Sandstorm Blog

Michael
4 Types of User Research and When to Use Them: Usability Testing

A usability study is a great way to identify trouble spots with your website, application or prototype.

It involves watching your users complete a set of tasks on your site or application. This includes testing processes like purchasing, registration, forms and finding content. It’s also a great way to test the language and labels on your site to see if you are using menu labels that are intuitive for your users.

There’s no substitute for watching users actively use your site. You gain insights into why parts of your site aren’t performing and more importantly how to resolve them.

One day of testing with 6 to 8 users will uncover over 80% of the usability issues with your site. I call that a day well spent.

Why should I use this approach?

Usability testing is a good way to learn how to improve the user experience on any site. If you are asking any of these questions, conducting usability testing might be a great next move:

  • How can we get more users to complete the checkout process?
  • How can we get users to accurately complete each step of this form?
  • How does our site perform on mobile devices?
  • How can we help our users learn more about what we have to offer?

What does usability testing achieve?

Usability testing allows you to see the site experience from the user’s point of view. The benefits of this testing include identifying:

  • Confusing or unclear language and navigation labels
  • Confusing or broken processes, particularly useful for check-out and registration processes or any conversion points
  • Inconsistencies between multi-device versions of your site (mobile, tablet, desktop)
  • Issues with the “findability” of content

When should I start testing?

Early and often. At Sandstorm we start the testing process as soon as we have enough wireframes or a prototype to start getting feedback.

Usability testing early in the process can help identify issues before budget is spent developing something that’s not optimal.

It’s also the tool to use if parts of your site aren’t performing as expected. Even when your site is performing well, you’ll want to make sure your site is optimized for your users.

I’m in. How do I conduct usability testing?

It is an in-depth process. There aren’t many steps to conducting usability research, but care should be taken with each step. You can do rapid testing in 1 or 2 weeks time. Usability study projects at Sandstorm usually take 4 to 6 weeks to complete.

  1. Identify the goal of your study and the key tasks you want to test. Don’t try to test too much in one study. If you want to test a lot of areas, it’s better to do multiple studies.
  2. Identify your users and participant criteria; make sure you’re testing with people who would actually use your site.
  3. Write the testing protocol (the list of scenarios you want to test).
  4. Recruit users. We recommend offering a gratuity for participation. It’s a nice incentive.
  5. Conduct the study.
  6. Analyze the results.
  7. Make improvements to your site.

Here are some helpful hints for greater success:

  • Focus on your conversion points.
  • Allow room in the protocol for follow up questions and clarifications.
  • Don’t interfere; observe and let your users do their thing.
  • Test the mobile and desktop experiences.

Do I get results?

Yes, you do. Usability testing yields a research report with key findings. At Sandstorm, we always include actionable recommendations with our key findings. We also provide video and screen capture footage for stakeholders to review.

Most importantly, you’re getting rid of problems on your site and gaining a better experience for your users.


[Ed. - Check back for the last post of Michael’s series on user research with Heuristic Analyses. If you missed it, be sure to read his previous posts on In-Depth User Interviews and Card Sorting with Tree Testing.]

This blog was posted by Michael on .
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.

Janna
Sandstorm honors Massimo Vignelli

At Sandstorm, we wear black to honor the passing of the original Information Architect, Massimo Vignelli.

Massimo Vignelli on Black: "There is no other color that is better than black. There are many others that are appropriate and happy, but those colors belong on flowers. Black is a color that is man-made. It is really a projection of the brain. It is a mind color. It is intangible. It is practical. It works 24 hours a day. In the morning or afternoon, you can dress in tweed, but in the evening, you look like a professor who escaped from college. Everything else has connotations that are different, but black is good for everything.

To me, black is black and red is color. That’s it."

This blog was posted by Janna on May 29, 2014.
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

We recently had an amazing opportunity to share our story of building a culture of gratitude, fun, and recognition with Marcus Lemonis from CNBC's "The Profit" (who is totally awesome by the way). Like any other small business, we had growing pains. By focusing on defining and building our culture, we absolutely flourished. The results are staggering. We doubled our staff, moved into new digs, grew revenue 250%, and are growing another 30% this year, too. 

Here are 5 things that transformed our culture:

1. "Leading by example" is only half the work. "You are what you tolerate" is the second half. So if you're a CEO or manager, step up and speak up. 

2. We held a company meeting called "The best place I ever worked." Everyone on our team shared what they loved most about past companies they worked for... and why. This was the beginning to our multi-year plan to learn from other successful organizations and implement. I would recommend Tony Hsieh's book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose.

