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.
Each year, some of the sharpest thinkers you’re likely to meet gather at Chicago’s Columbia College for a high-stakes advertising competition. They’re not professional strategists, copywriters and art directors—they’re college students taking part in The One Club’s Creative Boot Camp, and their work is insightful and inspired.
I know this firsthand because, along with Janna Fiester (Executive Creative Director here at Sandstorm), I was a mentor and judge at this year’s Creative Boot Camp. The annual event is presented by The One Club, the non-profit organization devoted to elevating creative work in the advertising industry. One of the missions of The One Club is to educate and inspire students of the business, and the Creative Boot Camp gives collegians the opportunity to work in teams to develop a multi-media marketing campaign.
Seventeen teams—comprised of students from Columbia, DePaul, Harper and other area schools—worked closely together for three days to develop campaigns for Kraft American Cheese Singles. Serving as mentors, Janna and I (along with a handful of other Chicago ad professionals) moved from team to team answering questions, resolving conflicts and sharing our perspectives.
“You could really sense the passion each team had for their work,” recalls Janna. “These were college students who had never met before being assigned to their Creative Boot Camp team. The research and strategy development they were doing to provide a foundation for the creative work was truly amazing.”
The teams worked around the clock on their campaigns and, on the fourth day, formally presented their work to a panel of judges comprised of Janna and me and four other ad executives. Each team presented its research, strategy and creative rationale for campaigns that spanned TV, print, social media, point-of-purchase and field marketing.
At the conclusion of the presentations, the judges selected the top three teams, each of which received a year’s membership in The One Club. The members of the first-place team were also awarded interviews at Leo Burnett, the agency which sponsored the event.
“It was an amazing experience,” says Janna, “and throughout the four days, the students were incredibly appreciative of the time and expertise we were sharing with them.” And while I concur with her assessment, I have to say that we got back at least as much as we gave.
We can’t wait til next year, when we get to do it all over again.
Content marketing is the cornerstone of any successful digital marketing strategy, but it’s not enough just to create compelling content. You also have to think through how users engage with your content.
Since almost 90 percent of users are less likely to come back to a website after a bad experience, you really have to create a great experience right from the start. But don’t worry; creating compelling, user-friendly content isn’t as hard as it sounds. With a few simple changes, you can pack a serious punch. In fact, you’re probably following some of these best practices already.
1. Write content that’s scannable.
Like most readers, you’re probably skimming this article. Nielsen Norman Group, a leading UX research firm, found that 4 out of 5 users scan web pages looking for important information and fewer than 2 in 10 read word by word.
To deliver useful information to your users, your content needs to be scannable. You can make your content more user-friendly by following these best practices for web content. Start with the top 10 pages your users visit the most on your site and apply these principles:
- Think mobile first—look at how your content displays on a device.
- Use meaningful sub-headings instead of overly clever ones.
- Turn items listed in a paragraph into a bulleted list.
- Keep paragraphs to a single idea, and keep them concise. Paragraphs can have just 2-3 sentences.
- Edit your content, then edit again.
2. Use hyperlinks within your body content—and make them stand out.
Hyperlinks—the colorful text that links to other pages—are essential to a great user experience. They serve as signposts on the road to discovery and help users explore your content in a meaningful way.
Underlined text in a contrasting color is the best way to communicate a hyperlink, and it’s what most users expect. Using a longer phrase of three or four words is more engaging than a single keyword, and using really engaging language related to the link is even better.
Just remember not to overdo it; two to three links on a page is plenty for content of 450 words or less.
3. Create engaging and attractive calls to action.
Whether you’re trying to increase newsletter signups, encourage engagement, or promote an event, an appealing call to action (CTA) will improve your results.
What’s the key to an enticing CTA? Use a vibrant color from your brand style to draw attention to buttons, and give them a consistent look and feel. Use verbs in your CTA copy that tell users what you want them to do and what they get in return:
- Register for the event
- Request more information
- Download this report
If you follow these tips, you’ll be able to make quick optimizations that have a real impact on your site. Your current users will praise the improved usability, share more of your content, and you’ll have laid a solid foundation for attracting new users who are essential to growing business.
