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.
The National Business Institute is a professional association providing continuing legal education (CLE) for attorneys and paralegals for over 35 years and delivering over 18,000 in-person and on-demand resources.
While NBI’s live seminars and OnDemand resources lead the industry, their website and subscriber experience were trailing behind. NBI partnered with Sandstorm—to create a personalized, user-centric (and most importantly, revenue-driving) experience for existing subscribers, transactional customers, and prospects.
Sandstorm began with user research that identified the motivations and expectations of each type of customer. Then, we crafted a myriad of user flows based on user groups, extensive site map, navigation, wireframes and creative to align each step in the purchase process with those expectations.
By conducting usability testing, we uncovered user needs, expectations, and insights, including:
- The use of key statistical information vs. the use of customer testimonials on the homepage was much more impactful to key audiences.
- Including specialty credit details in the search results, since this is a key identifier in the selection of a course and purchase process for users.
- Users wanted stronger use of colors throughout the experience, but still honoring the blue that NBI was well-known for.
Because findability and conversion were primary goals, we needed to determine how to best integrate a robust search throughout the experience. The final site includes multiple layers of search exposed within the experience to ensure users can quickly and easily find desired courses and find them in the format they wish to consume them.
Personalization was also key. Sandstorm worked closely with NBI’s development team to build in targeted courses based on a users’ geolocation and schedule (recommended courses, happening soon, and best sellers).
As NBI was shifting its business model to more emphasis on a subscription model vs. one-off courses, the conversion path to becoming a subscriber needed to be clear and slightly varied experience from an individual visiting the site for the first time.
And, knowing the mobile experience was critical to these users, we crafted and deployed a fully responsive designed experience, including personalization based on returning users vs. new users to the site.
Finally, we extended the user experience and creative via front-end development and collaborated closely with NBI’s in-house development team to ensure the experience seamlessly integrated with NBI’s back-end CMS, technology and complex e-commerce systems.
The Hermes Creative Awards honored the National Business Institute and Sandstorm with a Gold award for the agency’s redesign of the NBI website.
The 2019 award winners were announced by the Association of Marketing and Communication Professionals (AMCP), which administers the annual Hermes Creative Awards international competition.
In addition, the website has experienced significant improvement, including:
- Organic SEO positioning has increased by 20%
- Conversion rates are up 12% year over year
- Experienced higher search and filtering traffic that converts at a much higher rate than the prior site experience
- Received extremely positive feedback from its subscription-based customers via the streamlined and much-improved checkout flow
“Thank you for your help. The site looks great and we couldn’t be happier with what you did for us.”
Jim Embke - Managing Director, National Business Institute
The Society of Actuaries (SOA) is the pre-eminent association for the actuarial profession. With over 30,000 actuaries as members, the SOA’s mission is to advance actuarial knowledge and the ability of actuaries to provide expert advice and solutions for financial, business and societal challenges.
In line with their mission, the SOA wanted to take the conceptual idea of an Actuarial Toolkit and bring that to life in Drupal 8 as a web application. The SOA's existing Glossary App needed to be redeveloped into a web app, in addition to incorporating data from multiple websites.
The SOA kickstarted the project internally with some baseline requirements and initial design mock-ups to support the reimagined Actuarial Toolkit. Sandstorm was able to quickly collaborate with the SOA and build upon the work completed, in order to begin transitioning into more detailed user experience and technical requirements.
The SOA partnered with Sandstorm in order to build an interactive web application that delivered a variety of online resources for actuarial candidates, actuaries, and actuarial analysts. We identified with the SOA that Drupal 8 would be the optimal platform that would offer a high level of flexibility and a scalable development framework to support the desired interactions along with a robust mobile experience.
With a Drupal-based solution and our proposed technical architecture, we were able to provide a scalable framework for the SOA to expand and grow to support the other SOA applications. The goal was to make it simple for the SOA to build out new solutions over time, without significant investment each time. The architecture also supports opportunities to transition to a headless Drupal solution (if desired in the future), which could be used to drive native mobile apps.
In addition, the Actuarial Toolkit supports the longer-term vision and consolidation of its online tools to support the Actuarial Profession.