3. We established ground rules. We call these "Sandstorm Expectations" and they show you how to be a Sandstormer. 

4. We defined our core values to work by, to hire by, and to live by. Not core values on a poster, but meaningful, concise, memorable ones (call our office and anyone who answers will be able to tell you what they are).

5. We celebrate successes every month in a company meeting called a "You Rock." CNBC did an amazing job capturing this in their video - thank you!


So, how did CNBC and Marcus Lemonis find us? Through Vistage, a CEO leadership group that I've been a member of for 8 years. They were looking for small businesses with a story to tell. I replied, and many weeks later, Sandstorm was selected as 1 of 12 companies featured. 

We are so grateful for the opportunity to share our story with other business owners and hopefully inspire them to embrace a culture of celebration at work.

We hope you enjoy the show: Check out the video

This blog was posted by Sandy on .
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.

Jason

We were a little busy last week with prepping for the holiday weekend, and we also had some special guests! Marcus Lemonis, from CNBC’s “The Profit” stopped by our office to interview Sandy. A crew from CNBC spent 2 days getting video of Sandstormers in our natural environment.

We’ll be featured in a web series about small successful businesses. This will showcase what makes Sandstorm unique and how we balance fun with accomplishing good work. We had a You Rock, a little too much buffalo wing popcorn, and a lot of fun. Such a great opportunity to share the Sandstorm story!

We’ll keep you posted on when it’s live.

This blog was posted by Jason on April 25, 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.

Megan
Sandstorm Talks UX at Drupal MidCamp

Learn more about how to better the user experience on your Drupal website. Take some time this weekend and attend the Midwest Drupal Camp 2014 (or Drupal MidCamp). Michael Hartman, our Technology and Usability Director, is giving a presentation that highlights 4 of the best user research approaches. He will walk you through the practices that uncover what your users are looking for, their needs, and areas to improve.

The user experience research methods discussed include:

Michael’s talk is scheduled for Saturday, March 29 from 1:45 p.m. to 2:45 p.m. in the River room at the University Center (525 S. State Street, Chicago).

Learn more about his talk or sign up for Drupal MidCamp.

This blog was posted by Megan on March 26, 2014.
Megan Culligan

About the Author

Megan Culligan

Megan knows the importance of picking a winner. With a background in politics and PR, she knows that a successful marketing campaign requires coordination of many moving pieces and a team focused on achieving a great goal. You’ll see her analytical point of view on the blog, providing insight and tactics for success.

Michael
4 Types of User Research and When to Use Them - Part 2: Card Sorting and Tree Testing

Card sorting and tree testing are the yin and yang of determining and testing your navigation and menu structure. Card sorting is helpful when creating a menu structure while tree testing is an effective way to test a menu structure.

Card sorting exercises consist of writing samples of your content on cards and having your users sort those cards into groups. Two varieties of card sorting can be used, an open card sort where you also have your users label each group and a closed card sort where the groups are predetermined.

Tree testing works in the other direction where you present the user with a navigation structure and ask them to find particular piece of content.

Both are quick and easy ways to arrive at an effective menu structure and there are several great online tools for conducting both of these exercises.

Why should I use this approach?

If you’re looking to solve any of the following, card sorting and/or tree testing will help:

  • You’ve heard feedback that your content is hard to find.
  • You’re not sure what to label a section or type of content.
  • Your navigation structure is overly complicated. (Hint: it shouldn’t be complicated at all.)

The benefits and results of card sorting include:

  • Creating a new user centered menu structure
  • Testing and improving an existing navigation and menu structure
  • Identifying user-centric labels for your navigation

When should I start?

Card sorting and tree testing is a versatile user research method. It’s great to do at the beginning of the design process to ensure structure simplicity and utility. Although, If your current navigation is giving your users trouble, you can conduct this research at any time.

Steps for conducting a card sort

Below is a six step approach for card sorting:

1. Identify your content.
For new sites, you will need to identify your content strategy first. For an existing site, audit your content to catalog and understand what you have and how it is currently organized.

2. Create your cards.
25–30 “cards” is a good amount. Any more and it becomes too cumbersome for your testers to complete. Make sure you have an accurate representation of your site’s content with enough cards from any category to allow for grouping.

3. Recruit users.
Have as many users as possible participate, at least 20. It’s crucial to test with real users, too. Involving stakeholders will likely skew results.

4. Conduct the study.
We like using an online tool so we can invite as many users as possible to participate and they can do so in their own environment and on their own time. A good ones is Optimal Workshop’s Optimal Sort.

