Sandstorm Blog

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.

Colors do not play well in all marketing tactics

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.

Accessibility is more important today than ever before

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.
  • Goggle 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?

Tone up your branded 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.

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.

Checking 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.

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.

Ratio, WCAG… What???

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 of our clients determine AA compliance is their goal. Only one has tackled AAA.

But you are not in this alone. Sandstorm conducts 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.

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, 2020.
Nick Meshes

About the Author

Nick Meshes

Nick is Sandstorm’s Director of Technology & Analytics. He’s boosting our quantitative focus. He’s busy increasing our capabilities in web analytics, website optimization testing, SEO, SEM, display advertising, business intelligence, and personalization.

Janna
User Experience Design Firm in Chicago, UX Agency

At Sandstorm, our creative team and user experience design architects provide our clients with partial and/or full access to all phases in our user-centered design methodology. With an onsite usability lab, we can quickly test wireframe prototypes, UX design comps, content comprehension, navigation terminology, conversions, and user flows. UX designers, user experience design architects, writers, and developers collaborate throughout. Below are the 6 steps to our UX design methodology:

Step 1: Define the problem and establish metrics 
To get the most out of your UX research, we start by determining your objectives. For example, are we looking to increase sales, newsletter sign-ups, whitepaper downloads, conference attendance, etc? Or are we trying to reduce bounce or abandonment rates? Maybe we have a new feature or piece of functionality we want to drive more use of? Whatever the objective, we'll help define metric(s) to track your ROI.

Step 2: Conduct user research and develop personas
Starting with 1:1 in-depth interviews, we begin to identify a user's content and functional requirements, purchasing rationale, behaviors, and trends. We mold our user research insights in a form to drive extraordinary creative results through the development of a persona. Personas provide a noticeable advantage by creating a face to represent an entire group. Before deciding on a creative direction, questions are posed related to a specific persona’s motivation, needs, and biases to increase the user’s experience.

Step 3: Map out your customer's journey and identify user flows
Utilizing data visualization in the form of a customer journey map, business stakeholders can quickly see their how their customer interacts with their brand along with an understanding of the steps necessary considerating a variety of scenarios. Developing user flows help identify additional functional and content requirements, in addition to technology rules and necessary integrations. 

Step 4: Explore information architecture (IA) through the eyes of your user 
Centered around the “persona,” our creative UX team develops high-level IA concepts and potential wireframe solutions that satisfy both business and user requirements. This is an open-ended brainstorm to dream up creative solutions without boundaries. When questions arise, a variety of research approaches including card sorting activities and participatory design studies can reduce subjectivity.

Step 5: Create with an iterative, data-driven design process
After selecting the strongest ideas from the brainstorming and information architecture phase, initial creative concepts are designed. The creative is elaborated, refined, and tested to ensure the best user experience taking into consideration both the science and art of aligning with your brand.

Step 6: Conduct usability testing, analyze findings and identify recommendations
The goal is to observe how your customers function in a realistic manner. Starting with real-life scenarios, Sandstorm will observe and take notes while a user performs the task to get to the core of what works and what doesn’t on a website, mobile device, tablet, or application.

This blog was posted by Janna on November 11.
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.

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Andrea Wood
Designing History: The OI Centennial Website

How do you tell the story of saving a 2,000-year-old language over 9 decades, using fragments of tablets and inscriptions on ancient winged bulls to reveal a 6,000-year-old culture? Or tell the story of 100 years of research exploring 10,000 years of history?

This was our charge when we took on the responsibility for creating the Oriental Institute’s centennial site. To tell the stories that are the beginning of us, our lives as humans, together.

Founded in 1919, The Oriental Institute (OI) at the University of Chicago is a leading research center and world-renowned museum devoted to studying the civilizations of the ancient Middle East. The OI Museum exhibits one of the largest collections resulting from archaeological fieldwork in the Middle East, including more than 350,000 artifacts with roughly 5,000 on display on the University of Chicago campus.

Originally funded by a handful of visionaries including James Henry Breasted and John D. Rockefeller Jr., the OI has been a groundbreaking institution for over a century.

The Challenge

With a centennial approaching and over 10,000 years of stories to tell, the OI had a new challenge: find an interactive storytelling way to share the wealth of information uncovered over the years as well as present new expeditions and discoveries going on today. The OI needed a partner to create a digital experience celebrating its Centennial year and showcasing its 100 years of connecting ancient places, people and issues. The OI selected Sandstorm to lead this effort.

