Sandstorm Blog

Anne Lentino
Three female-presenting people and one male-presenting person in front of a large blue inflatable droplet, all smiling at the camera.

Sandstormers Anne Lentino, Emily Kodner, Amanda Heberg, and Nathan Haas at DrupalCon Portland.

Last week, Sandstormers attended DrupalCon 2022 in Portland, where the team enjoyed lots of amazing food (tacos, pizza, dumplings, and charcuterie boards), craft beers, and lovely wines from Willamette Valley. Most importantly, we enjoyed some much-needed face time with our team members – and even got to hang out with a llama. 

From this immersive experience, we wanted to share what’s next for the Drupal platform, as well as the Drupal web development community vision and roadmap. 

Audience members listen to the keynote speaker on the main stage at DrupalCon in Portland.
DrupalCon attendees listening to the vision for the future of Drupal. 

Here are the three key takeaways and what you need to know for the release of Drupal 10:

1. Release Date: December 2022

The update to Drupal 10 is expected to be even smoother than the update from D8 to D9. A few important things to note:

  • Drupal 10 will require an update to PHP 8.1, though with PHP 7 hitting end-of-life in November, most sites should be well-positioned to meet that requirement.
  • Drupal 9 end-of-life is planned for November 2023.
  • Included in the Drupal 10 release are improvements to the Drupal admin, both from a user interface and an accessibility standpoint. We’re excited to see how these changes will improve the experience for developers, administrators, and content managers alike.

2. What’s New: CKEditor 5

GET READY! - the sparkly new CKEditor 5 is coming with Drupal 10 core. We received a demo with the CKEditor 5 team, where we saw strong enhancements related to inline links, working with embedded media, and clearer iconography in the editor itself. 

The latest and greatest, however, is a paid extension for collaboration. In a nutshell: Google docs-level commenting and tracking changes, all within the editor – AND you can download a Word version that retains the track changes features, or a PDF version of the content. #MINDBLOWN

3. Coming Soon: Automated Updates

The Drupal community has been working tirelessly to enable automated updates for core and contributed modules. What we heard (and what we’re most excited about) is that huge steps are being taken to track upgrade readiness and compatibility. There are also two levels of automation: set-it-and-forget-it (via cron) and the push-a-button-and-walk-away version (safer, in most people’s opinion). 

NB: Automated updates will require the website to go into maintenance mode!

Sandstorm will be taking a deeper look at how automated updates fit into our standard maintenance process for our clients. 

A furry white llama takes the stage at DrupalCon.

We were delighted to meet Cesar, the Pantheon Llama, at DrupalCon. 


There’s plenty more to be excited about with this new release - check out the Driesnote from this year to learn more about where Drupal is headed!

This blog was posted by Anne Lentino on May 6.
Anne Lentino

About the Author

Anne Lentino

Anne, as a Product Owner, enjoys the opportunity to learn about her clients' diverse fields of expertise. She consistently advocates to make the best products to support each client's growing business, while keeping workflow efficiency and creativity top of mind.

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David
Please Stand By - Drupal 7 End-of-Life Extended: What You Need to Know

How Long Will Drupal 7 Be Supported? The Answer Just Changed.

On Feb. 23, 2022, the Drupal Security Team announced Drupal 7’s end-of-life would be extended from Nov. 1, 2022, to Nov. 1, 2023. The Security Team also said they would revisit the end-of-life date for Drupal 7 once again in July 2023, meaning Drupal 7 community support could be extended as far as Nov. 1, 2024.

You’re a Drupal 7 Site Owner. What Do You Do Now?

First, if you’re a Drupal 7 site owner that was staring at that November 2022 end-of-life date in fear, breathe a sigh of relief. Your timeline is no longer crunched – at least not by the end-of-life date.

For the past three years, site owners have been preparing for Drupal 7’s end-of-life.

  1. Some site owners have opted to use the Drupal 7 end-of-life as a reason to complete a long-awaited website overhaul.
  2. Others – more satisfied with their sites – have sought to migrate their sites “as-is” from Drupal 7 to another platform.
  3. And then there’s a third group – site owners that may have felt rushed to complete a new website build.

When your timeline is crunched, you may look to cut corners. But now, if you’re a Drupal 7 site owner, you can slow down and turn your attention back to quality.

UX Research: Key to the Discovery Process

When faced with a hard deadline, site owners may choose to shorten the research and discovery phase. This is understandable – organizations need secure, functional websites first and foremost.

But UX research is a critical part of any website project. A complete discovery process informs…

  • The “who” – the expectations and needs of the users who visit the website.
  • The “what” – the content that needs to be included and the functionality that is essential.
  • The “where” – the locations in which the website will meet the user, from the type of device to where they are in their customer journey.
  • The “why” – the ways in which the website fits into an organization’s larger strategy.
  • The “how” – the tactics employed that will enable the website to drive business goals, whether that means sales, requests for information, or engagement.

