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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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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 Meshes

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

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Emily Kodner
Emily Kodner

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

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Nathan Haas
Nathan Haas

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

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Andy Cullen
Andy Cullen

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

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Janna Fiester
Janna Fiester

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

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Alma Meshes
Alma Meshes

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

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Sandy Marsico, Founder & CEO
Sandy Marsico

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

Recent Posts

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.
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.

Janna
What are In-Depth User Interviews and when should you use them.

Whether you’re building a new website from the ground up or looking to improve your existing site, involving users in the design process is a crucial step to meeting both your users’ needs and your organization’s goals. There are 4 types of user research that all contribute to the success of your design process.

  1. In-depth user interviews
  2. Card sorting and tree testing
  3. Usability testing
  4. Heuristic analysis

Use these methods to gain insight on what your users want, what’s working well on your site and where you need to make improvements.

In a perfect world you’d employ all or most of these techniques in your design process, but if you have a limited budget (and who doesn’t) you’ll want to invest in the research method that provides the most benefit for your needs. Over the next few weeks I will be discussing each approach individually outlining their benefits and drawbacks. This week we have in-depth user research interviews.

In-Depth User Research Interviews

User interviews help you uncover what’s important to your users and what they want from your site. This helps you create user stories and determine content and functional requirements before you start your web development.

Going a step further, the results can be used to develop personas to guide you through the entire design process. We recommend one to one interviews (which can be done over the phone or in person) with 10–12 users from each of your user groups.

Why should I use this approach?

In-Depth Interviews answer the following questions:

  • How do I understand my users?
  • What features would bring the most benefit to my site and users?
  • What do users think about our brand compared to our competitors?
  • How should we be engaging our customers?

What do they achieve?

The benefits and results of user interviews include:

  • Developing user stories and requirements.
  • Ensuring you’re spending your budget on the content and functionality that will bring the most value to your users and your organization.
  • Aligning organizational goals with user goals

It’s always a good time to talk to your users.

This should be the first step if you are redesigning your site, converting to be a responsive website, or starting a new site from scratch. It’s also a good place to start if you are looking to make big changes to an existing site. Quite simply, if you’re not talking to your users, you’re missing opportunities. No matter where you are in the process if you haven’t spoken to your users, do it now.

I’m ready, where do I begin?

Depending on the number of user groups you select, the interview process takes two to four weeks to complete. Below is a six step outline based on how I (and Sandstorm) conducts user interviews:

  1. Identify your research goals. What questions are you trying to answer?
  2. Determine what types of users (user groups) will participate in the study. A user group is a set of users who have similar goals or use cases on your site or application. This is different from demographics.
  3. Write a protocol, that’s a fancy word for the list of questions you’re going to ask your users.
  4. Recruit and schedule the interviews. Interviews can be conducted over the phone to make it convenient for the participants. We recommend offering a gratuity or incentive to participate.
  5. Conduct the interviews, 30 to 45 minutes each should be good.
  6. Analyze the results and develop your user stories, requirements and/or personas. The results can also be helpful in making business decisions about the scope of your project.

Is there a way to simplify?

Here are a few hints to help your interviews and process go smoothly and give you better results:

  1. Ask a mix of open-ended and behavior based questions. For example, what’s the primary reason you visit website.com? Tell me about the last time you visited website.com, what did you visit for? Tell me 3 things you like about it? Tell me 3 things you would like to see improved?
  2. Allow space for follow up and probing questions like, can you tell me more about that? Can you give me an example?
  3. Be consistent, follow up questions may vary but be sure to follow your protocol with all participants. You’re looking to identify trends, so you’ll need to be consistent in your research methods.

You get results

The result of your In-Depth User Research Interviews is a user research report with user stories, content and functional requirements and personas. This can fuel your design and even reconsider your product and how you market it. Since you now have data on who your target is, you’re equipped with a powerful tool to serve them better than ever.

[Read the second post in this series on user research: Card Sorting and Testing Trees.]

This blog was posted by Janna on May 4.
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.

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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