today where we're collecting and analyzing data to identify educational gaps and drive new products (and revenue). We're also utilizing data to drive content and functional requirements on new website builds to improve the member experience. By taking a fresh look at member data for a global membership organization, we were able to re-interpret the data and create new marketing campaign messaging to increase membership and product sales. The combination of qualitative and quantitative data helps associations turn subjective decisions into objective ones. Even when we're talking creative and UX – data science for us plays a huge role.
Stop building websites in proprietary technologies on a web dev shop's server as you are trapping yourself and it’s completely unnecessary now. Many leading associations are utilizing off-the-shelf content managements systems like Drupal, Kentico, etc. to integrate with their AMS and LMS systems, provide personalized member experiences, and track analytics and KPIs. Then you have options when it comes to supporting your chosen system. You can choose to have the original digital agency maintain and support your site, you can select a new partner for support, or bring it in house. We also recommend you own the hosting relationship with a 3rd party provider such as Rackspace, Azure, or AWS so you are never "stuck". We have taken over the maintenance and support for so many association websites that didn't get the service, attention to detail, nor strategic thinking to drive their association forward, and it was all possible because of the CMS they selected (and it's always a smoother transition when a 3rd party hosting provider is involved but not necessary).
Continue focusing on member engagement, member value and the overall member experience. This is what we love most about associations. It doesn't matter if you're a trade association or medical, large or niche, everyone shares a common mission to help your members become more than they can on their own. One of the most common challenges and motivations we've seen for launching into a new website overhaul was to improve their members' online experience and increase online member engagement. And we get it – we, too, are all about the user. When you look into the member journey, continue at all touchpoints to remember we're all just people trying to be the best version of ourselves. Keep the humanity alive in your organization that you have already mastered.
Dr. Karen Bartuch, Sandstorm's Director of Data Science, presented 10 practical innovation tips at the Association Forum Holiday Showcase.
For most organizations, innovation is table stakes for long-term growth and a competitive advantage. Yet, according to McKinsey, 94% of managers surveyed were dissatisfied with their organization's innovation performance. So why are some organizations better at it than others? Google employees are encouraged to spend 20% of their time, in addition to their regular projects, to work on what they think will most benefit Google. Both AdSense and Google News were created this way. But I know what you're thinking, we're not Google.
Innovation is a deliberate choice, and in most organizations, it doesn't accidentally happen as your people need permission to explore and create. And everybody has the capacity to create according to the Componential Theory of Creativity, "..all humans with normal capacities are able to produce at least moderately creative work in some domain, some of the time—and that the social environment (the work environment) can influence both the level and the frequency of creative behavior."
Below are 10 practical tips to unlock your inner innovator and incorporate it into your daily life:
- Don't worry about critiques
- Forget the need to be 100% original
- Go from specific to abstract
- Be aware of shortcuts and biases
- Practice diversity
- Get hands on
- Spend a day in the life
- Carry a sketchbook
- Work during your “peak time”
- Inject humor into the workplace (check out Karen's TEDx Talk)
During this session, attendees got the opportunity to synthesize what research is telling us about the need and desire for innovation, and understand key strategies to infuse creativity and innovation in your organization. Contact us if you want to discuss any upcoming innovation initiatives you'd like help with.
Recently, our vice president of UX and brand innovation, Janna Fiester blew us all away!
Janna is involved with TEDxOakParkWomen, an independent group of Oak Park-based women (and men) committed to bringing forward-thinking innovators together to discuss important topics and spread new ideas throughout the community. In December, Janna co-organized the group’s annual event, which sold out! The room at the Nineteenth Century Club in Oak Park was filled with more than 300 people excited to hear unique point of views from 10 unique speakers.
It was an evening that embodied a Sandstorm value: Be curious! (We recently renamed our value of "learning and sharing" to really highlight what drives us.)
Themed and titled Showing Up, the event covered an array of topics including talking to kids about embracing your own power from within, prioritizing human connection, and how to have a happier relationship.
When Janna took the stage to welcome everyone, you would think that putting it all together was a breeze. She was calm, confident and engaging. She was Janna! And it’s not that there was trouble behind the scenes, it’s that putting a TEDx event together is no small feat. Finding and booking the speakers, promoting and selling tickets, making sure the production went off without a hitch, all while making sure that the 300-plus attendees and the 100-plus watching via Facebook Live witnessed a true TED experience.
But this is the Janna we all know and love. She works hard behind the scenes to create experiences that enhance brands and build relationships, whether they be in her community or between our clients and their customers. And even when she breaks a sweat, she’s always having a good time doing it.
This was Sandstorm’s fourth time partnering with TEDxOakParkWomen, and it’s not only because of Janna’s involvement, though it was Janna who brought the opportunity to us. A TEDx event is just the kind of thing we like to do. We work with brands seeking to transform their customers' experiences and their own digital presence in an ever-changing digital world. Our team is encouraged to engage with forward-thinking and innovative organizations that are making real change in their industries and communities because that’s what we aim to do each day at Sandstorm.
Janna’s awesome success with Showing Up is proof that she understands that if anything is to be successful—an event, a client project, an innovative idea—you have to identify all aspects required for that success then make sure you have the right people involved at the right moment. And that being curious often leads to great things.
The Orthopaedic Trauma Association (OTA) is the authoritative source for the treatment and prevention of musculoskeletal injury. So when they came to us with an underperforming website, we made sure they got the best treatment possible.
OTA’s website exhibited a lot of the traditional symptoms of an aging online presence: disorganized content, a lack of information architecture (IA), overall poor member experience, and outdated design and functionality. They were struggling to come up organically in search and it was critical that OTA engage a partner who could quickly get them where they should be in site rankings, and keep them there. OTA planned to rely upon their selected partner not only to redesign their site, but also to help them maintain their site moving forward in a manner that would promote SEO.
