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.
Hey there, I’m Joe, the new front end developer here at Sandstorm. I’m beyond happy to be working with such a fantastic team!
Although I didn’t start thinking about being a developer until the latter end of high school, I’ve been interested in using a computer to make things for as long as I can remember. In grade school, I spent hours directing and editing short movies with my friends and family. In college, I majored in interactive media with a concentration in game design, which was my main introduction to the world of development. In addition, I minored in graphic design and computer science, which served as a great foundation for transitioning more and more into web development.
I learned quite a bit during the past couple of years at my job right out of college. I was able to cut my teeth on a lot of different aspects of web development before settling on front end development as my primary passion. I’m excited to contribute to a team that is so passionate about their work, and am looking forward to learning as much as I can in the process.
In my spare time, I’m probably spending way too much time watching the Cubs (I wrote a Twitter bot last year that tweets out whenever the St. Louis Cardinals lose a game), catching some live music, relaxing with a video game, or working on a personal project (which usually never gets finished or sees the light of day, but still serves as a good way to teach myself new things).
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.
I can finally break my silence.
In July, I was lucky enough to be a part of the first ever screening for Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them. While sneak peek screenings seem like a nice movie treat, the studio did it to gather user research on the film. So, in exchange for my feedback, I got to see a highly anticipated holiday movie months before anyone else. I also signed my life away so that I wouldn’t leak any spoilers before the movie was released.
But now that Newt Scamander’s beasts have escaped I can share my viewing experience with you.
First off, the movie I saw wasn’t even finished. The Demiguise and other beasts were barely animated, and some scenes didn’t have CGI effects at all (we just saw captions about what was supposed to be going on). Also, they added a completely new supporting character and announced Johnny Depp’s cameo as Grindelwald; the movie has clearly changed.
The interesting thing is that the studio still wanted feedback on this uncompleted version of the movie. It was finished enough that it ran as a coherent story that could be critiqued, but it was also early enough in the process that changes could be made without costing a fortune.
Sandstorm® follows a similar path in project management: We test or get client feedback multiple times throughout a project to gather insights and make small changes along the way. This allows us to create informed designs, manage our resources better, and avoid redoing work because everyone was not on the same page.
To find the insights the studio was looking for they utilized 3 user research methods:
- Survey –Everyone in the theater was asked to fill out a 6-page survey. This included demographic info on the viewers, previous interest in the Harry Potter universe, and what we did and didn’t like about the human characters, beasts and the movie in general.
- Focus Group – A handful of people stayed behind to participate in a focus group and give more feedback on the movie.
- Observation–The studio had people stationed all over the theater ready to record the audience reaction (i.e., did a certain scene get the laugh they were expecting?).
This mix of research methods resulted in both qualitative and quantitative data that the studio used to tweak the movie and the marketing strategy for optimal appeal to no-majs and wizards alike.
Sandstorm is ready to apply these research methods, and many more, to help create a magical brand experience for your business.
There seems to be a holiday for everything now, including user experience. And Sandstorm couldn’t help but celebrate it.
The theme for World Usability Day 2016—Sustainable User Experience (UX)—unites UX and sustainability through the shared objective of creating unparalleled experiences. At Sandstorm, we understand the impact UX research and design can have on projects and, most importantly, people.
So we got excited to capitalize on our UX expertise while cleaning up our office recycling habits.
We assembled a team of eco-warriors—aka UX architects and marketing specialists—to investigate our team’s recycling habits. By utilizing user interviews—one of many types of user research—for this project, we were able to better understand current behaviors in the office and identify opportunities for improvement.
We asked our team members questions about their basic recycling knowledge, why they recycle, and what keeps them from recycling at the office. We uncovered two key findings from our research and, as a result, devised four ways to improve recycling.
- The majority of Sandstormers want to, and do, recycle
- The most significant barrier to recycling is Sandstormers’ uncertainty as to whether an item can be recycled or not
Ways to Improve Recycling at Sandstorm
- Ensure bins are present by every desk and in every conference room
- Clearly communicate what can and cannot be recycled
- Reduce plasticware/food waste
- Explore purchasing a dishwasher
Usability is about tweaking what you currently have to create a more effective experience; our user research showed that—with Sandstormers already in the habit of recycling—we need only to implement a few minor changes to encourage greener behaviors.
