Sandstorm Blog

Dubai skyline, user experience, UX, IA, information architecture

I recently had the incredible opportunity to travel to Dubai. It’s a city of extremes: intense 120° F heat, malls with skiing and diving—with tiger sharks—and architectural feats beyond my wildest imagination. Out of all these wonders, what impressed me the most was the ever-evolving infrastructure of this bustling, technologically advanced city.

In Dubai, the roads change constantly to account for all of the new construction. In fact, they change so frequently that residents and taxi drivers say they often run into a dead end or end up trapped on a road that has changed overnight. GPS isn’t just used for convenience in Dubai, it’s used for survival.

A website’s information architecture is a lot like a city’s infrastructure: as you add new information, you need to create new navigation. If you’re constantly changing where you place information and how customers navigate your website, your users will be just as lost as drivers in Dubai.

A common method to improve the user experience (or UX) of a digital space is to mimic a real world pattern. For example, e-commerce mimics a grocery store: you typically have a shopping cart, you add to the shopping cart, and then you go through the checkout process.

The challenge comes when you start building and adding on to the original experience. While Dubai’s original city center is pretty easy to navigate, as the city grew at a rapid pace the new roads ignored the original conventions. Often—to accommodate new construction—roads had to be shifted and changed, causing friction and confusion among drivers. When designing your website, it’s imperative that you account for how it may evolve in the future and avoid foreseeable challenges as your company grows.

Sandstorm has a dedicated team of UX design specialists—including designers, architects and researchers—who help clients build websites that utilize information architecture best practices and provide cutting-edge user experiences. 

This blog was posted by on August 29.
Safina Lavji

About the Author

Safina Lavji

As a UX Architect, Safina actively empathizes with users to bridge the gap between user needs and what the client delivers. 

Hydrology responsive website.  beautiful bathroom picture

The Paris runways are not a normal inspiration source for home decorating projects. But that is exactly what inspired Sandstorm® when Hydrology came to us for a new website. Hydrology, a high-end purveyor of kitchen and bath furnishings in Chicago, wanted an online user experience that mimicked their sleek & luxurious products. To capture that opulence, Sandstorm® tapped into the ambition and extravagance of the fashion world.

 

The home furnishing industry standard is nearly the opposite of runway glamour. It features flat and transactional product images that focus on product details while ignoring the bigger task of a completed room. This limited industry representation was an opportunity to set Hydrology apart. Pulling inspiration from fashion designers like Burberry, Sandstorm® crafted the new online experience to feel less like a product website and more like an editorial spread of your dream house.

 

The photography-focused site presents an aspirational goal, while highlighting individual products. We utilized Masonry, a JavaScript gird layout library, to allow the photos to speak for themselves. The navigation is subtle so as not to distract from the quality products or the end goal of an exquisite environment.

Check out the new Hydrology site here

This blog was posted by on June 2.
joshua sovell

About the Author

Joshua Sovell

As the Marketing Manager Joshua is in charge of crafting the Sandstorm narrative via compelling blog content and community engagement.

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Sandstorm designed and developed a responsive website that helps child health

The American Academy of Pediatrics came to us with a great goal. They were planning a project in conjunction with the National Center for Medical Home Implementation (NCMHI). It would be a fun, educational microsite specifically built for the pediatrics community. Excited about the possibility of creating a healthcare microsite with a twist, we came on board.

The microsite’s mission is to educate users about a concept known as a “medical home.” The term refers not to a place, but to a system of proven best-practices for providing healthcare to kids. If we do our job well, the microsite will help clinics put these practices into action. The impact on children’s lives will be phenomenal.

Creating the site was a collaborative process. We worked closely with NCMHI to determine a user experience design that everyone from government policymakers to parents to pediatricians would find to be a useful, intuitive tool. We were able to give it a look that’s playful while still giving context to the information the site delivers. From there, we built the site using responsive web development so it would function smoothly for users on any device.

The microsite recently launched and we couldn’t be happier with the results. If you’re interested in seeing the final product, check out NCMHI's responsive website

This blog was posted by on January 30.
Kellye Blosser

About the Author

Kellye Blosser

Kellye’s unique approach involves a delicate balance of left and right-brained thinking. She most recently hailed from the corporate video world. Here at Sandstorm, she’s excited to bring strategic, innovative thinking to every project.

Emily Kodner
Neurosurgeons Designing Websites?

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

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

A focus on user needs

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

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

Navigation designed by users

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

User tested designs

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

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

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

Nathan
Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference

Last week was Apple’s annual Worldwide Developer Conference. They are releasing a lot of new software and updates that I found particularly helpful. From some of the announced developments, it appears that Apple is continuing to make a great user experience through their products. Here are some highlights from the conference that are particularly beneficial to Apple users.

