Sandstorm Blog

Amanda T
Sandstorm develops a responsive website for Urban Innovations

Our relationship with Urban Innovations began way back in 2007 when we originally designed their website. So by the time 2015 rolled around, we were all in agreement that it was time to give the site a fresh, new look with a user experience design that would attract new tenants and investors alike.

In addition to the Drupal website development project, we took this opportunity to reflect upon the evolution of the Urban Innovations brand. We worked closely with Urban Innovations to develop their new brand positioning and value proposition to ensure that the web content clearly and directly communicates what visitors want and need to know, all while optimizing the content for search engines.

The end result: an easily updatable, responsive website that communicates the Urban Innovations difference. The tablet and mobile menus make the site easily accessible on any device, and the parallax on the homepage draws visitors into the experience. The commercial and affordable property sections allow Urban Innovations to show off their real estate portfolio while also providing users with pertinent information about amenities and neighborhood details.

Check out the new urbaninnovations.com, and you’ll see why we’re so excited about it!

This blog was posted by Amanda T on April 22, 2015.
Amanda Tacker

About the Author

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.

Michael
Chicago Web Development Firm Attends Drupal MidCamp

Sandstorm is proud to once again be involved in Drupal MidCamp. MidCamp (also known as the Midwest Drupal Camp) is an annual event held in Chicago that brings together people who use, develop, design, and support Drupal. This year’s MidCamp will be March 19-22, 2015 at the UIC Student Center East.

Sandstorm is a bronze sponsor this year, and we’ve got web developers, strategists, and web designers attending. Last year, I had the pleasure of speaking about user research techniques, which was a blast. This year I'm looking forward to mingling with regional Drupal developers and attending sessions on Drupal 8, "headless" Drupal, and automated testing.We're also on the look out for another solid Front End Developer here at Sandstorm. If that's you, get in touch.

You don't have to be a developer to get something out of MidCamp. There are plenty of promising sessions for people new to Drupal and project managers working with the CMS. We hope to see you there, and have some fun!

This blog was posted by Michael on March 13, 2015.
Michael Hartman

About the Author

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.

Michael
Why do you need a website maintenance plan for your Drupal website?

Congratulations on launching your new Drupal website. You can now rest assured that you never have to think about it again. It will automatically generate revenue and keep itself running for decades to come. Pat yourself on the back and have a drink. Your website is complete.

Well... this might not be entirely true.

In reality your website is never really finished. Just like with a car or home, things degrade over time. Your website is no different and you need to have a website maintenance plan.

What is website maintenance?

It is the process of keeping your website up to date and running smoothly. It involves applying security patches, monitoring web server performance, and maintaining your code base. This is on top of maintaining your content, products and/or users. You gotta do that, too. Major reasons to have a maintenance plan include security, performance, backups, and other considerations.

Security

Hackers are always looking for ways to compromise websites through new techniques or insecure code. It’s critical your website remains as secure as possible. This often involves applying security patches or software upgrades both at the code and server levels. One advantage to open source software like Drupal, is the community of developers finding security holes and contributing patches.

This is also a double edged sword. Once hackers identify a security hole, they can exploit it by targeting unmaintained sites. You are running a huge risk if you’re running a Drupal site and not keeping up with Drupal core and module security upgrades.

Performance

Performance affects the amount of time it takes for your website to load for a user on their device. This includes time to complete transactions like adding a product to a cart or submitting a form. Good website performance is good usability. Users will abandon a poorly performing website never to return. It’s also good for search engine optimization (SEO).

We include performance testing and tweaking as part of the launch process. Yet, performance can degrade over time as code, content, or the server environment changes. Perhaps your site’s traffic has increased and now requires more resources to meet user needs. Wouldn’t that be great? It is great if you’re monitoring your traffic, server performance, and page load times so you can ramp up to meet the demand.

Backups

Another component of a good website maintenance strategy is a solid backup and restore plan. Most web hosts keep some level of back ups and will either restore your site as part of your hosting package or for a fee.

While this provides a safety net, they usually only keep a short window of backups. You may need to restore your site to an earlier point than your host has kept. Or you may need to restore to a point since your host’s last backup. A defined backup strategy allows you to quickly bring your site back online whatever the case may be.

Other considerations

Broken Links
Each website page links to internal pages and external websites. These links can change over time as content expires and changes or as sites get redesigned. Keeping an eye on broken links and updating or adding redirects when urls change should be part of your maintenance plan. Broken links are detrimental to your SEO.

Web forms
It’s a good practice to test and confirm that each of your web forms are working as expected, this may include contact us, event registration, and newsletter signup forms. Hopefully you’re seeing regular submissions, but it’s possible another update affected these forms. We like to confirm everything is still working after applying other updates to a site.

Development and staging environments
When implementing development updates, you should avoid deploying new code and patches to your live website. It’s important to have a separate deveopment environment for developing and testing new features and security updates. You use a staging environment to review and confirm these updates before releasing them on your live website.

