The perils of designing with real content

Summary: In my clamour to get real content into design mockups I accidentally derailed the design process. Words are powerful – that’s why they may have to take  a back seat when the focus has to be on design.

I sat down all jazzed to write about using loreum ipsum in design mockups and Karen McGrane beat me to it. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

In response to anti-ipsum sentiment, she wrote:

How about this: build in appropriate intersections and checkpoints between design and content. Accept that it’s sometimes okay to focus just on the content or just on the design.

I’ve been on the sharp end of this issue – that is, whether it’s OK to use fake text when showing clients early drafts of your development work.

I’ve been to a few content strategy events where speakers have evangelised using real content from an early stage of the development process. It’s easy to get behind this argument. You’re building something around the content, right?

The days of developers making blank containers for us to come along later and drop content into are slowly dying out. So why would you use stupid text that doesn’t mean anything when showing your work to a client?

My bad experience with real content

I found out why about a month ago when a front end developer and I showed clients a mockup of a landing page we had worked on together. Throughout the project we had used informal working titles to refer to each section of content: the flowcharts, the chunks, the search. We were talking about what each bit of content was, not what it was for.

That’s fine if it stays in-house, but I wanted to be sure users had meaningful, useful labels and descriptions to help them navigate.  So – with the developer’s agreement – I wrote really solid navigation text. I did keyword research to find out what terms people favoured and looked at similar sites to see how they handled the same problems.

Doing it this way meant close collaboration with the developer. We agreed there were four main sections, with some need for an introduction and some extra links in a side panel. Writing my copy short enough to fit in the four main panels was a challenge, but at the end I was happy with the result.

When everything was finished and looking good we had a conference call with the project sponsors to see what they thought. My front end developer colleague wanted to hear what they thought of the colour, the prioritisation of information, the overall layout. In other words, the visual design. I wanted to know if they had any notes about the wording.

The call did not go well. We spent almost no time talking about any of the design elements and almost all of it listening to the clients’ concerns about some words they didn’t like. It was useful for me, but the developer was no further forward with his designs.

In hindsight I think we did the right things with good intentions. We were right to design around the content, and I was right to scrap the working titles and describe every section in useful terms.

But we slipped up by presenting two major new pieces of work together. The clients honed in on the wording they hated and the design discussion didn’t happen. What we should have done was design around the content and write the new descriptions, but switch them for lorem ipsum before getting the clients’ signoff on the design elements. The arguments about wording could have come next.

I think that would be the right order, because the names I had chosen were tightly constrained by the available space. There was no point in me agreeing great wording with the clients only to find it was hopelessly long and wouldn’t fit in any kind of useful design.

Words are powerful

Karen McGrane nails it with this observation:

Lorem Ipsum doesn’t exist because people think the content is meaningless window dressing, only there to be decorated by designers who can’t be bothered to read. Lorem Ipsum exists because words are powerful. If you fill up your page with draft copy about your client’s business, they will read it. They will comment on it. They will be inexorably drawn to it. Presented the wrong way, draft copy can send your design review off the rails.

That’s the hole I fell down.

In the rush to get content taken seriously enough, early enough, we sometimes risk underplaying the role of our development colleagues. We don’t like being told that the content is not that important or not worthy of analysis on its own. What designers and developers do is important and we should afford them the same courtesy.

My colleague needed the clients’ feedback, and the best way to get it at that stage would have been for my content to take a back seat. It’s about showing the right information at the right time. As content strategists that’s something we should be good at.

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