5. Analyze your results.
With a closed card sort it’s mostly a matter of identifying how many times a card was placed into a particular group and identifying the trends. Open card sorts are a little more difficult to analyze. There is less consistency within the number and names of groups your users create. The online tools mentioned above will save you a lot of time here.

If online tools are not an option, use your favorite spreadsheet program and list your cards vertically down the first column.Then put the user created categories in a row across the top. Now, you can mark in the matrix how many times each card was put into each category.

It’s likely many of your users created similar category labels that can be combined (e.g. About, About us, About [name of organization]). At this point you should start to see groupings and trends. Major groupings will be obvious, but around the edges, groupings are not as clear and will require your judgment. (Tree testing will help confirm you’ve chosen the correct labels and groupings.)

6. Build or update your navigation. Take your findings and build a navigation that is easier and more intuitive for you and your users.

Following up with tree testing

Now that you have a workable navigation, some simple tree testing will help confirm your findings:

1. Build a menu for testing. This can be an html prototype or simply a list of your primary (top level) navigation items on a piece of paper.

2. Ask your users “Where would you go to find X?” Use the content from the cards you created for your sorting exercise.

3. Adjust your navigation as needed.

Getting the information to fulfill your goals

Card sorting and tree testing is an effective exercise for gathering insights from your users for organizing your content. Involving your users in the process will help ensure you’re speaking their language, after all they are the people using the site.

[Ed. - Check back for the next post of Michael’s series on user research with Usability Studies. If you missed it, be sure to read the first post on In-Depth User Interviews.]

This blog was posted by Michael on .
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.

Megan
Keep Your Content Timeless: No Buzzwords, Please

Buzzword – n. a word or phrase, often an item of jargon, that is fashionable at a particular time or in a particular context.

These words are trendy, fashionable, this season’s latest fad. They should not be loaded into each and every piece of work we create and used until the end of time. Words like these were meant to refresh and have become cliché. We hear and use them so often that they tend to invade other aspects of our work, diluting the value of what we produce.

As an avid reader and occasional writer, I know that I might put more emphasis on word choice than others, but some of these words just aren’t going to work anymore. Word choice heavily impacts the impression we give off to others (there’s my PR background sneaking up). If we speak to users in a whirl of buzzwords, they won’t know what to think about us.

The Usual Suspects

Using buzzwords dilutes our meaning and creates skepticism within our audience. They become throw-away words and almost ensure what we are trying to convey won’t be heard. For example, a content strategy filled with buzzwords is stale and forgettable, whereas language that is thoughtful and precise will better convey your message and engage your readers. Try your best to avoid these words and you might actually reach your users:

  • Innovation
  • Leverage
  • Dynamic
  • Thought leader
  • KPIs
  • Empower
  • Groundbreaking
  • Stakeholder
  • Low hanging fruit
  • Game-changer
  • Next-gen
  • Out-of-the-box
  • Turnkey
  • Breakthrough

Although I cannot share exact quantitative data on the overuse of these words, I am sure you are nodding your head in agreement when you read the list. These words have become ubiquitous background noise. I am even prone to using them once in awhile. The one I use often (unfortunately), is “out-of-the-box.” I have no idea how big the box is or what happens inside, but no matter what, every idea and concept should be beyond said box or ready to go when it is removed from the box.

It’s All in How You Say It

You don’t need to use these words to sell your ideas or products. Use the descriptive words and phrases that come natural to your vocabulary. You will seem far more credible with this approach. People are going to believe what you are saying and feel that they received something valuable from you and your team.

Whatever content you are creating needs to be comprised of words your user understands and would use themselves. If they cannot understand what you’re saying, how will they see the value of your work? Consider your audience and use words that are timeless to them. Make sure that whenever your content is picked up, it’s relevant and makes sense to your audience. Show that you and your organization don’t fall into the habit of following trends. Your word choice reflects your work. Make sure the content comes across as great, timeless and not “rad” or “tubular.”

Breaking the Habit

If you aren’t sure about letting the words go, trust me, your users are ready. We just had a client in our office last week, working on a content strategy. While toying with descriptive words for part of their plan, the word innovation came up. They quickly rejected that idea, saying they were so sick of hearing that word. It was so refreshing to me to hear that they wanted to dig deeper for a more specific descriptive word.

I’m not asking my fellow marketers to bust out a thesaurus for each and every content strategy they build. I’m suggesting that it’s time we go back to using our natural word choice and stop hiding behind the fog of buzzwords. Be real with your users and you will get the same in return. Trust that your natural word choice will do the heavy lifting and get the real point across.