User Interface Design

Smartphones are a big deal, particularly for die-hard iPhone users. Apple realized that as much as people use a desktop operating system, the one that they spend the most time on is on their phone. The new desktop operating system, named Yosemite, will be streamlined to look more like the their mobile design and experience:

  • OS fonts will go from the current Lucida Grande to Helvetica Neue
  • Toolbars are refined to focused on clarity and utility and they’re adding translucent “materials”
  • All icons are being updated (They finally have a great looking Trash Can!)
  • The toolbar and dock have a “Dark Mode” option

Continuity

One of the big talking points was: “Use the right device for the moment.” As users are using more tablets and smartphones, specifically iPhones and iPads, their experience going from device to device will be smoother.

  • AirDrop - It now works between iOS and the Mac OS
  • Handoff - Your devices will be aware of what you're working on. You’ll be able to pick up where you left off on another device.
  • Instant Hotspot - If you're using a mac and you aren’t near a WiFi, but your phone is nearby, your computer will recognize it as a hotspot. We will see how seamless this is, there would be some setting up before you can use it automatically.
  • Phone calls - When you receive a phone call, your computer presents the caller information in addition to your phone. You can even accept the phone call from your computer, even if your phone is across the room. You can make phone calls from the computer as well.

Interactive Notification

Since users are interacting primarily with their iOS devices, Apple is making advancements to make this experience easier. Users can now:

  • Swipe down to interact with notifications:
    • Respond to text messages
    • Accept calendar invites
    • Like or comment on Facebook posts
  • Double click the home button to get a list of the people you communicate with the most

Quick Type

The announced upgrades will make typing on iPhones and iPads much easier (and hopefully reduce the number of mistaken autocorrects).

  • Keyboard suggestions based on what you type (hello mistaken suggestions)
  • Suggested options to reply to a message
  • Language based on how you communicate with certain people (for example, you may say the “party was really nice” to your mom or say it was “epic” to a good buddy)

Messages

This might be my favorite addition to the iOS since “Do Not Disturb” in the iOS 7 release. Group messaging is now better than ever. I’m sure everyone has been on a message chain from hell. At the time it might have been useful, but 3 months later a new conversation gets started on an old chain and it blows up your phone. You now have the option to:

  • Leave threads
  • Turn particular threads to “Do Not Disturb”
  • Add and remove people
  • Name the thread

You can also sort to see all of the images used in that thread and shared locations. This will be great when you're with a large group message and would like to keep track of that one friend that barely comments.

There is also a new feature to send voice and video messages straight from the Messages App.

Family Sharing

You can now share media with family members if all accounts share the same credit card. This setup keeps your kids from spending $2,500 on in-app add-ons. You can manage settings so that certain family members, such as your 6 year old on the iPad, have to ask you in order to purchase an app. You get the alert on your device to approve or deny their request.

Photos

I’m a designer and love taking pictures. The new Photos advancements are very cool. The new app has smart editing controls, such as levels for light and color.

For example, you can select a photo to edit and click the smart editing controller. You get a smart light editing feature. To achieve this, the app has an algorithm that simultaneously adjusts brightness, contrast, exposure, highlights and shadows at the same time. The same for color.

Also, photo storage is easier with iCloud pricing: the first 5GB are free, 20GB for $0.99 a month, and 200GB for $3.99 per month. They even have tiers up to 1TB (who wants 1TB of selfies?).

Think Different

It’s good seeing Apple continue to innovate, especially when the updates are free to users. The whole conference was centered on upgrades and innovations. They didn’t sell, they only shared what was coming to everyone at no cost. I can’t wait to see what they will unveil next.

This blog was posted by Nathan on June 13.
Nathan Haas

About the Author

Nathan Haas

Nathan is a User Interface Art Director at Sandstorm. He is a proud alum of The University of Tennessee. His main focus was print design, but he soon realized the potential of pixels. This combination of print and interactive gives him a unique view of design possibilities.

Janna
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 this 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 Janna on July 7.
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.

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 on February 13.
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.

User goals come first in user experience

I recently conducted a usability study for a Fortune 50 company. It was for an internal portal for managing employee health benefits and programs. This included testing both the desktop and mobile experiences. Results of the study showed users were frustrated by irrelevant content or that they missed content important to them because it was buried in the experience.

Stakeholder goals came first

The project stakeholders built the portal around their needs and the users needs were secondary. Throughout the portal, surveys, promotions for internal programs were brought to the front instead of presenting the key health benefit information users wanted. Users found this particularly frustrating on their mobile devices, where they wanted to quickly access specific information on-the-go.

User goals should be priority

If the users had access to the information they wanted first, they would more likely take the time to read the promotions or surveys. Since it was in the way beforehand, users found it annoying. At best it was ignored.

A soapbox I often stand on when speaking with clients goes like this:

  • You have business or organizational goals
  • Your users have goals
  • Sometimes these are the same, sometimes they are not
  • Meeting your users goals first greatly increases your chances of meeting your business goals

Everyone wins when the user succeeds

Often, there are business goals your users don’t care about at all. If you prioritize your users’ goals, you’ll have the opportunity later to meet those business goals that aren’t important to your users. If you make it difficult for your users to meet their goals, it’s unlikely they’ll stick around to help you meet yours.