The Solution

Sandstorm and the OI team underwent a thorough UX and creative UI process while leveraging the new branding that was being designed specifically for the Centennial and the rebranded identity for the OI itself. The primary goal was to deliver an interactive, high-touch, narrative experience while showcasing the incredible depth of research projects and overall work of the OI. 

In addition, a key goal was to drive users to engage with the OI: registering for the Centennial Gala, donating, becoming a member, visiting the museum, or even adopting a dig. Making sure these CTAs and conversions link back to the main OI site was key, while also elevating the Centennial as a major milestone for the organization. 

Sandstorm implemented a new Drupal 8 instance for the OI centennial site and configured the CMS for design flexibility in the future. Over the course of a few months, Sandstorm transformed key content related to the OI’s history, research projects, fieldwork, and museum collection into a well-curated, digital microsite experience.

“The OI needed a website that would display a wide range of media types with pictures and videos but we really wanted to focus on interactive elements as well and find the most engaging way to display their research to users,” said Jeff Umbricht, lead developer of the Centennial site. “With work all over the world, we decided to create an interactive map that presents a visual navigational tool to explore key discoveries.”

To encourage museum visits and membership, Sandstorm also included an easy to access events page for visitors to experience OI events throughout the year.

Key elements of the experience:

  • Emphasis on displaying a wide range of information in a concise, scannable way.
  • Extending Drupal modules and features for strong content editor control and flexibility.
  • Interactive map to display research efforts in key locations in the Middle East. The solution provides an ideal balance of performance and interactivity.
  • Mobile-first approach that ensures the user has the same level of interactivity and scannability from any device.
  • Built targeting WCAG 2.0AA accessibility standards

Results

With the website complete, the University of Chicago has begun promoting the Oriental Institute’s Centennial, which kicks off in September with a Centennial Gala followed by a public event and includes activities throughout the 2019–2020 academic year. 

Visit oi100.uchicago.edu to learn more and be sure to visit the museum in person on the University’s campus in Hyde Park Chicago.

“Sandstorm’s work creating a digital experience for our Centennial celebration is a key element of our year-long effort focused on sharing not just the legacy and historical impact of the OI in understanding, revealing, and protecting the earliest human civilizations, but also recognizing that through our ongoing research and public outreach we can offer new ways of thinking about what connects us and why.”

- Dr. Kiersten Neumann, Curator of the Oriental Institute Museum, and Research Associate and Communications Associate of the Oriental Institute

Sandstorm wins Marcom Gold AwardHermes gold award 2020

 
This blog was posted by Andrea Wood on September 26, 2019.
Andrea Wood

About the Author

Andrea Wood

Andrea is Sandstorm's Managing Director and leader of our marketing strategy team. Like Goldilocks, she found her "just right" spot at Sandstorm after working in various large international and smaller startup agencies. Andrea loves tackling all kinds of problems and sees them as opportunities to do more, better or differently.

Janna
ACOEM's New Website Wins a dotCOMM Gold Award for It’s Intuitive UX and Enriched Member Experience Built In Kentico

About

American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) is the leading association of medical professionals who advocate and oversee the health of workers, the safety of workplaces and the overall quality of environments.

The Challenge

ACOEM’s website and several related microsites utilized an outdated technology, an ineffective user experience that did not reflect the mission of the association nor the user needs of the occupational and environmental medicine community. The content was extremely deep and relied on a poor search experience, which often led to users contacting the help desk, putting unnecessary strain on their staff, or abandoning the site.

Goals of the redesign included: ensuring the site informed users about occupational and environmental medicine (no tree-doctors need apply); Single sign-on for critical member benefits; reaching emerging professionals entering the workforce (career ops, connecting with peers, educational content); and offering special interest communities to connect and increase member engagement.

The Solution

The new site needed to be clean, intuitive, mobile-first with integrated faceted search, while delivering a robust administration experience for ongoing content management by ACOEM staff.

ACOEM wanted the new site to work from the existing marketing materials, but not be a slave to the printed brand. Sandstorm knew going straight to visual UI layouts would not give the teams the opportunity to work together—to “Yes, And”, which is one of Sandstorm’s guiding principles for our creative work. Because of this, Sandstorm began the UI process with brand/mood boards in order to gain alignment on the visual direction. Once a brand/mood board was selected, Sandstorm quickly transitioned into visual user interface designs with a mobile-first strategy.

We also identified the navigational structure was going to be broad and deep resulting in a dense navigational structure. ACOEM was extremely motivated to use a unique mobile-first drawer pattern for the navigation on all viewports. This innovative navigation resulted in a very clean experience that was user-friendly and unique within the association space.