Now that the Drupal 7 end-of-life date has been extended, site owners can complete a comprehensive research and discovery phase. You may be surprised by what your users really need from your organization’s web presence.

A Stretched Version of Minimally Viable

We always advocate for prioritizing new enhancements to a website to ensure the delivery of a minimum viable product at launch. But when faced with a hard deadline, the definition of “minimally viable” can be stretched to the point where the website cannot realistically meet user needs. You’ll end up with a lot of the “minimal” and little to none of the “viable.”

If you’re a Drupal 7 site owner, take a look at your research notes or post-launch backlog to pull out items that can now be completed. Then, compare those items against any reports or strategy documents you may have produced during the project’s lifecycle.

If a new website feature meets user expectations, drives business goals, and positions your organization to compete now and in the future, add it to your definition of a minimally viable product.

To Craft the Website You Want, First Get Rid of Everything You Don't

“Migrate all of it.”

This can be the gut reaction to the question of “what content should and should not come over to your new website?” It is the easiest answer when facing a tight timeline – instead of completing a content inventory and auditing all content on the site, site owners bring everything over. That way, nothing gets missed.

However, this can create a number of problems for the long-term maintenance of the website. An older site’s content could:

  • Not fit one-to-one within a new website’s design.
  • Be no longer relevant to users.
  • Be no longer on-brand.

Additionally, it’s always easier to create new content than to retire old content. A website’s sitemap can start to feel like the junk drawer of a dresser, filled with items long past their use from years or even decades ago.

A website redesign provides a great opportunity to audit existing content and delete non-essential items. A timeline extension can give your organization the time it needs to make the right content choices.

Time Is Back On Your Side. So Is Sandstorm.

Now that time is on your side once more, we encourage you to add more best-practice steps into your website overhaul project:

  • Talk to your users – and understand their needs.
  • Explore exciting new features – and add functionality that drives business goals.
  • Audit your content – and cut what’s no longer needed.
  • Schedule a new launch date – one that relieves the pressure on you and your team.

Since 1998, Sandstorm has helped clients across industries do just that. Whether you’re just starting to evaluate your website needs or want to ensure you’re adhering to required accessibility standards, we’re here to help. Connect with us today.

This blog was posted by David on March 1.

About the Author

David Boocock

David Boocock (MA, MS) is a product owner at Sandstorm Design

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Rachael
Color Alone is Not Enough: 7 ways to support the use of color on your website - paint buckets showing different colors

For many sighted website users, color is a useful way of sorting and coding information. But it’s important to remember that being sighted is not the “default” condition; the World Health Organization estimates that approximately 2.2 billion people have some kind of visual disability. That’s nearly 30% of the world’s population!

People with visual disabilities, including those who are red-green colorblind, blue-yellow colorblind, low-vision, blind, or deaf-blind, may not be able to see the differences between colors, regardless of the level of contrast between them. Therefore, relying on color alone to communicate information could deny important content information to a significant portion of your users.

This isn’t to say that you can’t use color to convey information - in fact, it’s a useful way to reinforce information for users who can perceive color differences. But to ensure that visually disabled users can access your content, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) require that websites include at least one non-color visual cue to communicate the same information. As is often the case, solutions designed with accessibility in mind will benefit non-disabled users as well - including people who prefer to print things out in black and white.

What can I use to support color for accessibility?

There are many different ways that you can visually communicate information that does not require color. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and which mechanism you use depends on your situation and what information you’re trying to convey.

Tools that can be used to support color accessibility may include:

  1. Patterns, fills, & textures (e.g., solids vs. stripes or dotted line vs. solid line)
  2. Symbols (e.g., add an asterisk, checkmarks or X’s)
  3. Adding text labels & cues
  4. Underlining, bolding, or italicizing text
  5. Changing typeface
  6. Increasing or decreasing font size
  7. Adding or changing shapes (e.g., a square becomes a circle)

Common cases where color is used to convey information & alternatives

Charts & Graphs

Color is useful in pie graphs, bar graphs, and other data visualizations to indicate different categories of data. When using color in a chart or graph, it’s best practice to use different tones of the same color (i.e., three different shades of blue rather than red, green, and blue) to ensure that the colors appear different if converted to black and white. Common supporting visual cues for charts and graphs include different fill patterns and text labels for each category of data.

Menus

Color is often used in menus to communicate where a user is currently “located” in a site or which menu item has been selected by the user. Common supporting visual cues here include adding an underline or an outline to the relevant item.

Buttons & Links

Color changes are often used in buttons and links to convey hover states and focus states (i.e., which item is about to be selected by the user if they click their mouse or hit “Enter” on their keyboard). They are sometimes also used to communicate visited states, or which buttons and links were previously selected by the user.

The presence of a link is usually communicated by using an underline and a different text color from the body text. To maintain good UX, you should keep your links underlined. Therefore, changes in the typeface itself could communicate a focus, hover, or visited state (e.g., all caps, bolding, or italicizing the text).