And just because we have action items now doesn’t mean our process is over. We will continue to track office recycling, and do follow up user research, to ensure office recycling is optimized for a greener tomorrow.
Here at Sandstorm we don’t simply “refresh” a website, we help businesses evolve their brand. Which is exactly what we did for Alliance for Audited Media (AAM) when they wanted their website to project a more modern feel with digital prowess.
Our first move was a content audit to get our arms around the site and understand the complex mission of AAM (empowering media professionals with trusted verification and data). From there we created a set of information architecture (IA) guidelines that informed the responsive website design. Through our thoughtful research and strict IA guidelines we were able to deliver a new website, with approachable messaging, that spoke to their various audiences.
As more brands tap into the power of stories to transform their identities and elevate their market presence, content marketing strategies become ever more essential.
Smart companies make their brand story the cornerstone of their content marketing strategy, ensuring the content they create across all media is aligned to the right platforms and consistent with the brand narrative.
“Marketing is no longer about the stuff you make,” Seth Godin reminds us, “but about the stories you tell.”
And for good reason—stories are a powerful tool in human communication. From the tales of the hunt shared by our primitive forbears as they crouched around the fire, to the well-worn narratives we tell children at bedtime, stories provide an integral means of connecting.
But what is it about stories that makes them so powerful?
Research indicates that the human brain responds to the descriptive power of stories in deeply affecting ways, influencing both the sensory and motor cortex. To read a story—or have one told to us—is to feel an experience and synchronize our minds with the subject of the story.
In a recent Princeton study, researchers call this synchronization neural coupling.
Through neural coupling, a speaker and a listener share a story that allows their brains to interact dynamically. During the process of storytelling, similar brain activity occurs in both people simultaneously, affecting the same areas of the brain.
If the story is effectively told, the listener’s brain activity mirrors the speaker’s activity. Successful neural coupling produces greater comprehension, understanding, anticipation and receptivity.
The net effect of these qualities is trust. A storyteller can literally generate trust in the audience.
But how do you achieve this?
Here are a few characteristics of a compelling story:
- It's true. Make truth the foundation of everything you create. Your marketing content should feature real people, real situations, genuine emotions and facts. It should explain, in terms people can relate to, how your brand adds value to the lives of your customers.
- It's human. Even if your company sells to other companies, focus on how your products or services touch the lives of actual people. Empathy for the target is essential. When writing about people, be specific enough to be believable and universal enough to be relevant.
- It's original. Your story should offer a fresh perspective: What's interesting about your brand? Why should people care?
- It serves the customer. If your brand story comes off feeling corporate-centric, you’ve lost the target and may never get them back. People want to read about themselves—so make sure that’s what your brand story is all about.
A great story, expertly told, builds a strong bond with your audience. Incorporating storytelling into your content marketing strategy helps you make a powerful connection and deliver your message in a profoundly personal way.
Sandstorm helps clients develop content marketing strategies and write brand stories that resonate with target audiences and build the key elements that produce trust. Let us help you write yours.
While it would have been easy to take a don’t-mess-with-success approach, our warrior spirit drove us to collaborate with a large insurance company's federal employee program to further optimize their existing responsive web application (which we built a year earlier) to continue to increase online enrollment.
We started with a thoughtful review of their Google Analytics and conducted a heuristic analysis of the app. This allowed us to dig into the data analytics and find new opportunities to improve the application. Combine that with our existing expertise in the FEP program, and we were able to make some adjustments and update the overall interface to provide their users with an even more intuitive tool to help them find a benefit plan that fits their needs.
Sandstorm® is ready to help you develop a web app to convert your users.
In the spirit of our 3rd core value, Have Fun, each year Sandstorm has a Super Secret Event! Our Co-Captains of Fun, Alicia Newland & Nathan Hass, plan everything with our CEO Sandy Marsico. In past years we have gone to a Cubs game, an arcade & bowling.