What Your Employees Want (And How Company Culture Can Give it To Them)
Culture has a huge impact on your brand. It’s something I recently talked about with Forbes, and I’ll shout it from the roof of our office if it helps other leaders avoid learning the hard way like I did.
In Sandstorm’s early days, I discovered just how important creating a positive culture really is. By not focusing on our culture, I ended up not looking forward to working at my own company. But after we took the steps to transform our culture, we added more than 30 Sandstormers to our roster and grew business by 425%. Best of all, I’m absolutely sure that Sandstormers love coming to work every day.
Creating a great culture is as much an art as a science, but it starts by knowing what employees want. A study from PwC shows that these are the four things people want most from their job, and this is how we address them through our unique culture.
1. Job Flexibility
It’s not just Millennials who want flexibility at work; everyone wants a healthy work-life balance. The world’s full of tools that let us work anywhere at any time, so why should we miss our daughter’s first soccer goal or be at the office early after a late-night code deployment?
One of our core values is warrior spirit. To us, warrior spirit means being on an endless crusade to make great ideas a reality and bring out the best in each other. We’re problem solvers, champions, and collaborators who architect client success. And that’s something we do whether we’re in the office or working remote, at work and at play.
2. Professional Development
Career growth is essential to Millennials, and it’s why learning and sharing is another of our core values. If we want to be the best, we need the tools and time to learn how. That’s why we spend thousands of hours every year attending conferences, taking classes, exploring new technologies and trends, and sharing what we learn with each other.
Our senior staff has decades of experience, and they use it to mentor younger members of our team. They’re also active members of the community, sharing their expertise at events and boot camps and speaking at conferences, which helps us discover the next member of our team.
3. To Do Good While Being Great
Reputation matters to clients and employees, and what a brand says and does needs to align. Our mission is to do good work for good people, and we don’t work with organizations we don’t believe in.
We do good outside of work, too. Sandstormers get paid time off each year to volunteer, and we organize volunteer opportunities where we work together at a food pantry or collect for a clothing drive.
4. Have Fun
We’re people, not drones. And nothing builds stronger bonds than having fun together. It’s extremely rare for a week to go by at Sandstorm without there being a birthday lunch or a happy hour. That’s not even counting our super secret events to Cubs games, scavenger hunts, or other outings organized by our Co-Captains of Fun.
And this year I was finally able to give everyone the last week of the year off to go on vacation or spend some much-deserved time with friends and family. I was so happy!
Changing our culture really transformed our business. We can keep growing while making sure our lives are rich, meaningful, and full of fun. And that’s the real reward of focusing on your culture.
I attended World IA Day in Chicago a few weeks ago and was inspired by one of the speakers. In user experience, and particularly in information architecture, we often draw analogies to physical spaces and buildings. Extending the same analogy, one speaker shared a personal story about a seven-day excursion she took to build a mud hut.
Their team was cruising through the build, and what should have taken seven days was nearly complete in three. Unfortunately, just before they could put the doors on, the walls came tumbling down. They rushed the process, didn’t take the time to let the mud dry, and skipped steps that were fundamental to allowing the natural materials to take hold.
The lesson she learned was that, much like physical spaces, digital spaces can come crashing down if you rush the process. Whether you’re building a cathedral or a website, you start with a goal, work through the mess (information architecture, user research, usability testing) and draw up the plans (blueprints or wireframes) so you can create a concrete product users can easily move through.
Constructing Your Information Architecture (IA)
Information architecture not only makes information easy to find, it helps us create experiences that are intuitive and easy to navigate. IA provides the digital signposts and clues that help users remember where things are located and how to move through a design, system, or interface. IA helps prevent issues of findability and scalability while answering questions like:
- How is this structure organized?
- How is the content labelled?
- How will it meet the needs of the organization?
- How will it meet the needs of the people using it?
Listening to this story I couldn’t help but nod along and think of the clients I work with. I hear clients say customers can’t find products or they really want to simplify and condense the information. Clients often don’t realize they have an information architecture problem, but it really is key to completing a digital project.