Users don’t expect button text to be underlined, so that would be a great way to communicate a state change. You could also add text elements like brackets, or change the shape of the button itself.

Error Messages

Form fields are often outlined in red to communicate an error, such as a mismatched username and password or an empty required field. Adding asterisks or warning symbols are common ways to communicate error messages. To go a step further, consider adding text that explains the error and how to correct it.

Support Color Differences with Visual Cues

Color can be an effective way to communicate information for those who are able to perceive it. But to ensure the most impactful user experience for everyone, WCAG requires that there are additional visual cues to support color differences.


Need help identifying areas to improve your website’s usability? Contact us today to learn more about our accessibility audit.

This blog was posted by Rachael on December 7.
Rachael, a white woman with curly, shoulder-length hair, smiles at the camera. She wears a mauve top and a brick building is reflected in the window behind her.

About the Author

Rachael Penfil

Rachael is UX Manager and co-leads the accessibility team. Rachael advocates for users while keeping client needs in the forefront of her mind.

Devin
Accessibility keyboard

Adding alternative text (“alt text”) to images seems like a no-brainer when managing your website. But ensuring image alt text is implemented properly and follows ADA and WCAG accessibility compliance is a little trickier than you think.

What is Alternative Text and Why Is It Important?

Alt text is a tenet of inclusive and accessible web experiences for all users and provides users with visual disabilities access to key visual non-text content including photos, infographics, logos, icons, and other images.

Alt text lives in HTML code inside the alt attribute, which is embedded in an image element. It’s important to code this correctly to ensure a smooth, accessible, and delightful experience for users with access needs.

So how do you write good alternative text? Here are 5 best practices to improve your skills.

  1. Identify and convey the purpose of non-text content

    When you have a lot of images on your site to write alt text for, it’s easy to go on auto-pilot and just describe the image. However, this is not going to create an accessible experience for users with visual disabilities (like blindness, deaf-blindness, or low vision), who may be using assistive technologies, like screen readers, to access the information conveyed by images.

    An example is the magnifying glass icon. Good, accessible alt text would be “search” not “magnifying glass” - the aim is to convey the purpose of the text, rather than just a literal description.

    If the image acts as a button or a link, you will need to add the action keyword to initiate, like an icon of a cart. Instead of “add to cart” as the alt text, try “ Click add to cart.” Having the action as part of conveying the purpose makes it easier for users to identify a button or link and is crucial for those that need to speak the action aloud to get the button or link to open.

  2. Remember that screen readers read the alt text aloud

    Screen reader users can program them to translate the text to other outputs, Braille, or voice command devices.

    A quick way to test alt text is to read it aloud to a user that does not know what the image is. If they can identify what the image is trying to convey based on your alt text alone, great!

    However, for optimal results, conduct testing and collaborate with screen reader users and users with disabilities to improve your site’s accessibility and overall user experience. They know how they interact with web content better than anyone else.

  3. Complex images require a long description with alt text

    When the alt text alone is too short to describe your image, you should add a long description (also called an image description). In these cases, alt text is still required and is used as “directions” to point to and access the long description.

    Long descriptions are needed for complex images like graphs, charts, medical illustrations, infographics, detailed photographs, etc. to fully describe the more complex purpose of that image. For example, bar graphs present data that will need to be fully described, as well as the intended conclusion to draw from the data presented.

    You can hide these long descriptions using the appropriate ARIA labels, however, it’s best practice to make them available to everyone. For example, if there is a bar graph on a webpage, users with dyscalculia may have difficulty interpreting the graph and may not use a screen reader to access the text alternatives. A great solution is to have the long description available to all users in the surrounding text near the graph image. So for this, your alt text can look like “Annual Revenue per Quarter, see long description in next paragraph.”

  4. The rules are different for decorative images

    How do you know if an image is considered decorative? If the visual content provides no information, then it is considered decorative.

    Because alt text is required, in this case, you would leave the alt attribute blank, like alt= “ ”. This tells screen readers to “skip over” the image. If you don’t include the empty alt attribute, the screen reader will read the image file name instead. Remember, screen readers, render the alt text into speech or Braille outputs for users who can’t see the content. If just the image file name is being conveyed, rather than the purpose of the image, the experience will be inaccessible and frustrating for users with disabilities.

    When images are identified and described fully by the surrounding text, like an icon that supports surrounding link text, the rules for decorative images apply. When the link text or surrounding text is the same as alt text, it will create a repetitive experience for screen reader users.

  5. People count too! Photos of people should be described fully

    And to the best of your ability! This is because otherwise low vision and blind users are denied important contextual information that sighted users have available to them. When a photo including people is chosen for your website, it was probably selected to show diversity and/or target audiences. It’s important to provide this information to low vision and blind users as well. By describing people in images, you can provide a fully accessible and more inclusive experience for users in the disability community!

