Sandstorm Blog

Karen Bartuch
Why you need content personalization now

How great is it when you walk into your local coffee shop and the barista already knows your order? That personal attention makes you feel special, and it’s the type of experience that keeps you coming back every morning.

What if your website could deliver that same personalized experience for your customers? With the right data and tools, it can. Which is why content personalization has quickly become the norm, not the exception.

Why’s Personalization All the Rage?

Consumers want and expect that coffee-shop experience everywhere they go. According to a study from the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 76% of consumers said they would like to receive personalized content. And research from Janrain, a leader in customer identity, found that 74% of online consumers get frustrated when a website’s content is irrelevant to their interests.

If you can deliver on these desires, you’ll be rewarded. Gartner estimates that by 2020, smart personalization engines used to recognize customer intent will enable digital businesses to increase their profits by up to 15%.

So How Does Personalizing Content Work?

As visitors navigate your site, their actions, demographic information and other personal data informs the content they interact with. For instance, if you’re a big box retailer and your 18-year-old female fashionista customer from Arizona visits the shoe section, it makes sense to show her Steve Madden sandals the next time she visits your site, instead of snow shoes and a parka.

One of the most effective ways to personalize content is through rule-based personalization. With this method, the first step is segmenting your audience. That means separating your users into smaller groups based on common attributes, which can be broad (age, income) or narrow (website visitors who’ve returned from a retargeting ad to purchase a specific product). Then you can set up if/then scenarios and rules that take each segment through their own journey.

At Sandstorm, we often deploy Kentico Content Management System (CMS) for our clients due to its native personalization functionality. In the scenario above, Kentico makes it easy to personalize the content displayed. Rules are created so that visitors meeting certain qualifications (e.g., geographic location, age, viewing history, etc.) are delivered specific content stored in the CMS. Given the vast amount of information available online and the decreasing amount of time people have, customers appreciate a tailored experience and are more likely to visit a site that delivers content specific to their interests and needs.

Making sure your customers are delighted and have a great experience is at the heart of what we do at Sandstorm. That’s why we continually conduct user research to better understand what consumers are seeking from a brand and its website. With over 3,000 hours of in-depth user interviews and usability tests under our belts, we take the subjectivity out of the process and use the research to inform our work, including content decisions related to personalization.

If you’d like to learn more about content personalization, contact us today. Or check out some of our work in Kentico.

This blog was posted by Karen Bartuch on September 25, 2018.
Karen Bartuch

About the Author

Karen Bartuch

Karen Bartuch is passionate about data and uncovering hidden insights to help her clients make better business decisions. She enjoys taking an innovative yet evidence-based approach to her work.

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Sean
Website vulnerability to hacks

Whether it drizzles or pours, it’s good to be carrying an umbrella.

Back in 2014, Drupalgeddon rained cats and dogs.

Drupal released a critical security update on October 15, 2014 with express directions to address the vulnerability within seven hours of the release. Unfortunately, a large number of system administrators didn’t grab their umbrellas, and—to stretch this metaphor to its limit—they got soaked. It was a wake-up call, to say the least.

So four years later, when Drupal released a similarly critical security update that many people called Drupalgeddon 2.0, the admin community was prepared. At Sandstorm®, we started planning right after the announcement, and when the update was released, we secured more than 30 sites in a single afternoon.

But we’ve always understood the importance of taking security updates seriously, whether it’s 2014 or 2018. Because staying on top of these updates is just one easy way to keep your systems safe. And as recent hacks and data breaches like those from Saks and Lord & Taylor continue to show, your safety is under constant attack.

So what else can you do to keep your site as safe as possible?

1. Move your site to HTTPS

More than half of internet traffic is now encrypted, which is great news. Having your site use HTTPS (SSL/TLS) helps protect against session hijack attacks, because all traffic between your server and the client is encrypted.

This is such a boon to security that Google has been talking about penalizing sites that don't use HTTPS. Most notably, the Google Chrome browser will start indicating sites without HTTPS as insecure, starting in July 2018. Just one more reason to get a move on.

2. Take charge of your passwords and access

A major line of defense for any infrastructure is good management of credentials. As individuals and institutions, we now have a number of tools at our disposal, such as password managers, policies, etc.

But what is often forgotten is to consistently and comprehensively review who has access to your systems. As a result, old employees still have access to sites and accounts, creating vulnerabilities that are just waiting to happen.

