Sandstorm Blog

Sandy
Sandy Marsico at Solutions Day

Recently I had the honor of speaking at .orgCommunity’s Solutions Day 2017. Usability testing is a big part of how Sandstorm eliminates subjectivity from the creative process, so I wanted to show attendees how usability testing can help drive significantly improved user experiences.

With as few as 5–6 users, usability testing can identify 80% of user issues on a website or mobile app. Our Sandstormers have learned many lessons while performing more than 3,000 usability studies. These are just a few of the findings that can help you.

1. Members want to see real images of their peers.

We performed usability testing for the American Planning Association as part of a redesign of their website. During testing, we learned that their members found the stock photography used on their existing site inauthentic and unengaging.

APA before test

This simple finding led us to use professional photos of real APA members that improved engagement on key pages, including the homepage, Events page, and About Us page.

APA after test

2. Don’t put too many events on the homepage.

The Association for Corporate Growth (ACG) holds 1,200 events for 58 chapters across the globe each year, and they were struggling to find a way to highlight events.

Before we tested, ACG was including 25 events on their homepage, which was harming the user experience.

ACG before test

We needed to make it easy for members to find the events that were of interest, in their location, etc. So we created a featured event section on the homepage that links to an events page allowing users to filter by keyword, chapter, date, and event type.

ACG after test

3. Navigation items that require user action need an active verb in the title.

We made a surprising discovery while testing wireframe designs for a large non-profit organization: users thought the navigation items were too unclear and passive.

By adding active verbs to these items—for example, changing “Theft & Fraud Awareness” to “Prevent Theft and Fraud”—we were able to make the navigation clearer to users and let them know what they would be able to accomplish when visiting the page.

4. People miss content when there’s no visual cue.

Weber was redesigning the website for their grills and accessories and wanted to test several UX changes on a development environment before going live.

One of the issues we uncovered was that users didn’t know that the navigation items in the main menu expanded.

To solve this, we added carets next to the menu titles to indicate action. After making this simple fix, users clearly understood that they would find additional pages in the menu.

Weber after test

5. Using a search icon without an input field confuses users.

While redesigning the website for NOW Foods, we found that users were confused by a small change: we removed the input field for the search bar.

NOW Foods before test

By merely adding the field back to the search area, users could search the site with ease.

NOW Foods after test

Usability testing is a quick, simple way to improve the user experience, whether you’re creating a new site or app or redesigning what you have now. Contact us to learn more about how to execute your own usability test today.

This blog was posted by Sandy on September 29, 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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Jason
How to make your website more inclusive by design

If your website was a physical location, would you build it without access for people with disabilities?

Of course not. You’re not a heartless monster.

But a surprising number of websites forget about the needs of people with disabilities. Inclusive design seeks to change that.

The principle behind inclusive design is creating products and services that everyone can use. Not only does that provide accessibility to your website for people with disabilities, it creates a better experience for all of your users.

Color contrast is a big part of inclusive design and web accessibility. As one of the most important tools in our utility belt, color choice is a big part of a designer’s work. We use it for emotive and illustrative purposes. Red, for example, can be a great color to highlight importance and urgency. Contrasting it with white type can help draw the eye, and that color combination is great for getting users to address alerts.

So what happens when a user has difficulty seeing the color red?

Well, it turns out that white text on a red background is completely invisible to people with color blindness—something we discovered during one of our usability studies. In fact, there are a number of color combinations that cause problems for the visually impaired.

Luckily, there are organizations like World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to create standards for accessibility issues like color contrast. In fact, W3C went so far as to establish extensive Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, and the web community responded by developing tools that help designers create more inclusive sites.

Some of those tools, like WebAIM and Colorable, focus specifically on color contrast. To meet WCAG, normal, non-bolded text should have a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1; for large text it should be at least 3:1.

What else can you do to start making sure your website is more accessible and inclusive?

1. Add Alternative Text to Images

“Alt text” is essential to web accessibility. Assistive technology, such as screen readers, relies on alt text to turn images into braille or speech for the impaired.

Most content management systems, like Drupal or Kentico, include an alt tag field for images. Start with your company logo, then add descriptive alt text for each image on your site.

2. Use the Right Heading Structure

Correctly ordering the HTML headings on each page makes it much easier for screen readers and the visually impaired to navigate your site. While design considerations might require this order to shift, try to follow it where you can. At the very least, make your page title and h1 consistent—it’ll help the people using screen readers to make sense of the content.

3. Stop Using “Click Here”

For many reasons, please stop using “click here” as link text. Not only does it make content seem outdated, “click here” is a vague and confusing link description for people who use screen readers. Instead, use strong verbs that tell users what you want them to do and what they get in return:

  • Register for the event
  • Request more information
  • Download this report

4. Utilize Free Web Evaluation Tools

In addition to color contrast tools, enterprising developers have created lots of free tools that evaluate your website’s accessibility.

WAVE, for example, provides a breakdown of errors, alerts, and features in a list form and a visual overlay so you can identify opportunities to improve your site.

Web accessibility isn’t a cut-and-dried, check-it-off-the-list process. But when you design with all of your users in mind, you make your website a more inclusive place to be. And who doesn’t want to be a part of that?

This blog was posted by Jason on August 2, 2017.
Jason Dabrowski

About the Author

Jason Dabrowski

Jason is one of Sandstorm’s designers and also helps keep the office running smoothly. As a veteran of the theatre—from acting to directing, lighting to set design—he knows the value of hard work and a positive attitude. Look for his unique voice on the blog.

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Emily Kodner
Association for Corporate Growth launches new, responsive website.

