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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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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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Terribeth Beasley
Terribeth Beasley

As a QA Analyst, Terribeth is detail oriented and driven to provide excellence within every project.

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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 Analytics and Technology. 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

Sandy
Sandstorm has acquired Jacobs Agency

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

Our two independently-owned, awarding-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

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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James Wynne
eCommerce UX Best Practices: Good Ethics is Good UX & Good eCommerce

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.

Unethical ecommerce dropdown example

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:

Ethical ecommerce dropdown example

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.

This blog was posted by James Wynne on June 10, 2019.
James Wynne

About the Author

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.

Emily Kodner
5 Key Themes Everyone on Drupal Needs to Know From DrupalCon 2019

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

This blog was posted by Emily Kodner on May 15, 2019.
Emily Kodner

About the Author

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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Amanda Heberg
Search-driven web experience for the National Business Institute

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.

The Challenge
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.

The Solution
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 Results
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

This blog was posted by Amanda Heberg on April 30, 2019.
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.

Amanda Heberg
The Society of Actuaries innovates with an Interactive Toolkit in Drupal 8

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.

The Challenge

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 Solution

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 Results

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.

https://actuarialtoolkit.soa.org/

This blog was posted by Amanda Heberg on April 22, 2019.
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
3 Digital Trends Associations Should Start, Stop and Continue Doing

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. 

START
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
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
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.

This blog was posted by Sandy on February 19, 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.

Sandy
Innovation as a Learned Behavior


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:

  1. Don't worry about critiques
  2. Forget the need to be 100% original
  3. Go from specific to abstract
  4. Be aware of shortcuts and biases
  5. Practice diversity
  6. Get hands on
  7. Spend a day in the life
  8. Carry a sketchbook
  9. Work during your “peak time”
  10. 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.

This blog was posted by Sandy on January 28, 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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