The most important thing to remember is that the way an end user approaches a website can be vastly different than the way an employee approaches their company website—what may seem intuitive to someone within the business might not make sense to their clients or customers.
Without carefully thought-out IA we can’t expect products, apps, or websites that are easy to navigate. Even if websites look beautiful, without a strong structure they can create a disorienting user experience, and issues with findability and scalability will abound.
Have You Built the Right IA?
Ever hear employees, clients, and users say this about your website:
- "We create new content but don’t know where to put it."
- "It always takes me a while to find the right information."
- "I can’t find the products I’m looking for."
Then it sounds like your information architecture could use some restructuring. We’re here to help you, from card sorting through to sitemaps and wireframes.
The mind reading fantasy
How great would it be if someone could read our minds and instantly reflect what we were thinking? Okay, it might be a bit creepy at first, but after we acclimated, it would be pretty fantastic. We would never have to order anything; we would just pay and collect our latte, salad, or sandwich. We would never argue with our spouse. We would always know what our boss wanted. It would be so productive, we would increase GDP by 200%.
Reality sets in
Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in today. So when clients want us to read their minds, we panic—and for good reason. We strive to embed ourselves into our clients’ organizations and businesses, but we are horrible mind readers. When budgets and timelines are tight (they always are), it’s best to align with a creative brief before jumping into creative execution: it saves time and money and prevents angst.
A tool that functions well in reality
Please plan for some time and money to invest in a well-written creative brief when you are planning on giving work to an agency or creative partner. Briefs give the agency time to process all of the information you have given them and think through any questions they may have. This distillation of information is an important step that allows for strategic thinking and alignment. The act of writing a brief is a discipline that requires prioritization and ensures the creative team has the right information before crafting a communication solution for you, the client.
Providing a way for effective creative evaluation across an organization
As a client, you should demand a brief when embarking on a creative project. It has a strong ROI and is the contract between you and the creative team in terms of what to expect when the agency presents creative to you. You should use this brief to evaluate the creative and ensure your internal stakeholders do the same thing. This ensures that your campaigns stay focused and on strategy. A brief also helps take personal preferences out of the equation and forces each evaluator to start to think in terms of your target market.
A simple solution, just add a pinch of discipline
I have worked in many places and with many clients that let the creative brief languish and even disappear. This results in many revisions, escalating budgets, and blown deadlines—not to mention awful creative executions. This is the epitome of the phrase “garbage in, garbage out.”
So if you want to ensure great creative that’s on budget and on schedule, you must invest the time and resources into developing a well-thought-out creative brief that has alignment from all stakeholders in the process. It’s a simple and classic tool that works.
Sunday’s Super Bowl game was one for the ages—unless, that is, you had money on the Atlanta Falcons, who found a way to squander a 25-point lead.
The evening’s commercials featured a kaleidoscope of celebrity cameos, a split-second glimpse of the Budweiser Clydesdales, and the following winners and losers:
Avocados from Mexico’s “Avo Secrets” spot delivers a hysterical spoof of the Illuminati, poking fun at the secret society’s rituals and deflating its pomposity. The full-length version of the spot is literally laugh-out-loud funny.
“You don’t look like you’re from around here” is the line that opens Budweiser’s “Born the Hard Way” spot. The 60-second ad, which tracks Adolphus Busch’s long journey to America, served up one of the evening’s defter political statements on immigration.
Even more moving was “The Journey Begins” from 84 Lumber, which follows a mother and daughter making the daunting trek from Mexico to the United States. Broadcaster Fox had refused to air the original version of the spot, which ended with the pair arriving at a monolithic border wall. 84 Lumber ran a modified version of the spot during the game and invited viewers to visit its site to watch the full-length version, triggering so much traffic that the site crashed repeatedly throughout the evening.
“Go Further” charmingly demonstrated Ford’s commitment to innovation and its promise to help us “move through life faster, easier and better.” The spot provided the evening’s best soundtrack—Nina Simone’s civil rights anthem “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.”