    When you’re describing images of individual people, you can either use alt text and a long description or use an informal short description embedded in the alt attribute (or in other words, in place of the alt text). Short descriptions are more common for alt text for images of people and are generally about two sentences long.

    When you are describing people in an image, it’s a best practice to ask the person in the image how they would like to be described. If you can’t ask, you can follow some general guidelines.

    Characteristics you should include are:

    • Descriptions of skin color, not necessarily race or ethnicity. Use descriptions like light-skinned, medium-skinned, medium-light skinned, medium-dark skinned, or dark-skinned.
    • Descriptions of gender presentation instead of assuming someone’s gender. Use descriptions like female-presenting instead of woman, female-presenting child instead of girl, or male-presenting instead of man. There are many different words used for gender expression!
    • You can also use non-binary for folks that do not identify with female or male genders and provide this identity information publicly. Again, it’s best to ask the person directly if you’re able to do so!


    If it’s helpful to understand the context of the image, you can describe additional features of individuals, like hair color and style, height, clothing, age, etc.

Remember, screen readers and other assistive technologies translate alt text through speech and braille outputs, so consider the context in which the image is being used.

Get into the practice of asking yourself….

  • What is the text content talking about?
  • Why was this image chosen?
  • What is it trying to communicate or show?

Keep in mind, the CDC reports that 1 in 5 Americans live with a disability. The result of proactively choosing accessibility will open your website up to reaching a bigger audience while saving you time and money over the long term. Added bonus! Your hard work will also increase SEO while improving the perception of your company and brand.

Are you unsure if your website meets the current requirements for accessibility standards?
Contact us today to schedule an accessibility audit of your site or discuss your accessibility challenges!

This blog was posted by Devin on November 5.
Devin Owsley-Aquilia: light-skinned non-binary person smiling, with dark blonde hair pulled back, wearing a black turtleneck against a grey wall

About the Author

Devin Owsley-Aquilia

Devin is Scrum Master, Agile Master Certified, co-leads the accessibility team and leads complex, enterprise web development for a diverse set of higher ed, consumer, and B2B clients.

Amanda Heberg
Inclusive Design: Quantitative and Qualitative Research to Drive Award-Winning Gender Report

Find out what Elsevier’s most recent gender research uncovered in the Gender Report 2020: The Researcher Journey Through a Gender Lens.

How do you transform thousands of data points on gender research and make that information inclusive, fresh, consumable, and appealing to a broad set of audiences? How do we not overwhelm users with too much information and strike the right balance of data visualizations, research findings, and key content?

More importantly, how do we represent the progress of gender equality in research, while still communicating the work that still needs to be done to close the gap?

These are the questions Elsevier was grappling with when the research marketing team partnered with Sandstorm to bring the newest Elsevier gender report to life digitally.

Promoting gender diversity and inclusion in research through an evidence-based approach is a critical part of Elsevier’s ongoing research efforts. Elsevier is one of the largest, most well-respected information analytics organizations that helps institutions and professionals progress science, advance healthcare, and improve performance.

Elsevier’s Gender Report 2020 provides a deeper understanding of the role gender plays in the global research enterprise. It brings improvements in the methodology of inferred gender disambiguation and incorporates new elements, such as career progression and collaboration network analyses and perspectives from researchers.

Elsevier partnered with Sandstorm for high-powered data visualization, helping Elsevier to solidify its positioning as a global information analytics organization and thought leader while showing its commitment to gender diversity and inclusion.

Sandstorm worked collaboratively with Elsevier to provide an updated state of the current landscape including:

  • overall research report strategy and inclusive design
  • marketing content development
  • creative campaign development
  • design of data-driven infographics highlighting work in 10 countries
  • data visualization and reporting for thousands of data points, ensuring the most critical data was consumable and highly usable​
  • integrated marketing and promotion strategy, including promotional marketing assets, key messaging, and content for Elsevier’s online and offline channels -- social, email, web, .ppt, etc., in order to promote and drive engagement for Elsevier’s audiences

Key Gender Report 2020 Highlights*:​

  • Participation of women in research is increasing overall, inequality still exists across geographies and subject areas in terms of publication outputs, citations, awarded grants, and collaborations.​
  • Representation of women in research is increasing, but inequality remains.
  • Effort is still needed to ensure equality for women in terms of publication outputs, citations, awarded grants, and collaborations.
  • Latest findings indicate that disparities still linger with slower growth of articles published by women, higher numbers of women leaving research, and understudied research areas.​
  • Research shows women are not participating in collaboration networks at the same level as men, which may be impacting their career progression.
  • On average, men have more coauthors than women, with a tendency to collaborate with those of the same gender across the subject areas.
  • On a positive note, in terms of research authorship, we are closer to gender parity now than a decade ago, with women continuing to publish for nearly as long as men over the course of their careers.​

Key Gender Report 2020 Insights*:

The past fifty years have seen enormous strides for and by women in research. Women now comprise a greater share of science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM), and medicine graduates than ever before, and there is increased focus and energy on balanced participation, factoring gender into research and research on gender itself.