Each user has a goal in mind specific to their need and situation. By successfully meeting this need, they will return to your site, app, and even brick and mortar store again.

This blog was posted by on January 2.
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.

Can we stop saying "click here"?

You’re going to click here. Of course you’re going to click here. How could you not? The link says “Click here”!!

  • Click here to register
  • Click here for a list of services
  • Click here to learn more
  • Click here to go find that thing that should be right here where we’ve placed the words click here

The web is all about clicking. Users know what a link is and how to click on it (or press it if they are on a touch device). I think it’s safe to abandon this tired phrase and just get to the point. Why not just say:

  • Register
  • Our services
  • Learn more
  • [put that thing that should be right here]

I think this would make the world a better place or at least a place with better online user experiences.

This blog was posted by on November 6, 2013.
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.

David Ogilvy was a UX Pioneer

I have been in the ad biz for about 20 years and never read Ogilvy on Advertising. I recently finished it, and it struck me how much of his approach is anchored in user experience design principles.

Ads should have a purpose.

David Ogilvy: UX from the Ad Age to the Digital Age

“A good advertisement is one which sells the product without drawing attention to itself.”

David Ogilvy was passionate about having communication that provided real information to someone. From his famous Rolls Royce print ads to his campaign for Puerto Rico, he was adamant about providing something new and informative to the reader. (Click on the images to read their informative copy.)

Research is critical.

“Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals.”

How can someone fully empathize with a user without research? Ogilvy was interested in pragmatic, actionable research. He wanted to know enough to garner a perspective for advertising that would successfully resonate with the consumer.

This approach was anchored in healthy skepticism for traditional researchers, as well as curiosity about what people really wanted and were thinking. He went so far as to outline nine things he did not like about the research community of his time.

  1. Take too long to answer a few simple questions: “they are natural slowpokes”
  2. Cannot agree on methodology
  3. Are too interested in sociology and economics, not advertising [Note: this is specific to Ogilvy's field]
  4. Have little or no system for retrieving research which has already been conducted
  5. Are too faddish; some techniques are useful, but still go out of fashion
  6. Use graphs that are incomprehensible to laymen
  7. Refuse to undertake projects which they consider imperfect, even when the project would produce actionable results. Quoting Winston Churchill; “PERFECTIONISM is spelled PARALYSIS”
  8. Lack initiative i.e. only do what they are asked for
  9. Use pretentious jargon

These principles can be and should be successfully applied to the agile technology world of today. Testing and learning and continuous improvement are the approaches to creating engaging user experiences that produce business results.

Readability cannot be compromised.

“I do not regard advertising as entertainment or as an art form, but as a medium of information.”

A fanatic about details, everything was focused on the information. Ogilvy would not tolerate reversed out type. He felt that it was not legible and would lose the reader.

Back to 2013, legibility and organization of information can make or break conversion on a website. Unclear direction and cumbersome forms will cause high abandonment rates.

Uncompromising discipline to implement a thoughtful experience

“The best of all ways to beat P&G is, of course, to market a better product.”

An entire chapter is devoted to Procter & Gamble’s marketing discipline. His respect for their marketing acumen was anchored by their focus and commitment to creating a better product. The core of their marketing was the product itself. The times are long gone where great promotion can outsell a quality product. Quick access to information requires successful marketers to create great products to succeed.

I can’t help but think that if Ogilvy was around today he would have a chapter about Apple and their fanatical discipline. It starts with product design and resonates through the Apple experience, from iTunes to the Genius Bar. Everything consistently reinforces the brand.

Laura on Ogilvy on Advertising

What I am most amazed about is that we continue to create new business processes and vocabulary around “new” principles. These “new” concepts are attempts to reinvent the wheel. It would be most efficient to spend time being more disciplined about solving the challenges at hand. Answering tough questions accomplishes more than creating new names for existing tools.

Ogilvy’s approach to advertising and marketing with a user focus has stood the test of time. This approach can help you create something that can last, too.

There is no silver bullet, no social media magic, or algorithmic formula that will save your business, product or service. Time tested marketing discipline, when applied correctly will fuel, reinvigorate and grow your business but only when the appropriate level of time, money and thinking is applied.

[Editor's note: The images used in this post are owned by their respective company. Also, there is a great post by Fast Company that reviews Ogilvy's 11 principles for successful marketing campaigns through the lens of UX.]

This blog was posted by on October 17, 2013.
Laura Luckman Kelber

About the Author

Laura Luckman Kelber

Chief Strategy Officer, Laura Luckman Kelber leads Sandstorm's team of strategists with wisdom from her 20 years of marketing experience. Combining seemingly disparate ideas to solve a problem, Laura unearths unexpected insights to help clients’ fuel their success.

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