3. Keep your server and applications up to date

When security updates are released, they represent known vulnerabilities. It’s imperative to apply the updates immediately, or risk leaving a door open for malicious activity.

Ensure that your server is applying updates on a regular basis and that your web applications are updating any relevant frameworks or libraries. An ounce of prevention is much more cost efficient than trying to recover from a compromised server or application.

4. Ensure you have frequent backups

If something ever does happen, you want to be able to roll back to a safe state. That’s why it’s so critical to make sure your servers and your application have automated backups.

Most hosts offer backup services for a small additional fee, and you’ll want to ensure that these are configured and working.

5. Proactive threat management

Be proactive. Start a conversation with your host provider about threat management, and ask about automated systems that look for irregular traffic. Ask your web vendor about how code is managed on the server, and spend the time to find a solution that’s right for your organization.

Still not sure how you can stay protected? Sandstorm can help! Feel free to drop us a line, so we can help ensure your site is secure.

This blog was posted by Sean on April 12, 2018.
Sean Fuller

About the Author

Sean Fuller

As Technology Director, Sean is a hands-on developer and technical lead on projects. He works with design and strategist teams from kick off through launch to plan, design and execute technical solutions for client projects. 

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Michael
Answering the Eternal Question: To Hamburger Menu or Not?

Should you use a hamburger menu for your mobile navigation?

That’s a matter of ongoing debate here at Sandstorm®. It’s a debate we carry out in email chains linking to the latest articles, with subject lines like, “Hamburger menus were (bad/good).”

So I’m here to finally end the debate and offer a definitive answer on whether you should use hamburger menus by saying, “It depends.”

Because that’s the truth: Hamburger menus aren’t uniformly bad or good. It all depends on your audience, your goals, and how best to structure your information so that it serves your users and your needs.

The Myth of the Hidden Menu

In his article Why and How to Avoid Hamburger Menus, Louie Abreu lays out a thoughtful argument against the pattern of using sidebar menus. For him, the biggest issues are:

  1. Low Discoverability—the menu is out of sight and, therefore, out of mind.
  2. Reduced Efficiency—it creates navigation friction for the user.
  3. Navigation Clashing—it clutters up and overloads the navigation bar.
  4. Lack of Glanceability—information about specific items is harder to surface.

But I don’t quite buy the rest of his argument.

Since 2014, when the article was published, hamburger menus have become a common pattern for some of the most highly trafficked sites on the web, including Google and Facebook. And in countless usability studies, we’ve seen that most people don’t mind the ‘hidden’ menu on mobile devices.

The main issue we’ve seen in usability studies is some users don’t understand the three-horizontal-lines ‘hamburger’ icon. This is consistent with an A/B testing experiment conducted by Sites for Profit, which suggests that the three-horizontal-lines ‘hamburger’ icon is less effective than the ‘menu’ label. So there is definitely evidence that supports adding a menu label underneath the icon or simply using the word ‘menu’ instead of the icon.

What users really want is something that’s designed for them, whether it includes a hamburger menu or not—and I’d argue that most users don’t know that this is even a debate.

So how do you effectively use a hamburger menu without alienating users?

Considerations Before Using Hamburger Menus

1. If your navigation structure is small and simple, why not just show it?

Websites with a deep menu structure—like large enterprise software companies—can benefit from hamburger menus. But small websites, like those for a local business, have limited functionality and can display their full navigation. Or you could use one of these emerging patterns for mobile navigation.

2. Label your menu with the word menu.

Our own tests and others have shown that just adding the word ‘menu’ below the hamburger icon increases user engagement. Or ditch the icon and just use the ‘menu’ label.

3. If you have the screen width to display your menu, you should do it.

Avoid hiding your navigation on larger screens. If you don’t have to use a hamburger menu on tablet, then don’t.

4. Nesting can be a problem, if your menu structure is too deep, there’s probably something wrong with your architecture.

The hamburger/offscreen navigation pattern can get tricky if your menu structure is deep and wide. It’s probably not a good pattern to use if this is the case, but the first thing you should do is consider revising your site architecture so it’s less complex.

If you need help with your mobile navigation, Sandstorm can help. From usability testing to user experience design, we’ll help you find the solution that works best for your users.

This blog was posted by Michael on August 31, 2017.
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.

John

It’s hard to create remarkable brand experiences without an inspiring insight into the user. I’ve always considered user insights to be the single most important component of a creative brief, and it’s no surprise that it’s also the most challenging component to develop.