Based on OTA’s website goals, technical requirements, API integrations, SEO concerns and content authoring needs, we determined that Drupal 8 would be the recommended content management system (CMS) for the OTA team. With Drupal, we were easily able to implement single sign-on (SSO) through OTA’s association member platform—ACGI. And by utilizing Apache Solr Search, we were able to make the search more robust throughout the site – improving the overall user experience for members.
To improve the overall usability of the site, and increase organic search rankings, we conducted keyword research and analysis to identify heavily searched terms applicable to their industry, and built the sitemap, navigation and information architecture around the research findings. We designed with user experience (UX) best practices while creating consistent branding throughout the site—expanding the color palette, identifying fonts the OTA brand could differentiate with, and utilized custom imagery. Altogether, this made content easier to find for users and easier to update for the association.
Within the first month after launch, OTA’s new website experienced unprecedented results:
- 986% increase in traffic from Google
- 497% increase in organic search traffic
- 54% increase in new users
- 65% increase in pageviews
- 22% decrease in bounce rate
“Planning and implementing a website redesign can be a momentous undertaking, especially for a small staff association. Sandstorm could not have made the process easier for our team.
Their exceptional technical and creative talent, along with the high level of customer service provided throughout the project, made the process as seamless as a website redesign can be. And our new (and very much improved) website has been well received by the Orthopaedic Trauma Association (OTA) membership!”
– Kathleen Caswell, CAE, Executive Director
Visit the new site: https://ota.org/
What an extraordinary adventure it’s been! Twenty years ago, You’ve Got Mail starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks had just come out. Modem speed had to be considered when we were designing websites. And it was easy to get a .com URL.
Reflecting on the past two decades, It’s the Sandstormers (past and present) who have made this company what it is today. Together, we’ve taken risks, competed for the best Halloween costumes, traded playlists, compiled crazy travel stories, sent a lot of memes, devoured a lot of guacamole, and created long-standing Sandstorm traditions.
So in honor of 20 years, here are 20 fun memories we’ve created together:
Sandstorm launches our first website in Flash.
We relaunch our website in HTML and get our first web lead, Careerbuilder.com — thank you for working with us for over a decade!
We partner with ReVive Center for Housing & Healing (formally Cathedral Shelter) and donate our time to create their annual report (which we continue to do today).
Sandstorm moves into our first official office space of 1,000 sq. ft.
We celebrate the holidays by sharing tapas at Cafe Ba-Ba-Rebba!, which has now become a Sandstorm tradition.
We ate so many bacon wrapped dates we lost count!
First Guac Off (Janna Fiester wins with her fancy roasted peppers!)
Sandstorm launches our UX practice and wins our first Fortune 500 client.
Sandstorm expands to a new office right off the ‘L’ line. It was so loud Mike had to put up plexiglass over our windows to help mute the train.
Who remembers us saying, “Hold on a second the train is going by… Okay, you can talk again.”?
We build our own usability lab and within days conduct a study for American Academy of Pediatrics.
We expand office space again and add new huddle rooms.
Our first Super Secret Event: All the Sandstormers go to see Harry Potter.
We expand. Again! This time, Sandstorm moves back into our first building and into Sandy’s dream office space in suite 300.
Our first time on the Inc. 500/5000.
We win Fortune’s Top 100 Fastest Growing Inner City Companies in America Award for the first time.
Featured on CNBC with Marcus Lemonis.
Our office space expands, and we reclaim the original office we had in 2005.
Sandstorm launches our data practice.
We finally redesigned our logo (thank you for your unwavering patience Janna and Nathan!)
We build a new chef’s kitchen, our Hogwarts library, and the Idea Lab as part of our continued expansion.
Today, Sandstorm celebrates 20 years by paying it forward with the Night Ministry, bagging lunches, and donating hundreds of pajamas for homeless youth.
How does one even begin to say thank you to everyone that has made celebrating 20 years in business possible? We have an amazing team, some of the smartest people I have ever met, solving some really interesting problems with technologies that didn’t even exist when we started. Thank you hardly seems enough.
To our clients: Thank you for your collaboration and partnership to create better digital brand experiences together. Because of you, we’ve gotten the chance to grow individually and as a company. I could never thank you enough. And I’m honored that so many of these relationships grew into long-lasting friendships.
To everyone at Sandstorm: Thank you for making Sandstorm yours. From moving furniture and leading social events, to bringing the warrior spirit to your work every day, your drive and passion and fearlessness to create is inspiring, and so much fun to be a part of. It’s an honor to work with you. And a special thank you to Mike Marsico, Alma and Nick Meshes, and Janna and Tim Fiester for believing in our vision to build a different kind of agency from the beginning.
To my advisory and peer advisory boards: Thank you for providing me with the direction and confidence to lead, sharing your pride in our growth, and for your encouragement through the challenges.
To my family and friends: I couldn’t have started this journey, or continued this growth, without you believing in me.
I’m super excited for what comes next,
It’s an honor to be on Fortune’s list of the 100 Fastest Growing Inner City Companies for the fifth time. But it also gives us pause. Because while we’re extremely lucky to continue experiencing growth, large parts of Chicago—the city we call home—are struggling.
So instead of taking this moment to pat ourselves on the back, we’re rolling up our sleeves.
We’re partnering with our neighbors at The Night Ministry, who support Chicago’s homeless population. On November 9th, we’re hosting a lunch-and-learn event for our team members, where they’ll gain knowledge about this amazing charity, then create care packages using items we donate. And we’re encouraging you to #ShareYourGoodFortune with The Night Ministry and with us on social media. Together, we’ll make an even greater impact on those who need our help!