Sandstorm’s UX and Kentico-certified development team worked collaboratively to build the page layouts using a form-based model instead of an open structure. This approach enabled the site to embody a consistent user experience while making site content and image updates intuitive and easy to manage for the ACOEM team. Knowing search was fundamental to the overall user experience, we leveraged Kentico’s tagging, categorization, Google sitemap, and Smart Search to significantly improve the relevancy and findability of key content; in addition to integrating with Fonteva’s AMS to deliver a personalized member experience.

The website was a critical part of ACOEM’s overall digital transformation journey led by our partner, .orgSource, as they helped modernize the technology landscape including new software for the AMS, finance and workflow analysis.

The Results

The dotCOMM Awards honored the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and Sandstorm with a Gold award honoring excellence in web creativity and digital communications in the association space. Check out the new ACOEM site.

The 2019 dotCOMM Awards is administered and judged by the Association of Marketing and Communication Professionals (AMCP), one of the largest, oldest and most respected evaluators of creative work in the marketing and communication industry.

Since launch in January 2019, ACOEM has seen significant improvement, including:

  • User interactions (sessions) increased 32%
  • Return visitors increased 18%
  • New users (no prior sessions) increased 13%

Sandstorm continues a strong partnership with ACOEM and provides ongoing UX/UI improvements, development and AMS integration support and maintenance for the site, including data analytics in order to drive key insights for optimization. In addition, to further extend the Kentico platform, Sandstorm is underway with building much improved Member and Find a Provider searchable directories that leverage key user data stored in Salesforce (Fonteva), as these are highly visible (and highly utilized) features of the site.

This blog was posted by Janna on August 20, 2019.
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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James Wynne
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 James Wynne 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.

Amanda Heberg
Search-driven web experience for the National Business Institute

The National Business Institute is a professional association providing continuing legal education (CLE) for attorneys and paralegals for over 35 years and delivering over 18,000 in-person and on-demand resources.

The Challenge
While NBI’s live seminars and OnDemand resources lead the industry, their website and subscriber experience were trailing behind. NBI partnered with Sandstorm—to create a personalized, user-centric (and most importantly, revenue-driving) experience for existing subscribers, transactional customers, and prospects.

The Solution
Sandstorm began with user research that identified the motivations and expectations of each type of customer. Then, we crafted a myriad of user flows based on user groups, extensive site map, navigation, wireframes and creative to align each step in the purchase process with those expectations.

By conducting usability testing, we uncovered user needs, expectations, and insights, including:

  • The use of key statistical information vs. the use of customer testimonials on the homepage was much more impactful to key audiences.
  • Including specialty credit details in the search results, since this is a key identifier in the selection of a course and purchase process for users.
  • Users wanted stronger use of colors throughout the experience, but still honoring the blue that NBI was well-known for.

Because findability and conversion were primary goals, we needed to determine how to best integrate a robust search throughout the experience. The final site includes multiple layers of search exposed within the experience to ensure users can quickly and easily find desired courses and find them in the format they wish to consume them.

Personalization was also key. Sandstorm worked closely with NBI’s development team to build in targeted courses based on a users’ geolocation and schedule (recommended courses, happening soon, and best sellers).

As NBI was shifting its business model to more emphasis on a subscription model vs. one-off courses, the conversion path to becoming a subscriber needed to be clear and slightly varied experience from an individual visiting the site for the first time.

And, knowing the mobile experience was critical to these users, we crafted and deployed a fully responsive designed experience, including personalization based on returning users vs. new users to the site.

Finally, we extended the user experience and creative via front-end development and collaborated closely with NBI’s in-house development team to ensure the experience seamlessly integrated with NBI’s back-end CMS, technology and complex e-commerce systems.

The Results
The Hermes Creative Awards honored the National Business Institute and Sandstorm with a Gold award for the agency’s redesign of the NBI website.

The 2019 award winners were announced by the Association of Marketing and Communication Professionals (AMCP), which administers the annual Hermes Creative Awards international competition.

In addition, the website has experienced significant improvement, including:

  • Organic SEO positioning has increased by 20%
  • Conversion rates are up 12% year over year
  • Experienced higher search and filtering traffic that converts at a much higher rate than the prior site experience
  • Received extremely positive feedback from its subscription-based customers via the streamlined and much-improved checkout flow

 

“Thank you for your help. The site looks great and we couldn’t be happier with what you did for us.”

Jim Embke - Managing Director, National Business Institute

This blog was posted by Amanda Heberg on April 30, 2019.
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.