The process of uncovering a meaningful insight starts with understanding the user. You need to know your audience well beyond the demographics. How does he think? What does she feel? Not just about your product or service, but about the category?

It’s critical to understand the difference between an observation (a demonstrable fact about your product/service and your user—the “what”) and an insight (recognizing what motivates them—the “why”). It takes time and effort to sort through the more obvious observations to reveal the insight.

But it’s time and effort well spent. Properly developed and crafted, an insight serves as the inspirational launch pad for creative development, providing the illuminating Aha! that makes the message resonant and meaningful.

The best insights address the solution, not the product/service. As the old saying goes, people don’t want eighth-inch drill bits; they want eighth-inch holes.

What are other elements of a great user insight?

  • It illuminates the user more than the product or service
  • It applies to the category more than the brand
  • It’s single-minded and can be simply stated
  • It’s about the universal and eternal, rather than the trendy

Let’s look at a handful of acclaimed campaigns and the insights that spawned them.

Dove: “Real Beauty”

The insight: Women—who come in all shapes and sizes—had become increasingly exasperated with the narrow portrayal of female beauty in the media.

The research that revealed this insight led to the creation of a breakthrough marketing strategy: “To make women feel comfortable in the skin they are in, to create a world where beauty is a source of confidence and not anxiety.” The campaign built on this strategy looked like nothing the industry had seen before. The launch of the campaign received substantial media coverage from mainstream news broadcasts and publications, as well as talk shows and women’s magazines. Parent company Unilever has estimated the media coverage to be worth more than 30 times the purchased media.

California Milk Processor Board: “Got Milk?”

The insight: People wait until they’re out of milk to realize that they should buy more.

During a consumer focus group on milk held 25 years ago, someone said, “The only time I even think about milk is when I run out of it." The insight revealed by that remark became the foundation for a campaign that entertainingly presented what might happen if you allowed yourself to run out of milk. The “Got Milk?” campaign achieved over 90 percent awareness in the U.S., and the tagline has been licensed to dairy boards across the nation.

Old Spice: “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like”

The insight: Wives and girlfriends are more likely to buy men’s body wash than men are.

Consumer research revealed that for years Old Spice had aimed messaging for its body wash and hair care products at the wrong audience. The first commercial, featuring actor Isaiah Mustafa, was an overnight sensation and became a cultural phenomenon. Sales surpassed expectations and today Old Spice is the number one selling brand of body wash for men in the U.S.

At Sandstorm, our thoughtful, scientific approach to user research reveals illuminating insights on which effective brand strategies are built. For example:

Ensono: “Operate for Today. Optimize for Tomorrow”

The insight: Chief information officers are looking for resources to help them not just keep the data center running, but deliver strategic innovations that drive revenue.

Extensive primary and secondary research revealed how the role of our user, the CIO, was evolving. CIOs were increasingly being expected to make strategic contributions in the boardroom, moving from a traditional “build-and-feed” model to a construct that could be described as “dream and direct.” We developed a brand campaign for our client Ensono (which provides IT infrastructure management outsourcing) that positioned Ensono as “the company that dreams,” helping CIOs address their current needs and deliver on tomorrow’s objectives.

We developed the new name and brand identity for Ensono, designed and developed its new website and created an expansive portfolio of marketing materials. In one year, the site saw a 703 percent increase in total page views, an 859 percent hike in unique visitors and a 955 percent increase in lead form submissions!

We’d be delighted to help you find the unexpected user insights that deliver an enhanced brand experience. Contact us today to get started.

This blog was posted by John on May 18, 2017.
John Rausch

About the Author

John Rausch

Over his 25 years in the advertising industry, John has produced award-winning work for many B2C and B2B clients. He is a passionate believer in the power of the brand and brings a strategic approach to every piece of creative.

Sandy
Sandy Marsico: .orgCommunity Advisory Board Memeber

I really enjoyed attending .orgCommunity’s Disruption + Innovation conference this month! The .orgCommunity is an amazing resource for senior executives to lead their associations through innovation, and the event certainly delivered on that mission. Speakers and facilitators from across a wide variety of industries shared their insights on redefining digital publishing, generating new streams of revenue, and much more. These were my biggest takeaways:

  • Adopt a disruption mindset. Act like a digital disrupter.
  • Rethink the entire business, not just the technology.
  • Get inspired outside your industry. Did you know: Ugg boots were created by surfers.
  • Your goal is to create value—for every association.
  • The membership subscription model is over. You need to think about other ways to earn revenue.
  • Collaborate more, collaborate differently. Consider strategic partnerships and mergers.