The value of maintenance

The cost of website maintenance outweighs the cost of fixing problems caused by a lack of maintenance. A website maintenance plan is an added level of insurance against security and server-related issues that can cause grief and lost revenue. At the end of the day, a well-maintained site is another component of a great user experience.

Need help with Drupal website maintenance? Get in touch.

This blog was posted by Michael on February 20, 2015.
Michael Hartman

About the Author

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.

Kyle
Web Developer Ventures to DrupalCon 2014

Each year we pick two team members (either ux designers or Drupal web developers), who haven’t had the chance to go to DrupalCon, and send them off to soak up the latest trends and developments within the community. This year I was lucky enough to be sent off to Austin, TX for DrupalCon 2014. Besides the wonderful food and the nice break from a cold Chicago, we were able to bring home enough valuable knowledge to influence Sandstorm’s development practices quite a bit.

One of the biggest lessons we were able to pick up was the importance of automation in web development. We have since begun implementing powerful tools such as Git, Grunt, and Bower to continuously integrate updates to the websites we have worked on. Coincidentally, these tools are essential when working with multiple developers on a single project, and this year we have expanded our development team by quite a bit.

Overall, DrupalCon has always been a great influence on the company as a whole. Not just for development, but as well with design and content strategy. The Drupal community is a very welcoming environment, as you would expect from an open source platform, which reflects our core values “learning and sharing” and is why we continue to go year after year.

This blog was posted by Kyle on December 23, 2014.
Kyle Lamble

About the Author

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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Jason
Learning and Sharing Drupal

I am quite proud (and excited) about our constant opportunities for employee learning and sharing here at Sandstorm. It’s even one of our core values. Having worked at other companies, learning and sharing are things that are in the “whenever we have time” category, which often translates into, well, NEVER.

In the past year, my Drupal expertise has grown exponentially thanks to AndyAndrew, and Will. I already considered myself Drupal-savvy, but I was introduced to new ways to author complex code when the editor “fixes” things that aren’t broken. Drew recently introduced me to posting a new and different kind of content, Events, and how it’s subtly different from other kinds of content that I’ve worked on before.

In addition to Drupal web development and administrative skills, we regularly have meetings where Sandy herself shares with us company overview information, such as how we’re doing year over year (spoiler, we’re doing awesome!) as well as new business or new client wins. For other companies this sort of information would be considered “unnecessary” for everyone outside the C-suite, but at Sandstorm there is a sense of trust, openness, and responsibility. It’s helpful and instructive to know where the ship is headed, not just that I’ve been rowing as fast as a I can. Understanding the work that’s happening outside of my tasks may not be directly applicable to my day to day, but it often makes things clearer and easier to understand, especially when things change.

This blog was posted by Jason on December 22, 2014.
Jason Dabrowski

About the Author

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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Andrew
A Friendlier Drupal Admin

At Sandstorm, we put a lot of care into ensuring our front end website interfaces look PERFECT. We match the designs to pixel perfection from IE8 to iOS8. But we don't stop there. I wanted to take a moment to highlight some of the unsung successes in the user administration side from the past year for our Drupal web development projects.

Drupal admins can be a little overwhelming to site administrators, so we've been flexing our muscles to pare down and improve the interface for our clients. Here are three things I thought worthy of giving you a little peek under the covers!

Slimmer Admin Menus

A standard Drupal admin menu:
Our sleek pared down menu for client admins:

 

The Editable Fields Module

We value efficiency, and when data needs to be fixed across multiple nodes we are usually able to solve such problems with things like Views Bulk Operations. But sometimes there's no way around the need to touch every node. Sometimes a human mind has to make a decision about every one of a specific content type. Sad, but true. So when that happens, the Editable Fields module is our friend.

Here's a custom Drupal Admin view that lets our content administrators quickly and easily edit multiple nodes without navigating from page to page:

 

Highly Configurable Blocks

Sometimes there is a user experience design pattern on a site that justifies something really special. The designs for CNS.org called for highly configurable blocks.

Here are some examples of the many variations of this design pattern on just one page:

And here you can see the controls used to create these variations.

Site administrators are able to edit these blocks in real-time, clicking checkboxes on the left and watch the block preview update on the right! This is a very large site, so this UX design pattern had to be flexible enough to do different jobs on hundreds of different pages.

We wanted to strike a balance between flexibility, efficiency, and consistency. This was a lot of fun, and would obviously be overkill for many situations, but when it's called for, it's very rewarding for the Drupal web developers and content admins.

One Final Tip

Sometimes it makes sense to theme Drupal's administration pages, and sometimes it just makes infinitely more business sense to use one of the default themes like Seven for the admin. One compromise we recommend is developing your own version of your favorite default theme and use that as a starting point. Don't feel like you have to brand it like the rest of the site. The Administration pages need no decoration, but it is important to use your own version so that you at least have stylesheets that you can jump in and edit where need be. This preserves the efficiency of a default theme while providing the flexibility to make customizations.