The Actuarial Toolkit includes the following features:
- Interactive Actuarial Glossary including over 500 peer-reviewed definitions, concepts and practice area terminology for those working with Actuarial Science
- Bookmarking to save favorite pages in the toolkit
- Flashcard function to display glossary terms saved for quick access and review
- Main hub for practice areas, giving users access to pre-defined mathematical definitions and data templates used in the profession including curated live illustrations of actuarial and mathematical concepts using R
- Integrated Single Sign-On experience with the SOA’s Association Management Software system and website so users can move seamlessly through the entire web experience
The SOA launched the new Actuarial Toolkit after working for many months curating the content and finalizing the industry definitions and terminology to ensure a highly usable, high-touch, personalized experience. Overall feedback has been incredibly positive from the SOA membership and community, not only offering an interactive suite of tools to advance learning in the profession but also giving the users even more personalized experiences that they can control.
We do a lot of branding and rebranding for clients here at Sandstorm. Naming is a fundamental piece of any organization’s identity, and we do not embark on this process lightly. It requires clients to do a lot of reflection about where they are today and where they want to be 5, 10, 20 years from now.
In order to ensure the company name resonates with clients, customers or members, we conduct thorough discovery to unearth who the organization is at its core. The research does not end there; we then look at competitors and like-minded organizations outside of our client’s industry to see where the opportunity, or “white space,” is. It is fundamental that a company name honestly represents the organization. It also needs to differentiate itself, but not stray too far from the core identity.
Here are tips for success when embarking on the business renaming process:
Tip #1: Easy to Say and Spell
Make sure the name is easy to say and spell. In the age of Google, you want to make sure that you are easily found when someone is searching for you. The name also needs to be easy for someone to spell while they are talking on the phone or writing out an email address.
Tip #2: URL Availability
Don’t forget to make sure there is an appropriate .com URL available that has some iteration of your name. You may have a great company name, but if there is no intuitive URL available, or if it’s ridiculously expensive to secure, then you are going to make things very difficult from a digital marketing perspective.
Tip #3: Rename for a Good Reason
If you are renaming, be absolutely sure you have solid reasons for doing so.
- Has there been any bad press about your organization with the current name?
- Have you moved your organization in a direction that no longer aligns with your name?
- Do you offer different things then you did when you initially named your organization?
- Will a new company name help better articulate the new offerings?
Do not rename just because you acquired another organization unless this acquisition redefines how you’re positioned in the marketplace. You should not choose a new company name because you are launching a new product, either. That is, unless the product will fundamentally redefine your target and competitive arena.
Tip #4: Your Name Must Mean Something
Your new company name should reflect your organizational values and purpose. Don’t go chasing shiny objects, buzzwords or “the zeitgeist” and hope that the organization will follow. You will be setting up an expectation that will be hard to meet if your name, mission, and people do not fundamentally align. Get your organization aligned for this change before trying to rename. Once your team is all on board, that’s the perfect time to announce your newly minted organization to the world.
Tip #5: Can the name cover your long-term goals?
Your company name needs to have longevity. What you call your company today needs to be big enough to account for changes and growth for years in the future. Renaming a company is time-consuming and is a considerable investment in your organization's future. The name itself seems small, but what it represents is immense. Naming and renaming should be approached thoughtfully, in order to garner the most ROI from the change.
Naming and renaming are fun projects. There is so much potential in a new name. Follow these five tips and you will be well on your way to a solid name.
[If you need some help with renaming, contact us, and we can put these considerations into action with you.]
We mold user research to drive extraordinary creative results through the development of a "persona." A user persona (also called a UX persona) is a fictional character created to represent a particular market segment. This character is given a name, picture, biography, and personality. Sandstorm uses personas in the same way that an actor looks at a role. Before deciding on a creative direction for the UX design concepts, questions are posed related to a specific persona's motivation, needs, and biases to guarantee the usability of a particular website or application.
Personas provide a noticeable advantage by creating a face to represent an entire group, and can be an ideal to way gather content and functional requirements, and prioritize features. It can be difficult considering a whole audience's point of view, but from the perspective of a persona (or a face to represent an entire group), it makes the audience seem more real.
Our UX and creative team ask the question "What would Rita do?" instead of "What would a pediatrician, 37–58 years old, with a private practice, 15+ years experience, living on the West coast, do?" Personas result in a user experience designed for the user.