So it’s with great pleasure that I can finally announce my position as a part of .orgCommunity’s advisory board! With almost two decades of experience working with associations of all sizes—including the National Association of REALTORS, American Medical Association, Rotary, and more—it’s an honor to share my experience with executives and help them utilize emerging technologies and techniques.

I look forward to sharing my expertise with the .orgCommunity while continuing to help our many association clients prepare for their future success.

This blog was posted by Sandy on 05/25/2017.
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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World IA Day 2017

I attended World IA Day in Chicago a few weeks ago and was inspired by one of the speakers. In user experience, and particularly in information architecture, we often draw analogies to physical spaces and buildings. Extending the same analogy, one speaker shared a personal story about a seven-day excursion she took to build a mud hut.

Their team was cruising through the build, and what should have taken seven days was nearly complete in three. Unfortunately, just before they could put the doors on, the walls came tumbling down. They rushed the process, didn’t take the time to let the mud dry, and skipped steps that were fundamental to allowing the natural materials to take hold.

The lesson she learned was that, much like physical spaces, digital spaces can come crashing down if you rush the process. Whether you’re building a cathedral or a website, you start with a goal, work through the mess (information architecture, user research, usability testing) and draw up the plans (blueprints or wireframes) so you can create a concrete product users can easily move through.

Constructing Your Information Architecture (IA)

Information architecture not only makes information easy to find, it helps us create experiences that are intuitive and easy to navigate. IA provides the digital signposts and clues that help users remember where things are located and how to move through a design, system, or interface. IA helps prevent issues of findability and scalability while answering questions like:

  • How is this structure organized?
  • How is the content labelled?
  • How will it meet the needs of the organization?
  • How will it meet the needs of the people using it?

Listening to this story I couldn’t help but nod along and think of the clients I work with. I hear clients say customers can’t find products or they really want to simplify and condense the information. Clients often don’t realize they have an information architecture problem, but it really is key to completing a digital project.

The most important thing to remember is that the way an end user approaches a website can be vastly different than the way an employee approaches their company website—what may seem intuitive to someone within the business might not make sense to their clients or customers.

Without carefully thought-out IA we can’t expect products, apps, or websites that are easy to navigate. Even if websites look beautiful, without a strong structure they can create a disorienting user experience, and issues with findability and scalability will abound.

Have You Built the Right IA?

Ever hear employees, clients, and users say this about your website:

  • "We create new content but don’t know where to put it."
  • "It always takes me a while to find the right information."
  • "I can’t find the products I’m looking for."

Then it sounds like your information architecture could use some restructuring. We’re here to help you, from card sorting through to sitemaps and wireframes.

This blog was posted by on March 6, 2017.
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. 

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Laura
How To Get Amazing Creative From Your Agency

The mind reading fantasy

How great would it be if someone could read our minds and instantly reflect what we were thinking? Okay, it might be a bit creepy at first, but after we acclimated, it would be pretty fantastic. We would never have to order anything; we would just pay and collect our latte, salad, or sandwich. We would never argue with our spouse. We would always know what our boss wanted. It would be so productive, we would increase GDP by 200%.

Reality sets in

Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in today. So when clients want us to read their minds, we panic—and for good reason. We strive to embed ourselves into our clients’ organizations and businesses, but we are horrible mind readers. When budgets and timelines are tight (they always are), it’s best to align with a creative brief before jumping into creative execution: it saves time and money and prevents angst.

A tool that functions well in reality

Please plan for some time and money to invest in a well-written creative brief when you are planning on giving work to an agency or creative partner. Briefs give the agency time to process all of the information you have given them and think through any questions they may have. This distillation of information is an important step that allows for strategic thinking and alignment. The act of writing a brief is a discipline that requires prioritization and ensures the creative team has the right information before crafting a communication solution for you, the client.

Providing a way for effective creative evaluation across an organization

As a client, you should demand a brief when embarking on a creative project. It has a strong ROI and is the contract between you and the creative team in terms of what to expect when the agency presents creative to you. You should use this brief to evaluate the creative and ensure your internal stakeholders do the same thing. This ensures that your campaigns stay focused and on strategy. A brief also helps take personal preferences out of the equation and forces each evaluator to start to think in terms of your target market.