Sandy
3 Digital Trends Associations Should Start, Stop and Continue Doing

As part of our annual review process we use the start, stop, continue retrospective technique. We've found it's a great way to recognize successes and opportunities for growth for individuals, teams and organizations. Thinking about the digital transformations we've seen with associations lately, below are some retrospectives on what we see trending with membership organizations. 

START
Creating a culture of data. Using data to inform your decisions and weaving that into everything you do is critical to success. We are working with an association today where we're collecting and analyzing data to identify educational gaps and drive new products (and revenue). We're also utilizing data to drive content and functional requirements on new website builds to improve the member experience. By taking a fresh look at member data for a global membership organization, we were able to re-interpret the data and create new marketing campaign messaging to increase membership and product sales. The combination of qualitative and quantitative data helps associations turn subjective decisions into objective ones. Even when we're talking creative and UX – data science for us plays a huge role.

STOP
Stop building websites in proprietary technologies on a web dev shop's server as you are trapping yourself and it’s completely unnecessary now. Many leading associations are utilizing off-the-shelf content managements systems like Drupal, Kentico, etc. to integrate with their AMS and LMS systems, provide personalized member experiences, and track analytics and KPIs. Then you have options when it comes to supporting your chosen system. You can choose to have the original digital agency maintain and support your site, you can select a new partner for support, or bring it in house. We also recommend you own the hosting relationship with a 3rd party provider such as Rackspace, Azure, or AWS so you are never "stuck". We have taken over the maintenance and support for so many association websites that didn't get the service, attention to detail, nor strategic thinking to drive their association forward, and it was all possible because of the CMS they selected (and it's always a smoother transition when a 3rd party hosting provider is involved but not necessary). 

CONTINUE
Continue focusing on member engagement, member value and the overall member experience. This is what we love most about associations. It doesn't matter if you're a trade association or medical, large or niche, everyone shares a common mission to help your members become more than they can on their own. One of the most common challenges and motivations we've seen for launching into a new website overhaul was to improve their members' online experience and increase online member engagement. And we get it – we, too, are all about the user. When you look into the member journey, continue at all touchpoints to remember we're all just people trying to be the best version of ourselves. Keep the humanity alive in your organization that you have already mastered.

This blog was posted by Sandy on February 19, 2019.
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.

Amanda Heberg
OTA Drupal 8 website

The Orthopaedic Trauma Association (OTA) is the authoritative source for the treatment and prevention of musculoskeletal injury. So when they came to us with an underperforming website, we made sure they got the best treatment possible.

The Challenge
OTA’s website exhibited a lot of the traditional symptoms of an aging online presence: disorganized content, a lack of information architecture (IA), overall poor member experience, and outdated design and functionality. They were struggling to come up organically in search and it was critical that OTA engage a partner who could quickly get them where they should be in site rankings, and keep them there. OTA planned to rely upon their selected partner not only to redesign their site, but also to help them maintain their site moving forward in a manner that would promote SEO. 

The Solution
Based on OTA’s website goals, technical requirements, API integrations, SEO concerns and content authoring needs, we determined that Drupal 8 would be the recommended content management system (CMS) for the OTA team. With Drupal, we were easily able to implement single sign-on (SSO) through OTA’s association member platform—ACGI. And by utilizing Apache Solr Search, we were able to make the search more robust throughout the site – improving the overall user experience for members. 

To improve the overall usability of the site, and increase organic search rankings, we conducted keyword research and analysis to identify heavily searched terms applicable to their industry, and built the sitemap, navigation and information architecture around the research findings. We designed with user experience (UX) best practices while creating consistent branding throughout the site—expanding the color palette, identifying fonts the OTA brand could differentiate with, and utilized custom imagery. Altogether, this made content easier to find for users and easier to update for the association. 

The Results
Within the first month after launch, OTA’s new website experienced unprecedented results:

  • 986% increase in traffic from Google
  • 497% increase in organic search traffic
  • 54% increase in new users
  • 65% increase in pageviews
  • 22% decrease in bounce rate​
“Planning and implementing a website redesign can be a momentous undertaking, especially for a small staff association. Sandstorm could not have made the process easier for our team.

Their exceptional technical and creative talent, along with the high level of customer service provided throughout the project, made the process as seamless as a website redesign can be. And our new (and very much improved) website has been well received by the Orthopaedic Trauma Association (OTA) membership!”

– Kathleen Caswell, CAE, Executive Director

Visit the new site: https://ota.org/

This blog was posted by Amanda Heberg on January 2, 2019.
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.

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