This blog was posted by Andrew on December 19, 2014.
Andrew Jarvis

About the Author

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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Kellye
Our “Yes, and” Philosophy with Responsive Web Design Concepts

I am extremely proud of the caliber of designs our team created in 2014.

One project in particular stands out to me. The client has been really fantastic about giving us a lot of freedom with creative. Freedom is great, because it lets you try new things and really think outside the box. However, opportunity to explore always comes with a little risk. If we’re too far out of the box, will the client be disappointed?

We met to present responsive web design concepts. Embracing Sandstorm’s “Yes, and” philosophy, we had one web design concept that was polished and on strategy. The other web design concept pushed the creative.

We unveiled the first concept to a lot of head nods, but when they saw the user experience design from the second, their eyes lit up and they leaned in. The client turned to us and said “I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t think you’d knock it out of the park, and you did.”

So this year, I’m proud to be working with a team that pushes the envelope and tries new things, and to get to work with clients who are willing to think a little differently, too.

This blog was posted by Kellye on December 18, 2014.
Kellye Blosser

About the Author

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.

Andy
Engineering Custom Technical Solutions in Drupal

I really enjoy engineering technical solutions. When one of our clients told us that their Single Sign-On (SSO) vendor would not be ready for site launch, I jumped at the opportunity to help build an alternative method. Instead of authenticating users using the third party system with a contributed Drupal module, we would need to switch gears and authenticate against their existing in-house system. To do, so we developed a custom Drupal module that authenticated users, created their Drupal user account, and brought over the necessary user specific data fields.

This approach used a centralized authentication site that passes a token back to the requesting site, which is then verified for validity. Ultimately implementing this solution allowed the client’s multiple systems to share one login method and keep users logged in while navigating between them.

I particularly enjoyed solving the problem and ultimately coming to the client’s rescue. We’ve launched their site, which you can read about in Emily’s post, and have this added knowledge to help our clients in the future.

 
This blog was posted by Andy on December 16, 2014.
Andy Cullen

About the Author

Andy Cullen

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

Kyle
Seeing the Possibilities, Pushing our Drupal Web Development, and Showing Off with the Sandstorm Website

Earlier in the year, I was fortunate enough to take part in launching the new Sandstorm website in Drupal. For those of you who’ve been here before, you know it’s a long winding road from the initial concept, marketing, content strategy, and design before you even begin the black magic known as Drupal web development.

It’s an ongoing, almost never ending, process.

Once you push through those phases and launch your first website, it can come as a surprise, to some, that the website isn’t actually complete. In fact, some of the most exciting features from the initial concept may have not made it into the final product. Instead, at launch, you’re more likely left with a large todo list of development ideas you would still like to see implemented.

What can we do next?

This is when most of us toss around the phrase “phase two”, but a website is, and always will be, a work in progress. This is one of the most exciting parts about working on the Sandstorm website in Drupal, because I knew when developing each section that this was just the first draft. Now that we are finishing up the year I have begun thinking about our website again. A year is a long time and, with “learning and sharing” being one of the core values at Sandstorm, I have learned a lot and can’t wait to begin pushing our Drupal development further than where it is right now.  

“The Results”

A new website, responsive web design or Drupal module is a great way to see each department flex their creative muscles and show the industry what we can really do, and good work immediately pays off. The increase in high-quality leads led to new clients, which led to our explosive growth, which ultimately led to taking over that office next door. This might be one of the coolest aspects of the entire project.

This blog was posted by Kyle on December 14, 2014.
Kyle Lamble

About the Author

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.

Emily Kodner
Neurosurgeons Designing Websites?

Looking back at 2014, one of my favorite website projects was cns.org, the responsive website for the Congress of Neurological Surgeons built in Drupal.

Why was it my favorite? Because they were strategic and truly embraced user-centered design.

A focus on user needs

User-centered design takes the subjectivity out of the decision-making process. We didn’t have to define user needs because we had talked to users firsthand. And, as it turns out, neurosurgeons are some of the most direct and decisive users that we’ve ever interviewed.

Because we interviewed stakeholders, we knew the organization’s priorities and were able to strike the right balance between business needs and user needs (hint: you can’t meet the first without meeting the second).

Navigation designed by users

Who better to organize the navigation than the users themselves? We asked CNS members to sort cards (each corresponding to a page on the site) into groups and create labels for the groups they made. Those labels became our navigation. Best practices can tell us how many menu items to have or how flat or deep to make the navigational structure, but only users can really tell us how to intuitively group and label pages and sections.

User tested designs

A neurosurgeon’s time is particularly hard to come by. To ensure we had adequate participation in our usability study, we took our wireframe prototype to the CNS Annual Meeting where we had a captive audience. This was a great opportunity to identify potential stumbling blocks and to allow users to weigh in on areas where there had been internal debate.

We love making great user experiences, and we are able to make the best experiences when we talk to users early and often. That’s why this was one of my favorite projects of 2014.

This blog was posted by Emily Kodner on December 11, 2014.
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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