However, latest findings show that disparities still exist, with slower growth of articles published by women and higher numbers of women leaving research and understudied research areas.

Ultimately, there’s more work to do to address issues that cut across diversity and inclusion.

We are incredibly proud of our work with Elsevier in bringing to light both the progress that has been made as well as the opportunities that exist to close the gap.

*Reference Elsevier’s Gender Report 2020 here: https://www.elsevier.com/connect/gender-report

Hermes Creative Awards - 2021 Platinum WinnerWe are honored to have received the Platinum Hermes Creative Award for our collaborative inclusive design work with Elsevier.

This blog was posted by Amanda Heberg on June 17.
Amanda Heberg

About the Author

Amanda Heberg

As the VP, Business Development, Amanda leads new business development, sales, partnerships and marketing strategy across Sandstorm. Amanda collaborates closely with new clients to build strong, long-lasting partnerships while aligning Sandstorm's capabilities to solve client business problems.

Janna
How color can help with website accessibility

Color is a critical part of a brand. A branded color palette creates a beautiful experience, differentiates from one’s competition, and drives how users/consumers perceive and engage with a brand.

We all know the brand colors should be as consistent as possible in all marketing tactics, including digital, email, print, email, in-store, etc. This consistency is key in building a coherent brand experience and instilling consumer confidence. However, the colors defined via printed materials sometimes do not translate well into the digital space. Many times colors are not dark enough or too similar. This is especially clear when we consider the requirements for an accessible digital experience.

Digital branded experiences for all users

Many of your website users have some level of color deficiency–1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women in the world. Using the term color blindness is not accurate since 99% of all colorblind people are not really color blind but have a color deficiency.

Knowing many of your users will have some form of color deficiency, one must review the brand colors to be accessible. If not done, not only could your brand integrity be impacted or just not legible, your user experience could be hindered.

Creating accessible brand experiences is good UX

UI designers use color to help identify key call-to-actions through buttons and text links. We also use color as a navigation element and to establish visual hierarchy. But if those CTAs or that navigation is missed since the user cannot read the button label or the navigation is not legible due to lack of contrast, what will this user do? Well, they will leave your site and go to your competition.

Still not convinced you need to focus on accessibility? Here are a few things to consider:

  • Inclusion and reach. Between 10-20% of internet users experience disabilities. Ensuring proper access extends your reach and your ability to fulfill your mission.
  • It is the law. Just as you would make sure your building has hand ramps and elevators for wheelchairs and braille on signs, we need to take specific steps to ensure your digital experience and content is available to all visitors. Over the last few years, lawsuits related to the accessibility of websites have increased by nearly 10 fold.
  • Google bonus! Most accessibility improvements also improve search engine optimization since they make your markup and metadata clearer and more robust.

Now that you know why accessibility is so important, how do you go about making sure your brand colors are accessible?

1. Tone up your brand colors

At the beginning of a new project, the Sandstorm user-interface designers study all the colors in a branded palette. We use two online tools to identify how the colors should be used. These tools help us segment the palette into tones that can be used as buttons, navigation, color blocks, text links, and those colors that cannot or those that need to be adjusted for use on the web. 

2. Build an accessible color palette

https://toolness.github.io/accessible-color-matrix/
We found this easy to use color palette builder. It allows you to quickly look at a range of colors on various backgrounds to see if they meet a contrast ratio of 4.5:1. When they do, great. When the colors don’t pass, we can immediately fine-tune the hue to identify the values that do pass.

3. Check color contrast

https://webaim.org/resources/contrastchecker/
WebAIM’s contrast checker is a go-to tool for making sure the text color and background you are using are accessible. It provides instant feedback for WCAG AA and WCAG AAA ratings. If your head is spinning with WCAG and ADA lingo, don’t worry. It’s a lot to soak in and we want to help. Determining the level of accessibility can be defined through the level of WCAG accessibility. Most organizations determine AA compliance is their goal, but healthcare organizations for example, often strive for AAA.

Once we have studied the colors, Sandstorm reviews the accessible colors with the client and their brand team through the creative process as well as an updated color palette. We never just change a palette, rather we embody a “Yes, And” mindset to review the colors and accessibility considerations collaboratively with our clients so they are informed and understand the rationale. You are not in this alone. We conduct accessibility audits and can help to prioritize your list of issues. Our approach combines automated scans of your site along with a manual review of the accessibility of the brand including content, colors, and interactions. All of this resulting in a detailed report, which we review together to determine high priority areas.

4. Schedule continued accessibility reviews

Once your brand is validated and accessibility is made a priority, it’s important to not let all the hard work fade away. And color contrast is just one aspect of creating a truly accessible web site. There are always ways to improve, and your brand should never be left to stagnate. Select a timeframe that’s manageable and something you can adhere to. We recommend quarterly, to reassess your digital brand and make sure you address any new issues.