Our methodology for developing user personas:
- Identify initial audiences and possible scenarios
- Write protocol for the research (may include in-depth user research, surveys, card sorting, participatory design, etc.)
- Schedule participants, mock the study with the moderator and note taker
- Conduct research to gather insights to validate initial beliefs or discover new audiences and scenarios
- Analyze results, build personas and list of scenarios
- Use personas as references for recruiting participants for usability testing
- Design the UX from the user personas, scenarios, and usability research results
To see how UX persona development differs from traditional demographics, request a proposal on user persona development today.
As part of our annual review process we use the start, stop, continue retrospective technique. We've found it's a great way to recognize successes and opportunities for growth for individuals, teams and organizations. Thinking about the digital transformations we've seen with associations lately, below are some retrospectives on what we see trending with membership organizations.
Creating a culture of data. Using data to inform your decisions and weaving that into everything you do is critical to success. We are working with an association today where we're collecting and analyzing data to identify educational gaps and drive new products (and revenue). We're also utilizing data to drive content and functional requirements on new website builds to improve the member experience. By taking a fresh look at member data for a global membership organization, we were able to re-interpret the data and create new marketing campaign messaging to increase membership and product sales. The combination of qualitative and quantitative data helps associations turn subjective decisions into objective ones. Even when we're talking creative and UX – data science for us plays a huge role.
Stop building websites in proprietary technologies on a web dev shop's server as you are trapping yourself and it’s completely unnecessary now. Many leading associations are utilizing off-the-shelf content managements systems like Drupal, Kentico, etc. to integrate with their AMS and LMS systems, provide personalized member experiences, and track analytics and KPIs. Then you have options when it comes to supporting your chosen system. You can choose to have the original digital agency maintain and support your site, you can select a new partner for support, or bring it in house. We also recommend you own the hosting relationship with a 3rd party provider such as Rackspace, Azure, or AWS so you are never "stuck". We have taken over the maintenance and support for so many association websites that didn't get the service, attention to detail, nor strategic thinking to drive their association forward, and it was all possible because of the CMS they selected (and it's always a smoother transition when a 3rd party hosting provider is involved but not necessary).
Continue focusing on member engagement, member value and the overall member experience. This is what we love most about associations. It doesn't matter if you're a trade association or medical, large or niche, everyone shares a common mission to help your members become more than they can on their own. One of the most common challenges and motivations we've seen for launching into a new website overhaul was to improve their members' online experience and increase online member engagement. And we get it – we, too, are all about the user. When you look into the member journey, continue at all touchpoints to remember we're all just people trying to be the best version of ourselves. Keep the humanity alive in your organization that you have already mastered.
How well do you know your customers? How much insight do you have into your user's experience with your product, web site or mobile application? We've conducted over 3400+ hours of user research interviews and usability studies, and there's always a learning moment.
Our user experience research includes web site surveys, web analytics reviews, and in-depth interviews with your customers and potential users to uncover common goals, needs and wants, and how your customers use your application or website. Our one-on-one conversations uncover a common set of tasks performed on your website — all enriching the user experience design.
Why conduct user experience research? User research provides us with tangible insight into how people interact with your brand (i.e. the user experience). Discover how your users absorb information, how they expect to use your product or web site, and what motivates them to use you over the competition. The information we collect will help you understand the behavior of your users and drive the development of the information architecture and wireframes.
How long will it take? Studies can be as short as 2-3 weeks, or as long as 3-4 months depending on the number of user groups, organizational goals, recruiting factors, and budget.
Your end result? A comprehensive report to walk you through the research process, including: interview outlines, noteworthy comments, user opinions, and content/functional requirements. We can take the research even further and break down our recommendations by user group, and give each user group a name, face and personality through the development of a "persona."
Want to learn how to quickly gain insight to enhance your user experience? Request a proposal today.
Dr. Karen Bartuch, Sandstorm's Director of Data Science, presented 10 practical innovation tips at the Association Forum Holiday Showcase.
For most organizations, innovation is table stakes for long-term growth and a competitive advantage. Yet, according to McKinsey, 94% of managers surveyed were dissatisfied with their organization's innovation performance. So why are some organizations better at it than others? Google employees are encouraged to spend 20% of their time, in addition to their regular projects, to work on what they think will most benefit Google. Both AdSense and Google News were created this way. But I know what you're thinking, we're not Google.