A simple solution, just add a pinch of discipline

I have worked in many places and with many clients that let the creative brief languish and even disappear. This results in many revisions, escalating budgets, and blown deadlines—not to mention awful creative executions. This is the epitome of the phrase “garbage in, garbage out.”

So if you want to ensure great creative that’s on budget and on schedule, you must invest the time and resources into developing a well-thought-out creative brief that has alignment from all stakeholders in the process. It’s a simple and classic tool that works.

This blog was posted by Laura on February 23, 2017.
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.

Joshua
ux, ux strategy, strategy, usability, 2017, trends

Everyone makes predictions on the next big trend for 2017. This year, we ditched the crystal ball to give you actionable UX strategies that will drive growth and innovation in your organization.

 

1. Tap into your data and do something with it

Are you collecting tons of data but not using it? Are you looking at pages of reports with no actionable information? These are lost data mining opportunities that can help prioritize initiatives and allow your business to expand or pivot. When data is combined from multiple sources and analyzed properly, it can help you make more informed digital marketing decisions that can save marketing dollars or drive additional revenue. For 2017, commit to creating an analytics strategy to regularly uncover insights from your data.

 

2. Stop guessing and simply talk to your users

Take the subjectivity out of internal meetings and go straight to the source. It’s easier and cheaper than ever before to have quick and meaningful conversations with your users through social, one-to-one phone interviews, in-person at conferences and events, and usability studies. (Did you know you only need 5-6 users from a particular user group to identify 80% of the usability issues?)

 

3. Build a customer journey map

Brand engagements are moving off computer screens to cell phones, tablets, wearable tech, gaming consoles, and even smart devices like refrigerators. Understanding all the various touch points along your customer’s journey is critical to providing the consistent, personalized brand experience they expect.

 

4. Look outside your industry for inspiration

It’s easy to see what everyone else is doing within your industry. To identify white space opportunities for your organization, look up and out (e.g., if customer service is your differentiator, look at Southwest Airlines or Disney). Businesses in other industries may have already solved the problem you are looking to tackle—it just takes a little mindshift to find them.

 

Turning these 4 UX strategies into priorities in 2017 will give you quantitative and qualitative rationale to make better (and less subjective) digital marketing decisions.  

 
This blog was posted by Joshua on January 18, 2017.
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.

Joshua

I can finally break my silence.

 

In July, I was lucky enough to be a part of the first ever screening for Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them. While sneak peek screenings seem like a nice movie treat, the studio did it to gather user research on the film. So, in exchange for my feedback, I got to see a highly anticipated holiday movie months before anyone else. I also signed my life away so that I wouldn’t leak any spoilers before the movie was released.

 

But now that Newt Scamander’s beasts have escaped I can share my viewing experience with you.

 

First off, the movie I saw wasn’t even finished. The Demiguise and other beasts were barely animated, and some scenes didn’t have CGI effects at all (we just saw captions about what was supposed to be going on). Also, they added a completely new supporting character and announced Johnny Depp’s cameo as Grindelwald; the movie has clearly changed.

 

The interesting thing is that the studio still wanted feedback on this uncompleted version of the movie. It was finished enough that it ran as a coherent story that could be critiqued, but it was also early enough in the process that changes could be made without costing a fortune.

 

Sandstorm® follows a similar path in project management: We test or get client feedback multiple times throughout a project to gather insights and make small changes along the way. This allows us to create informed designs, manage our resources better, and avoid redoing work because everyone was not on the same page.

 

To find the insights the studio was looking for they utilized 3 user research methods:

  • Survey –Everyone in the theater was asked to fill out a 6-page survey. This included demographic info on the viewers, previous interest in the Harry Potter universe, and what we did and didn’t like about the human characters, beasts and the movie in general.
  • Focus Group – A handful of people stayed behind to participate in a focus group and give more feedback on the movie.
  • Observation–The studio had people stationed all over the theater ready to record the audience reaction (i.e., did a certain scene get the laugh they were expecting?).  

This mix of research methods resulted in both qualitative and quantitative data that the studio used to tweak the movie and the marketing strategy for optimal appeal to no-majs and wizards alike.

 

Sandstorm is ready to apply these research methods, and many more, to help create a magical brand experience for your business.

This blog was posted by Joshua on November 22, 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.

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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.

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