This blog was posted by Megan on March 12, 2014.
Megan Culligan

About the Author

Megan Culligan

Megan knows the importance of picking a winner. With a background in politics and PR, she knows that a successful marketing campaign requires coordination of many moving pieces and a team focused on achieving a great goal. You’ll see her analytical point of view on the blog, providing insight and tactics for success.

Michael
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 Michael’s series on user research: Card Sorting and Testing Trees.]

This blog was posted by Michael on .
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.

Emily Kodner
Top 4 Reasons You Hate Managing Content on Your Web Site

Some content managers love their jobs. Some content managers hate their jobs. If you are in the second category, maybe it’s because of these reasons.

1. You have no strategy.

You are just updating the same old copy that somebody originally wrote fifteen years ago. Maybe you’re babysitting a “helpful links” page. Stop filling orders rather than seeking and producing content with a defined purpose.

Take time to make a real content strategy. Involve key stakeholders for their great ideas (and more importantly, their buy-in). Identify your target audiences. Define your users’ goals and your organization’s goals for the site and figure out how you are going to use your site’s content to meet those goals. Select topics that will bring you the right traffic. Establish your site’s voice. The strategy is your filter. It tells you what to spend time on and what to say no to. It tells you what content to cut and what content to create.

2. You have no style guide.

You (and other people) are always finding style inconsistencies throughout your site. Where does your company stand on the Oxford comma? Are page titles in sentence case or title case? Depending on the reviewer or writer you seem to be constantly fixing or unfixing things.

Select a style guide. Preferably one aligned with your industry and intended for web writing. Create an organic style guide to keep track of all of your industry and company specific terms.

3. You have no content governance plan.

Every time you make a content change you have too many, too few, or just the wrong people review it.  This means it takes forever to make changes or you end up with sub-par (maybe even inaccurate) content on your site.

Create a governance plan that makes it clear and transparent who is responsible for each section of the site. After much experimentation, I have had much success with an adapted version of this model.

4. You are looking at the wrong analytics.

You spend hours and hours each week (or each month, or just when somebody asks) putting together reports, but you’re just making reports for the sake of making reports.

Are you reporting average time spent on site? How are you evaluating that? Is it a short time win or a sign that your site is impossible to navigate?

Isolate the site’s goals and define key performance indicators that align to each goal.

Create dashboards or custom reports where possible to reduce your time manually manipulating your Google Analytics data pulls in Excel. Review the reports with other people regularly AND isolate improvements you can make. Identify the things you should do more of because they’re working so well.

Take a step back and take some time to improve your process. The steps outlined above can improve your personal workflow and make sure you’re aligned with the rest of your team.

This blog was posted by Emily Kodner on February 28, 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.

Jason
Jason provides a great user experience at the front desk

What makes for a great front desk experience? As someone who has been the face at that desk and the first voice on the phone, it’s a combination of empathy and information. I’ve never had a full-time position where I just sit and wait for people to show up. The front desk person always has other priorities and goals.

People coming in the office don’t need to know that, it’s not really relevant to them. All they remember is if I helped them when they came in. In much the same way visitors to your website don’t know and don’t care what your other priorities are, they just care about what you can do for them.

Greet Them

The greeting when you walk through the door is quite important. Friendly and attentive is by far a must. You wouldn’t have your front desk person stand at the door and loudly yell at potential clients as they walk in “HEY! We’ve got a great deal for you, let me show you right now!!!” while blocking their entrance and view. Pop up ads, loud music, animations, and the like, go over about as well.

Anticipate Their Needs

I think we’d have trouble landing business if when a potential client walked in the door for her first meeting, I shoved a hot cup of coffee down her throat, yanked off her coat, and tossed her into the bathroom. I would certainly ask her if she’d like something to drink, if she’d like to hang up her coat, and if she needed the bathroom, but I let her decide what she needs.

Your users know what they want, and it may not align with what you want them to do. Error on the side of walking in their shoes, worry about your goals on the back end. Ultimately this will more effectively accomplish your goals.

Keep Them Updated

If the guest is here to see someone, I make sure that both that person is notified and that the guest is aware so that the guest is not waiting and wondering what’s going on. When an action is completed on your website, do you give a clear confirmation? If a visitor runs into a problem, does your 404 page or other error messages give that visitor any direction on what he can do next? In the real world, he can ask, or just glare expectantly. On the web, your visitors will just go to your competitors.

Learn and Repeat These Five Words

Businesses have a front desk for very much the same reasons they have a website. It’s another channel for interaction and if done well, can enhance and build relationships. If done poorly it can make sure they never come back. It all comes down to 5 words :

“How can I help you?”

This blog was posted by Jason on February 13, 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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