Innovation is a deliberate choice, and in most organizations, it doesn't accidentally happen as your people need permission to explore and create. And everybody has the capacity to create according to the Componential Theory of Creativity, "..all humans with normal capacities are able to produce at least moderately creative work in some domain, some of the time—and that the social environment (the work environment) can influence both the level and the frequency of creative behavior."
Below are 10 practical tips to unlock your inner innovator and incorporate it into your daily life:
- Don't worry about critiques
- Forget the need to be 100% original
- Go from specific to abstract
- Be aware of shortcuts and biases
- Practice diversity
- Get hands on
- Spend a day in the life
- Carry a sketchbook
- Work during your “peak time”
- Inject humor into the workplace (check out Karen's TEDx Talk)
During this session, attendees got the opportunity to synthesize what research is telling us about the need and desire for innovation, and understand key strategies to infuse creativity and innovation in your organization. Contact us if you want to discuss any upcoming innovation initiatives you'd like help with.
Recently, our vice president of UX and brand innovation, Janna Fiester blew us all away!
Janna is involved with TEDxOakParkWomen, an independent group of Oak Park-based women (and men) committed to bringing forward-thinking innovators together to discuss important topics and spread new ideas throughout the community. In December, Janna co-organized the group’s annual event, which sold out! The room at the Nineteenth Century Club in Oak Park was filled with more than 300 people excited to hear unique point of views from 10 unique speakers.
It was an evening that embodied a Sandstorm value: Be curious! (We recently renamed our value of "learning and sharing" to really highlight what drives us.)
Themed and titled Showing Up, the event covered an array of topics including talking to kids about embracing your own power from within, prioritizing human connection, and how to have a happier relationship.
When Janna took the stage to welcome everyone, you would think that putting it all together was a breeze. She was calm, confident and engaging. She was Janna! And it’s not that there was trouble behind the scenes, it’s that putting a TEDx event together is no small feat. Finding and booking the speakers, promoting and selling tickets, making sure the production went off without a hitch, all while making sure that the 300-plus attendees and the 100-plus watching via Facebook Live witnessed a true TED experience.
But this is the Janna we all know and love. She works hard behind the scenes to create experiences that enhance brands and build relationships, whether they be in her community or between our clients and their customers. And even when she breaks a sweat, she’s always having a good time doing it.
This was Sandstorm’s fourth time partnering with TEDxOakParkWomen, and it’s not only because of Janna’s involvement, though it was Janna who brought the opportunity to us. A TEDx event is just the kind of thing we like to do. We work with brands seeking to transform their customers' experiences and their own digital presence in an ever-changing digital world. Our team is encouraged to engage with forward-thinking and innovative organizations that are making real change in their industries and communities because that’s what we aim to do each day at Sandstorm.
Janna’s awesome success with Showing Up is proof that she understands that if anything is to be successful—an event, a client project, an innovative idea—you have to identify all aspects required for that success then make sure you have the right people involved at the right moment. And that being curious often leads to great things.
The Orthopaedic Trauma Association (OTA) is the authoritative source for the treatment and prevention of musculoskeletal injury. So when they came to us with an underperforming website, we made sure they got the best treatment possible.
OTA’s website exhibited a lot of the traditional symptoms of an aging online presence: disorganized content, a lack of information architecture (IA), overall poor member experience, and outdated design and functionality. They were struggling to come up organically in search and it was critical that OTA engage a partner who could quickly get them where they should be in site rankings, and keep them there. OTA planned to rely upon their selected partner not only to redesign their site, but also to help them maintain their site moving forward in a manner that would promote SEO.
Based on OTA’s website goals, technical requirements, API integrations, SEO concerns and content authoring needs, we determined that Drupal 8 would be the recommended content management system (CMS) for the OTA team. With Drupal, we were easily able to implement single sign-on (SSO) through OTA’s association member platform—ACGI. And by utilizing Apache Solr Search, we were able to make the search more robust throughout the site – improving the overall user experience for members.
To improve the overall usability of the site, and increase organic search rankings, we conducted keyword research and analysis to identify heavily searched terms applicable to their industry, and built the sitemap, navigation and information architecture around the research findings. We designed with user experience (UX) best practices while creating consistent branding throughout the site—expanding the color palette, identifying fonts the OTA brand could differentiate with, and utilized custom imagery. Altogether, this made content easier to find for users and easier to update for the association.