Good accessibility is good usability. Let us help you make your digital brand accessible. Contact us today to schedule a time to review the accessibility of your website!

This blog was posted by Janna on November 23.
Janna Fiester

About the Author

Janna Fiester

Sandstorm's VP of UX & Brand Innovation, Janna, is a design-thinker. Showcased in several design publications and exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, she is talented in taking nuggets of good ideas and nurturing them into solutions that are always strategic, engaging and visually delightful.

Nick

As we partner with clients to reimagine how to drive their businesses forward, one request we’re often asked is how to use Artificial Intelligence (AI). As AI continues to evolve, so does the practicality of how and when to use it.

In the midst of rapidly changing customer demands, it’s more important than ever to make websites and digital channels more beneficial and highly relevant for users while improving the overall customer experience. Through the use of AI-enabled web analytics, brands now have access to the insights they need to inform more relevant and targeted content delivery.

Here are 3 examples to leverage AI on your website:

1. Intelligent Chatbots
One of the most common applications of AI on websites are intelligent chatbots that have a “conversation” with the visitor, acting as a customer support specialist to direct them toward relevant content and offerings, then verify that it achieved the desired outcome. The chatbot can direct users to self-service tools, human support staff, or alternative methods of contact as needed.

Sandstorm implements solutions that support chat functionality directly in content management systems (CMS) like Drupal with its Chatbot module, but can also integrate third-party chatbot tools like Botsify and others.

2. ‘Look-a-Like’ Models
AI can also include tracking a visitors’ activity for common patterns of search, navigation, and conversion events – identifying “look-a-like” models that can guide similar visitors to content of improved relevance. This often adds a recommendation engine like on Amazon. Artificial intelligence and machine learning relies on the quality and quantity of useful data, including indexed content of the site and applying taxonomy and relationships, utilizing the CRM database, incorporated community platform data, and tracking visitor activity.

3. Personalization
Highly relevant, personalized experiences can be created using platforms like Kentico or Acquia Personalization with its built-in personalization features, but can also integrate third-party marketing automation platforms that leverage AI like Hubspot or Marketo.

In addition to information on the website and data about activity on the website, Sandstorm leverages tools that provide omnichannel tracking including social media and targeted email to drive personalization that informs and improves user experience on the website.

Artificial Intelligence is also baked into analytics platforms like Google Analytics to highlight insights on visitor behavior and trends that can be leveraged to prioritize content creation and identify where to make changes to the website to best support your visitors.

Sandstorm implements Google Analytics on all of our website development projects, or in conjunction with additional native analytics platforms like Adobe Analytics or other platforms. Supplementing the automated insights of these platforms, Sandstorm also provides advanced data research and reporting services, leveraging tools like Google Data Studio and Tableau.

In How AI can shape the future of UX, Sandstorm CEO Sandy Marsico shared “AI and predictive analytics help to determine what the user wants, needs, or does next. AI assists in adding insights, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.”

And while not a replacement for human analysis, AI does play an important and evolving role. “We’re all trying to predict the future,” she says. “AI won’t figure out the problems we need to solve — AI helps us have a deeper understanding of our user so we can tailor our content and messaging to anticipate motivations and behaviors.”

Looking to use AI to drive your business forward? Contact us today to schedule a time to connect!

This blog was posted by Nick on October 12.

About the Author

Nick Meshes

Nick is Sandstorm’s Director of Technology & Data, leading the development, quality assurance, and analytics teams for Sandstorm. He’s boosting our quantitative focus. He’s busy increasing our capabilities in web analytics, website optimization testing, technical SEO, effective SEM and display advertising, privacy, security, business intelligence and personalization.

Janna
What are In-Depth User Interviews and when should you use them.

Whether you’re building a new website from the ground up or looking to improve your existing site, involving users in the design process is a crucial step to meeting both your users’ needs and your organization’s goals. There are 4 types of user research that all contribute to the success of your design process.

  1. In-depth user interviews
  2. Card sorting and tree testing
  3. Usability testing
  4. Heuristic analysis

Use these methods to gain insight on what your users want, what’s working well on your site and where you need to make improvements.

In a perfect world you’d employ all or most of these techniques in your design process, but if you have a limited budget (and who doesn’t) you’ll want to invest in the research method that provides the most benefit for your needs. Over the next few weeks I will be discussing each approach individually outlining their benefits and drawbacks. This week we have in-depth user research interviews.

In-Depth User Research Interviews

User interviews help you uncover what’s important to your users and what they want from your site. This helps you create user stories and determine content and functional requirements before you start your web development.

Going a step further, the results can be used to develop personas to guide you through the entire design process. We recommend one to one interviews (which can be done over the phone or in person) with 10–12 users from each of your user groups.

Why should I use this approach?