At Sandstorm®, we thrive on designing and developing exciting new websites. But we also know how important a great event can be. That’s why we couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity in creating a site for ACG.

The Association for Corporate Growth (ACG) is the global community for business leaders focused on driving middle market growth through mergers and acquisitions. As a chapter-led organization, ACG is heavily focused on events, holding over 1,200 around the world each year for industry professionals and the association’s 14,500 members to network.

In order to drive their own growth, ACG turned to us to design and develop a website platform that provided individual sites for the global organization as well as its 58 chapters. Each site not only needed to be mobile friendly and visually appealing, it needed to be user friendly and easy to manage for each chapter, an objective we were able to achieve as a result of several efforts:

  • Attending ACG’s annual event and conducting stakeholder interviews to hear directly from leaders and members what they needed from the new website
  • By integrating the Drupal 8 content management system (CMS) with the netFORUM association management system (AMS)
  • Conducting a usability study on the new design to ensure it was intuitive and easy to use
  • Building a collaborative space for chapters and committees to digitally communicate and share essential documentation

We’re honored to help ACG continue driving middle market growth around the world. Check out the new ACG website for yourself.

This blog was posted by Emily Kodner on June 20, 2017.
Emily Kodner

About the Author

Emily Kodner

Emily is our Web Strategy Director. She consults with clients, leads projects and works alongside our team of creatives and developers to provide solutions to complex business challenges.

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.

Michael
http://www.sandstormdesign.com/blog/working-hand-in-handEnsuring User Experiences from Coast-to-Coast Are Not “Taxing “

I love doing usability testing. I always learn something new and there is usually at least one surprise. For the past 3 years we’ve partnered with Fast Enterprise, who among other things, provide tax processing software to state and local governments. Our work with them involves visiting state capitols across the country conducting 1 to 2 day usability studies. These studies are often followed by a working session with our client’s development team to review our findings and recommend solutions.

While tax software may not sound super exciting, our client is engaged and passionate about making the user experience of their software better, and we get to collaborate with them in doing so. Over the years we’ve seen our recommendations make their way into our client’s core product, which actually is super exciting.

Another bonus, we get to travel to exotic places like Bismarck, North Dakota and Montpelier, Vermont.

This blog was posted by Michael on December 7, 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.

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

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

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

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

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

Why should I use this approach?

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

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

What does usability testing achieve?

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

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

When should I start testing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some helpful hints for greater success:

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

Do I get results?

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

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

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

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Michael Hartman

About the Author

Michael Hartman

As Sandstorm's Technology and Usability Director, Michael leads our developers and usability researchers in creating web sites and applications—both desktop and mobile—that embody our favorite blend: intuitive user experience and dynamic Drupal development.

Megan
Sandstorm Talks UX at Drupal MidCamp

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

The user experience research methods discussed include:

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

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

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

About the Author

Megan Culligan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why should I use this approach?

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

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

The benefits and results of card sorting include:

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

When should I start?

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

Steps for conducting a card sort

Below is a six step approach for card sorting:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Following up with tree testing

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

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

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

3. Adjust your navigation as needed.

Getting the information to fulfill your goals

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

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

This blog was posted by Michael on .
Michael Hartman

About the Author

Michael Hartman

As Sandstorm's Technology and Usability Director, Michael leads our developers and usability researchers in creating web sites and applications—both desktop and mobile—that embody our favorite blend: intuitive user experience and dynamic Drupal development.

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.

Janna
Great User Experience

Imagine it is your first time. You are probably excited, anxious, hoping everything will go right and you don’t do anything too embarrassing.

Afterward, you may think “overall not bad,” but you should have tried a different technique, approach or way to make the experience better or maybe closer to what you expected.

Now, get your mind out of the gutter…

These same emotions and concerns can be said about the first time you visit a new web site. Users have high expectations and feel anxious, hoping they can find everything they need and will be able to perform all necessary tasks quickly and easily.

During the initial visit, users may try trusted approaches in using the site until they stumble upon or otherwise discover how to complete the task at hand. If the process takes longer than expected, users often berate themselves thinking they did something wrong or are not savvy enough to use the site. If they become frustrated enough, users lose their patience and leave.

I have seen this emotional rollercoaster first hand in usability studies. No matter how challenging the task, web site or overall experience was, the users usually blamed themselves for failing and expressed they “just need more time to learn how to use the site.”

In a recent blog post, Jakob Neilsen wrote, users invest a lot of time “learning” sites they often visit. That is, by spending time “mastering” the site, the user will be able to quickly and easily complete what they need to do each and every visit.

As UX experts, we strive to create user-centered web sites that are easy and intuitive the first time, no handbook required.

Knowing users are willing, and at times expect, to spend time learning a new site, adding teaching moments to key steps enables the first-time user to be guided, even taught how, to use the site immediately.

Here are some areas of your site’s experience that might need some first-time love:

Key Tasks: You don't need an instruction manual.

  • Break long, key tasks into stepped processes for quicker completion
  • Integrate a robust help and search functionality

New Elements: It's strange at first, talk them through it. 

  • Tutorial-style pop ups for new features
  • Microsites and/or videos to explain larger new features (FB on open graph)

Forms: Keep it simple and don't be afraid to give suggestions.

  • Indicate required fields clearly
  • Include inline tips and suggestions
  • Provide formatting prompts for dates, phone numbers and zip codes

By using these tactics along with other UX techniques, users will not have to learn the web site, instead they will be free to use it. Each and every web site encounter will be exciting, engaging, intuitive, informative… and, perhaps, earth-moving.

This blog was posted by Janna on June 13, 2013.
Janna Fiester

About the Author

Janna Fiester

Sandstorm's Executive Creative Director, 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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