Within the first month after launch, OTA’s new website experienced unprecedented results:
- 986% increase in traffic from Google
- 497% increase in organic search traffic
- 54% increase in new users
- 65% increase in pageviews
- 22% decrease in bounce rate
“Planning and implementing a website redesign can be a momentous undertaking, especially for a small staff association. Sandstorm could not have made the process easier for our team.
Their exceptional technical and creative talent, along with the high level of customer service provided throughout the project, made the process as seamless as a website redesign can be. And our new (and very much improved) website has been well received by the Orthopaedic Trauma Association (OTA) membership!”
– Kathleen Caswell, CAE, Executive Director
Visit the new site: https://ota.org/
What an extraordinary adventure it’s been! Twenty years ago, You’ve Got Mail starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks had just come out. Modem speed had to be considered when we were designing websites. And it was easy to get a .com URL.
Reflecting on the past two decades, It’s the Sandstormers (past and present) who have made this company what it is today. Together, we’ve taken risks, competed for the best Halloween costumes, traded playlists, compiled crazy travel stories, sent a lot of memes, devoured a lot of guacamole, and created long-standing Sandstorm traditions.
So in honor of 20 years, here are 20 fun memories we’ve created together:
Sandstorm launches our first website in Flash.
We relaunch our website in HTML and get our first web lead, Careerbuilder.com — thank you for working with us for over a decade!
We partner with ReVive Center for Housing & Healing (formally Cathedral Shelter) and donate our time to create their annual report (which we continue to do today).
Sandstorm moves into our first official office space of 1,000 sq. ft.
We celebrate the holidays by sharing tapas at Cafe Ba-Ba-Rebba!, which has now become a Sandstorm tradition.
We ate so many bacon wrapped dates we lost count!
First Guac Off (Janna Fiester wins with her fancy roasted peppers!)
Sandstorm launches our UX practice and wins our first Fortune 500 client.
Sandstorm expands to a new office right off the ‘L’ line. It was so loud Mike had to put up plexiglass over our windows to help mute the train.
Who remembers us saying, “Hold on a second the train is going by… Okay, you can talk again.”?
We build our own usability lab and within days conduct a study for American Academy of Pediatrics.
We expand office space again and add new huddle rooms.
Our first Super Secret Event: All the Sandstormers go to see Harry Potter.
We expand. Again! This time, Sandstorm moves back into our first building and into Sandy’s dream office space in suite 300.
Our first time on the Inc. 500/5000.
We win Fortune’s Top 100 Fastest Growing Inner City Companies in America Award for the first time.
Featured on CNBC with Marcus Lemonis.
Our office space expands, and we reclaim the original office we had in 2005.
Sandstorm launches our data practice.
We finally redesigned our logo (thank you for your unwavering patience Janna and Nathan!)
We build a new chef’s kitchen, our Hogwarts library, and the Idea Lab as part of our continued expansion.
Today, Sandstorm celebrates 20 years by paying it forward with the Night Ministry, bagging lunches, and donating hundreds of pajamas for homeless youth.
How does one even begin to say thank you to everyone that has made celebrating 20 years in business possible? We have an amazing team, some of the smartest people I have ever met, solving some really interesting problems with technologies that didn’t even exist when we started. Thank you hardly seems enough.
To our clients: Thank you for your collaboration and partnership to create better digital brand experiences together. Because of you, we’ve gotten the chance to grow individually and as a company. I could never thank you enough. And I’m honored that so many of these relationships grew into long-lasting friendships.
To everyone at Sandstorm: Thank you for making Sandstorm yours. From moving furniture and leading social events, to bringing the warrior spirit to your work every day, your drive and passion and fearlessness to create is inspiring, and so much fun to be a part of. It’s an honor to work with you. And a special thank you to Mike Marsico, Alma and Nick Meshes, and Janna and Tim Fiester for believing in our vision to build a different kind of agency from the beginning.
To my advisory and peer advisory boards: Thank you for providing me with the direction and confidence to lead, sharing your pride in our growth, and for your encouragement through the challenges.
To my family and friends: I couldn’t have started this journey, or continued this growth, without you believing in me.
I’m super excited for what comes next,