In-Depth Interviews answer the following questions:

  • How do I understand my users?
  • What features would bring the most benefit to my site and users?
  • What do users think about our brand compared to our competitors?
  • How should we be engaging our customers?

What do they achieve?

The benefits and results of user interviews include:

  • Developing user stories and requirements.
  • Ensuring you’re spending your budget on the content and functionality that will bring the most value to your users and your organization.
  • Aligning organizational goals with user goals

It’s always a good time to talk to your users.

This should be the first step if you are redesigning your site, converting to be a responsive website, or starting a new site from scratch. It’s also a good place to start if you are looking to make big changes to an existing site. Quite simply, if you’re not talking to your users, you’re missing opportunities. No matter where you are in the process if you haven’t spoken to your users, do it now.

I’m ready, where do I begin?

Depending on the number of user groups you select, the interview process takes two to four weeks to complete. Below is a six step outline based on how I (and Sandstorm) conducts user interviews:

  1. Identify your research goals. What questions are you trying to answer?
  2. Determine what types of users (user groups) will participate in the study. A user group is a set of users who have similar goals or use cases on your site or application. This is different from demographics.
  3. Write a protocol, that’s a fancy word for the list of questions you’re going to ask your users.
  4. Recruit and schedule the interviews. Interviews can be conducted over the phone to make it convenient for the participants. We recommend offering a gratuity or incentive to participate.
  5. Conduct the interviews, 30 to 45 minutes each should be good.
  6. Analyze the results and develop your user stories, requirements and/or personas. The results can also be helpful in making business decisions about the scope of your project.

Is there a way to simplify?

Here are a few hints to help your interviews and process go smoothly and give you better results:

  1. Ask a mix of open-ended and behavior based questions. For example, what’s the primary reason you visit website.com? Tell me about the last time you visited website.com, what did you visit for? Tell me 3 things you like about it? Tell me 3 things you would like to see improved?
  2. Allow space for follow up and probing questions like, can you tell me more about that? Can you give me an example?
  3. Be consistent, follow up questions may vary but be sure to follow your protocol with all participants. You’re looking to identify trends, so you’ll need to be consistent in your research methods.

You get results

The result of your In-Depth User Research Interviews is a user research report with user stories, content and functional requirements and personas. This can fuel your design and even reconsider your product and how you market it. Since you now have data on who your target is, you’re equipped with a powerful tool to serve them better than ever.

[Read the second post in this series on user research: Card Sorting and Testing Trees.]

This blog was posted by Janna on May 4.
Janna Fiester

About the Author

Janna Fiester

Sandstorm's VP of UX & Brand Innovation, Janna, is a design-thinker. Showcased in several design publications and exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, she is talented in taking nuggets of good ideas and nurturing them into solutions that are always strategic, engaging and visually delightful.

Sandy
What does "Yes, and" mean? Why is it important at Sandstorm?

Since our founding, Sandstorm has followed a “yes, and” approach. What does that mean?

Yes

For us, it’s a matter of how we think in regards to how we solve problems. With our user-centered design approach, we want our clients to know that we hear them. This yields a concept that reflects the needs and requirements from the business and the user. This results in the “yes” concept.

And

We then go a little farther. We’re a bunch of thinkers and dreamers. We explore fresh concepts and see where it takes us. This result is something that meets the users' needs but in a form that goes beyond their expectation. This concept is Sandstorm pushing ourselves creatively and in effect pushing our clients, too. This is the “and.”

This is a creative marketing term now, but where did it come from?

The terminology for “yes and” came from the theater. Actually, just a few miles from our Chicago office. Starting with the Compass Players and Second City then later at iO, this concept is used to create improvised stories. For the improviser “yes and” means “yes, I hear you and understand the information you’re presenting, and I’m going to add something to heighten our interaction.” 

An illustrative example

Consider this scenario, Person 1 steps on stage and says “This paper is despicable. I’m going to have to give you an F.” Person 2 in her head thinks: Yes, I am a student and you’re the teacher. We’re in a classroom. I’m failing, and I think it’s because I wrote about a subject you don’t approve, and responds “Well, it’s probably because you don’t respect the intricacies of the writing of Stephenie Meyer.”

From there the scene goes forward because of “yes, and”-ing. It can go into a conversation about how the teacher and student have different ideas of high art, or can go on to show that the teacher really loves “Twilight” and the student is just a bad writer.

But this could have only developed because of the “yes, and.” Had she only “Yes”-ed it would have played out like this:

Person 1 says “This paper is despicable. I’m going to have to give you an F.” Person 2 in her head: Yes, I am a student and you’re the teacher. We’re in a classroom. I’m failing, and she responds “I’m a terrible student.”

That adds no information, and it doesn’t make anything more interesting. In effect, it ends any progression by cutting off the potential of what could happen.