This year we grabbed lunch at Emerald Loop, to ensure everyone was maxed out on energy for the main event: a scavenger hunt. The staff broke up into 5 teams for a digital scavenger hunt taking us all over the loop. The riddle clues led us to familiar landmarks like the Chicago Theater & the Chicago Cultural Center, and some interesting new places like Harlan J. Berk Ltd., coin dealer, looking for trivia answers. Some of the clues were a little more active and we had to snap a picture of the team doing ballet outside of the Joffery Ballet, posing on 1 leg with Calder’s Flamingo statue in Federal Plaza and double-checking the time with the famous Marshal Fields Great Clock.
Our core values help us accomplish our mission: to create a place for like-minded people to have fun & do things in a way that hasn’t been done before. We understand that some of the best ideas come from giving our inner-selves a place to explore & play. Beyond our Super Secret Event, we keep the fun rolling with a Guac Off, Halloween Costume Contest, Holiday Pajama Day and other pop up events throughout the year.
If “Have Fun” is one of your core values, check out our join the team page for open positions and to submit your resume.
There is an insane amount of content being produced today, and it’s only going to accelerate. Content Marketing Institute reports 69% of marketers are creating more content now vs. just 1 year ago, and 48% of marketers say they publish content either daily or multiple times per week. In addition, highly-funded, rapidly growing online education startups (Khan Academy, edX, Coursera) are potentially putting your association’s educational content at risk and adding to the content storm.
To help cut through the noise, a content strategy—or a “content framework”—can be your association’s filter as you plan, develop and manage your content. How nice would it be to have the confidence to say “yes” or “no” to a content topic based on your content strategy, not to mention leadership support?
To start crafting your content strategy, follow these 5 steps:
Step 1 - Know the problem you are trying to solve
Have you defined the goals your association is trying to reach via content (increase member engagement, attract new members, increase event registrations, etc.)? Knowing from the beginning what your goals are, and getting alignment from your team, will create a more focused content strategy. It sounds basic, but I can’t tell you how many times goals are misaligned, not written down and not agreed to.
It’s also important to get to know your members’ goals. People are afraid they are not relevant anymore because they can’t keep up. Meet people where they are at—keep people relevant. If you did nothing today, but used relevancy as your filter, how much content would you have left? How useful is some of your existing content from just a few years ago?
Step 2 - Really get to know who you are trying to reach
Understanding whom you are writing for is key to content strategy, but you should not assume anything. Do your research to confirm who your members are and uncover new insights. You can conduct 1-1 user research interviews with your members and non-members to learn what type of content they want from you, identify content needs during a usability study, or even send out a survey if your association doesn’t already do that too often. For the best results, speak with members, instead of just your board and volunteers.
Step 3 - Establish your association’s voice & tone
All of your content needs to sound like it is coming from 1 voice, even though you probably have several people writing for you. You may even have volunteers, sponsors, and members writing too! Will you speak in the first person or third person? Conversational, formal, or business casual? Defining this as part of your content strategy will help create a unified voice and tone across channels, and give you guidance as you write, edit and govern your content.
Step 4 - Align your stakeholders and focus your communication
Build a content strategy statement, that can be used as a dual-filter, to omit what content you don’t need and to produce new content in line with your goals. Just like a garden, you need to weed out underperforming content to allow other content to thrive.
Step 5 - Develop a content plan
A content plan helps you define your channels, audience, purpose, topics and goals. Understanding where to deliver your content can be just as important as what content you create. Don’t feel like you need to use every channel, and reuse or edit content to fit the platform and audience (a presentation can be a webinar, video, slideshare or a blog). It’s also really great to have a plan so you know where to put that last video that was just created, or photos from your annual meeting. Many associations blast the same content to every channel, even though they know they shouldn’t, simply because there was no strategy or plan.
Without a content strategy, your association may be wasting a lot of time, money and resources. Relevant content comes from the intersection of what you think is important and what interests your members. I’m confident that your association can create stellar, focused and insightful content by taking a little time upfront to develop your content strategy.
Prefer some help?
Sandstorm® has been helping associations conduct member research, identify content requirements, and craft their narratives through content marketing for almost 20 years. And our in-house team of UX strategists and website engineers build beautiful, data-driven websites that make content easy to find, easy to consume, and easy to share. Reach out if you want to talk through how we can help!