Sandstorm Blog

Joshua
Responsive web app

While it would have been easy to take a don’t-mess-with-success approach, our warrior spirit drove us to collaborate with a large insurance company's federal employee program to further optimize their existing responsive web application (which we built a year earlier) to continue to increase online enrollment.

We started with a thoughtful review of their Google Analytics and conducted a heuristic analysis of the app. This allowed us to dig into the data analytics and find new opportunities to improve the application. Combine that with our existing expertise in the FEP program, and we were able to make some adjustments and update the overall interface to provide their users with an even more intuitive tool to help them find a benefit plan that fits their needs.

Sandstorm® is ready to help you develop a web app to convert your users.

This blog was posted by Joshua on October 19, 2016.
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.

Michael
Types of User Research - Part 4: Heuristic Evaluation

A heuristic evaluation is the review of your website or software by a usability expert to identify any usability problems. This typically involves scoring your site against commonly recognized usability best practices (the heuristics) and may also include running through a series of tasks or use cases. It is a more informal research method than usability testing with your end users.

Why should I use this approach?

Heuristic evaluations help:

  • Identify usability issues when testing with real users is not possible or practical
  • Benchmark your site against recognized usability standards
  • Check your site for accessibility issues and Section 508 or WCAG 2.0 compliance

When should I conduct a heuristic evaluation?

You can conduct an evaluation to:

  • Improve an existing system when you are unable to do a usability study
  • Gauge the current user experience when you take over maintenance or management of an existing website or application
  • Meet certain site compliance standards (such as 508 or WCAG 2.0)

A second option for usability testing

While we prefer testing with end users, a heuristic evaluation is a reasonable substitute for a usability study when a study with your site users is not possible or practical. There are some things to keep in mind when you decide to make this substitution:

  • You will be missing the context and nuances of testing with real site users, particularly in uncovering issues with content and labeling
  • A heuristic evaluation doesn’t necessarily prioritize the issues found

When clients come to us to test an existing site, it usually doesn’t make sense to do both a heuristic evaluation and a usability study. You get the most insight by testing with your users in a usability study, but if that’s not possible, a heuristic evaluation is a reasonable substitute.

How do I conduct a heuristic evaluation?

Here is an outline of a process to follow:

1. Define your heuristics. There are several good lists available online. Jakob Nielsen has developed a standard list of website heuristics that are commonly used. We’ve adapted several sources to create our own set of heuristics. From a high level you want to answer some basic questions like:

  • Is the system intuitive to use?
  • Is the user experience consistent?
  • Does the user have a sense of control?
  • Is it clear to the user what they should do?
  • Is it clear to the user where they are in the system?
  • Does the system provide feedback to the user about how to correct errors?
  • Is help provided?
  • Is the user interface aesthetically pleasing?

Some of the questions we use to get there include:

  • Are navigation and page titles easy to find and use?
  • Are links easy to identify?
  • Are font sizes and spacing easily readable?
  • Is the color contrast between design elements stark enough for easy legibility?
  • Is it clear what each action does?
  • Is it clear what path to take?
  • Are error messages provided and are they clear and easy to understand?
  • Does the site work well on multiple devices and smaller screens?

2. Conduct the analysis. We use a collaborative form on Google Drive to list the heuristics, score each one, and note our comments. When practical, we have more than one usability expert conduct the analysis and compare notes.

3. Analyze the results. Then you can make improvements to your site.

The end result of this evaluation is a research report with key findings and recommendations.

Putting all user research methods together

There is both an art and science to all of the research methods covered in this four part series. This is particularly true when it comes to interpreting results and finding solutions. What looks like a single usability issue might actually be a symptom of a larger problem.

Some answers will be clear while others may require a bit more digging. In any case, you will inevitably find ways to improve the user experience. With practice, the art of user research and testing will come.

The real key is to talk to your users and involve them in the design process. It’s important to talk with them about their needs for your site and your business. By listening to your users, you’ll be on your way to building valuable and intuitive experiences that will keep them coming back.

[Ed. - Be sure to read Michael’s previous posts on user research approaches: In-Depth User Interviews, Card Sorting with Tree Testing, and Usability Testing.]

This blog was posted by Michael on November 14, 2014.
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.

this file was posted under: 
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.

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.

Michael
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 Michael on January 2, 2014.
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.

Karen

I’m not here to report how a particular ad campaign went. I want LinkedIn to view this as free user research – they need to improve the user experience and usability of LinkedIn Ads.

The ad campaign setup consists of what seems to be three simple steps. But as the user moves through the experience, what initially felt simple becomes rigid and constrictive when trying to make changes, update, or delete.

The top three key items LinkedIn Ads could fix to improve usability and the user experience:

  1. No delete? You’ve got to be kidding me. I’ve heard this complaint within other areas of LinkedIn before, so I wasn't surprised to find it in LinkedIn Ads. Once created, there is no way to delete an ad campaign or ad variation. You can hide them, but not delete them. Users should always be allowed to delete anything they create (just make them confirm it's really what they want to do).
  2. No “Save” option. If you leave the ad campaign setup process at any time, LinkedIn saves everything you started. This is great, except they don’t tell you they’re going to do that. So if you leave before finalizing a campaign, you would assume you're losing what you started. Upon coming back to find it's still there—you might be surprised, and also annoyed you didn't know it would be saved in the first place. If the functionality is there, tell the users upfront so they can plan for it.
  3. Cannot add new ad variations. I love that LinkedIn gives users 15 ad variations per campaign. But after you go through the initial three steps, there’s no way to come back and simply “Add a new variation.” You have to use a workaround where you duplicate an existing variation and just make changes to that. Users should never have to use a workaround for something that should be basic functionality. In fact, they should never have to use a workaround, period.

Despite my rant here, I love LinkedIn, and am very pleased to see it growing so much (100 million members as of March 2011!). As they grow, usability and the user experience is definitely something they'll want to put more focus on. For now though, these few items would make a nice improvement.

Don't forget to follow our usability and user experience design agency on LinkedIn!

This blog was posted by Karen on April 27, 2011.
Karen Boehl

About the Author

Karen Boehl

Karen does a little bit of everything – webmaster, social media manager and search engine optimizer. She can most often be found on Twitter, in the Usability Lab, or happily buried in the Drupal admin menu.

Sandy

We are so honored to be mentioned in B2B magazine today! I just wanted to share as it really demonstrates our company's passion for user centered design and usable web sites. Here's a little excerpt for those that don't have time to read the full article:

Another trend: Making the most of a user's time on the site, rather than focusing on increasing the amount of time spent on the site, said Sandy Marsico, principal of Sandstorm Design, a web design and usability firm. “You want to help them find what they want quickly and get on with their day. Businesspeople don't have any time to waste anymore.” “You want clear areas of content,” Marsico said. “There should be more conversation and less selling.”

This blog was posted by Sandy on September 13, 2010.
Sandy Marsico, Founder & CEO

About the Author

Sandy Marsico

Sandy Marsico is the Founder & CEO of Sandstorm®, a next-generation brand experience agency that turns customer insights into engaging user experiences through our unique blend of strategy, UX design, user research, marketing technology and analytics.