“Yes, and” implications for storytelling in marketing

As this concept creates scenarios on stage for improvisers, this can also be directly applied to how a business’ or an overall creative concept’s story is told. This can cover overarching campaigns, visual creative executions, and content marketing. Keeping an open mind while editing and writing, enables the writer to fully take on the role as a storyteller. This involves removing parameters and preconceptions to open opportunities to craft a story. The end result is interesting and involving instead of dry content that is primarily facts, figures, and business-talk.

Yes, of course, you need data within your words, but the reader needs more than just that to keep reading. By making each content interaction a storytelling opportunity, you’re engaging the reader actively and driving them to want more.

Back at Sandstorm

By “yes, and”-ing at Sandstorm we listen to what our clients want, what they expect, and then add to it to make something greater. We could only “yes,” but that would keep our project in neutral. It’s the “and” that helps move concepts forward and gets everyone to think and imagine in a whole new way.

Following a “yes, and” philosophy enhances our collaboration both internally and with our clients. We open the doors to all possibilities and sometimes surprise ourselves, too. By coming to a project of any kind with an open mind, we can see truly what is possible. This heightened thinking allows us to produce results that help clients exceed their goals and move their business forward.

This blog was posted by Sandy on August 16.
Sandy Marsico, Founder & CEO

About the Author

Sandy Marsico

Sandy Marsico is the founder & CEO of Sandstorm®, a digital brand experience agency that turns consumer insights into engaging user experiences through our unique blend of data science, brand strategy, UX and enterprise-level technology.

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

Earlier this year a German court ruled that Amazon’s ‘dash’ buttons violated that country’s consumer protection laws. These super convenient networked devices stick on your fridge or washing machine to order things like laundry detergent and pet food with the simple push of a button. German law requires shoppers to have price information at the time of their transaction. Amazon’s buttons, designed to be convenient, only provided a product logo and a button so users wouldn’t know if a price had increased, decreased or how it differed from competitors.

At Sandstorm, our core eCommerce UX principles include:

  • Transparency in pricing
  • Giving users the ability to quickly and clearly modify or cancel an order
  • Providing ways to quickly decline cross-sells and up-sells

While users have come to expect a standard ‘exit through the gift shop’ process, they are also savvy enough to know that eCommerce sites like Amazon and Expedia may not be showing them the cheapest options first.

Our user research has shown that the current eCommerce shopper is one who will prioritize convenience as much as cost. We refer to this persona as the ‘Energy Manager’. She has little time, is often multi-tasking, desperately craves convenience, and expects competitive pricing. From a saving money standpoint, the Energy Manager will apply all of the coupons and promotional codes she can find and will split orders to use more coupons.

She is also very wary of sites that engage in deceptive practices or make her jump through hoops to complete a transaction. Often these are the sites that do not get return visits.

There Is A Cost For Bad Behavior

While you may be able to frustrate users with complicated interfaces or processes to try and get them to do what you want, ultimately the only thing you’ll achieve is user frustration and brand denigration. Even worse, you’ll probably just earn yourself more customer service calls and brand-eroding, sometimes viral, dreadful complaints across social media channels without achieving the business outcome you desired.

But We Really Want To Sell You That Beer

For example, a Chicago neighborhood movie theater uses its own non-responsive website to sell tickets. The theater uses a drop down for the type of ticket the user would like to purchase.

Unethical ecommerce dropdown example

While lots of folks enjoy a good beer with their movie, it’s apparent that not everyone does because the theater added a note to try and prevent users from making the wrong selection.

So here you have a situation where the theater is defaulting a choice that will make them more money by upselling a beer but have clearly run into the issue of users making the default selection by mistake and then complaining. The resolution to these complaints? Add more copy (i.e. noise) to try and avoid the error.

A transparent, ethical, best practice eCommerce UX solution would be:

Ethical ecommerce dropdown example

This way the user has to intentionally make the selection that applies to them with the most common selection listed first. The business still gets to offer the beer upsell but doesn’t have to deal with as many complaints and no copy is required to work around the error case.

Being Good Pays Off

Users understand that eCommerce sites are businesses and are intended to make money. At Sandstorm, we have discovered that when a businesses’ profit model is clear, it tends to engender more confidence from the user as the best digital experiences are centered around a value exchange (i.e. “I give you my email and you give me a deal”). eCommerce sites that follow UX best practices provide clear pricing information along with relevant up-sells and cross-sells and easy ways for the users to get what they want quickly and easily are the ones who will earn their users’ loyalty. Good UX and good eCommerce will pay off in smoother transactions, less customer support and more repeat business.

Does your eCommerce site provide the pricing transparency and easy shopping experience that users want and good business demands? A great way to find out is with a standardized heuristic evaluation that grades your site on 10 common usability metrics. Contact us to get started.

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

About the Author

James Wynne

James Wynne is Director of User Experience for Sandstorm and has been in digital product development since 1996. He has worked as a UX designer for a myriad of clients including large eCommerce brands, mobile device manufacturers and integrated marketing agencies.

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