Bai opens its spot with Christopher Walken solemnly intoning the lyrics to the ‘N Sync hit “Bye Bye Bye.” Justin Timberlake, clad in smoking jacket and ascot, delivers a silent but howlingly funny reaction. Perhaps the evening’s best use of a pop song to drive home the brand message.
John Malkovich is by turns furious, ingratiating and threatening as he seeks to wheedle the JohnMalkovich.com domain name from its owner in SquareSpace’s very funny spot that presents a memorable case for securing your domain name before it’s gone.
Packed with visual puns, TurboTax’s “Humpty Hospital” spot delivers an effective product demo amid the hilarity. When the yolk starts trickling, I dare you not to laugh.
Skittles’ “Romance” ad was the latest in a long line of inane “people will do anything to eat (insert product name here)” spots.
Kia’s “Hero’s Journey” ad, starring Melissa McCarthy, spent a glacier of money on special effects for a spot that, while aimed at the ecologically aware, actually belittled the efforts of environmentalists.
In a commercial for Sprite, basketball superstar LeBron James refuses to tell us to drink Sprite. Sorry, LBJ—not very funny.
Need help telling your brand’s story? Sandstorm helps clients build their brands and develop the strategies to effectively deliver their stories to their target audiences. Let us help you today.
For awhile there, in the land of web design, it seemed that sans serif fonts were taking over. Arial, Verdana, Geneva, and even san-serif itself. Google got in on the action too, ditching its long time faith in serif fonts for its new logo a few years back.
Serif fonts have come back into vogue. Errol Morris, filmmaker and author, ran an experiment in the New York Times in 2012. Readers thought they were merely reading an essay and deciding whether or not they agreed with a statement about security. This was, supposedly, to tell whether they were optimists or pessimists, however Morris was actually testing something else. He was testing fonts. He chose several serif and sans-serif fonts to see if readers showed a favoritism toward any type of font. Which font was more convincing? Baskerville, a serif font, won hands down.
I’m guessing one study from 4 years ago isn’t enough to get you back on the serif train. Well, just this year, another serif font Times New Roman, was voted “most trusted typeface” by UK company, solopress, following a survey of 1,000 people (Comic Sans came in second place, so no survey is perfect).
That’s not all, though. The US National Library of Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control, as well as others in the crossroads between government and medicine recommend a serif font: “Serif fonts are usually easier to read than sans-serif fonts. This is because the serif makes the individual letters more distinctive and easier for our brains to recognize quickly” (PDF).
A few google searches will show you that serif fonts have a reputation for readability, but also for conveying nostalgia and authority.
One of our recent clients, Vibrant (Formerly DHCU) came to us with a rebrand. For this client, we needed a way to merge the fun and friendly atmosphere of their business, while not undermining the trust and reliability you’d expect from a financial institution. Our solution was a mix of exciting and engaging color for their brand married with a serif font for their logo to keep their brand grounded in the financial world.
If your website could use a new look, or you're looking to build trust and confidence with your brand, Sandstorm can help.
Now get your serif on (go ‘head, be gone with it).
Everyone makes predictions on the next big trend for 2017. This year, we ditched the crystal ball to give you actionable UX strategies that will drive growth and innovation in your organization.
1. Tap into your data and do something with it
Are you collecting tons of data but not using it? Are you looking at pages of reports with no actionable information? These are lost data mining opportunities that can help prioritize initiatives and allow your business to expand or pivot. When data is combined from multiple sources and analyzed properly, it can help you make more informed digital marketing decisions that can save marketing dollars or drive additional revenue. For 2017, commit to creating an analytics strategy to regularly uncover insights from your data.
2. Stop guessing and simply talk to your users
Take the subjectivity out of internal meetings and go straight to the source. It’s easier and cheaper than ever before to have quick and meaningful conversations with your users through social, one-to-one phone interviews, in-person at conferences and events, and usability studies. (Did you know you only need 5-6 users from a particular user group to identify 80% of the usability issues?)
3. Build a customer journey map
Brand engagements are moving off computer screens to cell phones, tablets, wearable tech, gaming consoles, and even smart devices like refrigerators. Understanding all the various touch points along your customer’s journey is critical to providing the consistent, personalized brand experience they expect.
4. Look outside your industry for inspiration
It’s easy to see what everyone else is doing within your industry. To identify white space opportunities for your organization, look up and out (e.g., if customer service is your differentiator, look at Southwest Airlines or Disney). Businesses in other industries may have already solved the problem you are looking to tackle—it just takes a little mindshift to find them.
Turning these 4 UX strategies into priorities in 2017 will give you quantitative and qualitative rationale to make better (and less subjective) digital marketing decisions.
With 2017 right around the corner, the Sandstorm team has been dreaming about what’s to come in the new year. Taking our core values as inspiration (Warrior Spirit, Learning and Sharing, and Have Fun!), we each set a New Year’s resolution. From running 5Ks to learning a new language to dancing more, our goals for 2017 ran the gamut (you can see all of them here).
Dreaming is never enough for us, so we activated 6 of our resolutions as GIFs to celebrate the season with all of you.
core value: warrior spirit
resolutions: compete in a 5K race
Many of our staff have the classic resolution to run a 5K, but our Copywriter Bill wants to compete in a race to raise money for Open Heart Magic. Bill is a magician for the nonprofit Open Heart Magic, which brings the surprise and excitement of magic to children in Chicago area hospitals.
core value: warrior spirit
resolution: plan a beautiful wedding
Lisa, one of our Digital Strategists, just got engaged! So who can blame her for having the big day on her mind? Her resolution is planning a beautiful wedding and fun reception while keeping her type A personality at bay.
core value: learning and sharing
resolution: learn a new language
Most of our staff have been bitten by the travel bug, but our Creative Director John and Production Designer Jason are taking it one step further by learning Italian and Japanese, respectively.
core value: learning and sharing
resolution: learn new tech skills
Staying on top of the latest tech developments is just part of being a Sandstormer. Andy, our Senior Engineer and Team Lead, is going to extend his knowledge by becoming a Drupal 8 expert and Joshua, our Marketing Manager, wants to master HTML so he can perfect our email newsletters.
core value: have fun!
resolution: dance like nobody’s watching
Our Front-End Developer Adam will be relieving some stress in 2017 by letting loose and not caring what anyone thinks.
core value: have fun!
resolution: I want to be the very best, like no one ever was.
Pokemon took over the world this summer, and our office was no different. Interaction Designer Jesse’s new life motto also happens to be lyrics from the Pokémon theme.
Sandstorm is happy to assist in dreaming up 2017 marketing resolutions with you and help activate them in the new year.
The Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC) and Fortune has announced that Sandstorm has been selected for prestigious 2016 Inner City 100 list. This recognition places Sandstorm in an exemplary lineage of nearly 900 fast-growing and innovative inner city businesses.
ICIC’s Inner City 100 is an annually compiled and released list featuring high-power, high-potential businesses from around the country with headquarters in inner cities. Each company is selected by ICIC with help from a national network of nominating partners who seek to identify, spotlight, and further enable the named companies’ innovative urban entrepreneurship. Ranked by revenue growth, the esteemed recipients go on to have their names published in Fortune.
Sandstorm ranked 95 overall on the list of 100 and it is the third time we have been honored with this distinction. We reported 2015 revenues of 4.29 million and a five-year growth rate of 117% percent from 2011-2015. In the past year Sandstorm has added a number of new positions, including a Digital Strategist, Marketing Manager, Front-End Developer, Director of Analytics & Optimization and a Creative Director.
The full list can be viewed on the Fortune website here.
“We are extraordinarily proud of these pioneering entrepreneurs who lead the way in economic revitalization in America’s inner cities,” says Steve Grossman, CEO of ICIC, of the list of 100.
The Inner City 100 program recognizes and supports successful inner city business leaders, and celebrates their role in providing innovation and job creation in America’s cities. These companies strengthen local American economies, provide job opportunities for underrepresented communities, and drive forward economic and social development.