Words on Paper Prototyping

How to mix content strategy with copywriting for better UX

Hindsight is obvious, but the clarity it offers is usually earned only through trial and error. That’s a fancy way of saying this: I now realize that agile UX plus waterfall content creation is like mixing oil and, well, a waterfall.

This article explains how I reached my eureka light bulb, along with a bunch of great ideas about content prototyping that will help eliminate Lorem Ipsum from your design diet.

(In a hurry? Jump to my comprehensive list of content-first UX resources.)

My quest to unlock this 37 Signals poem

At some point in 2013 I came across this 37 Signals blog post:

It’s basically a cute little poem, but not much more. So I forgot about it.


Every few weeks Mig Reyes’ koan would return to mind. I knew it was valuable, but I wasn’t able to imagine how to successfully sell word-first design. I was still spending most of my time advocating for content strategy. Period. Suggesting that content should drive design in a world of Lorem Ipsum wireframes was preposterous.

Poetry is rarely prescriptive

A full year later I discovered ad prototyping during the November 2014 Design Thinkers conference in Toronto. Adobe’s David Macy showed a very realistic (but very non-existent) billboard ad his team created to generate internal support for Adobe Ink, a nifty cloud-based pen. As Macy noted, “the people you’re pitching an idea to might not be good at imagining what the finished product will look like.”

Since their billboard was mostly tagline, I saw overtones of Mig Reyes — a product that didn’t yet exist brought to life through mere words. After a long drought, here was another example of word-first design. The following month I found a similar approach in Service Design by Andy Polaine, Ben Reason & Lavrans Løvlie: “A series of touchpoints were prototyped — the one-page contract, informational leaflets, fake advertisements in a financial newspaper and a tabloid newspaper.”

Aha! Prototyping products with words (and, okay, yes, fine, the occasional image) wasn’t a zany, one-off suggestion. I soon found more related examples, like Ben Barone-Nugent’s suggestion to smuggle user testing insights into ad campaigns or the Google Ventures launch page template. Both offered updates on the time-tested trick of writing a press release for a product in development.­

Although focused on developing key messages, not building a comprehensive content strategy, these approaches made me more confident that design might be about words after all.

Collaborative copydesigning

Designers iterate. Writers draft in multiples. (Well, the good ones do.) What would happen if both those activities occurred more or less simultaneously?

“Content to design is a conversation, not a hand-off,” argues Stephanie Wills in a December 2014 Medium article entitled How to Work with Other People and Make Content Happen. In practice, that means that “Copy will change with design. Sometimes words just look weird when you actually see them in lay out. Sometimes they are out of order or they over-explain the video you want people to watch.”

Collaboration of this sort sounds obvious, but it’s usually ignored or overlooked when lean UX meets waterfall content creation. I’ve worked with clients who insisted they could create their own content to save money, without the corresponding process in place to trim or otherwise calibrate copy to design realities.

But! Wills and the Google Ventures blog are speaking to startups, where the Kool-Aid is spiked with prototypes, tests and learns. What happens when you’re dealing with an established company, with established stakeholders, established processes and established content guidelines?

The UX is coming from inside the GOOGLE DOC!

I remember a great whoosh of relief when I discovered Content-first User Experience in the spring of last year. Steph Hay, director of content strategy at Capital One, has woven together most of my aforementioned threads, with the added benefit of a clearly defined process and a track record of success. And if that wasn’t enough, Hay is also brave enough to suggest that UX design can happen with only words and a blank Google Doc.

I became an immediate advocate, singing Hay’s praises a month later when I sat on a panel about the overlap between UX and content strategy.

A few weeks after that panel, I conducted my first experiment with content-first UX. I started by collaborating with an IA/UX expert to create wireframes based on my content categories and requirements. Then I populated those wireframes with real content based on stakeholder interviews. To my unsurprise the conversation with the client was much different (and much better) than previous attempts with Lorem Ipsum.

On that day I became a C1UX superfan.

Design is still about words. Yes, Mig Reyes, you were right. But those words need to come from somewhere and arrive at the right moment in the process.

Hay’s approach addresses these concerns through tools like conversation maps and language testing. And after a year at Capital One, Hay has demonstrated C1UX can work well at a big-deal established company. In other words, a successful content strategy can be built upon prototyping with words. As Hay notes, “Spending an hour copying and pasting language into a completely blank text file is a much faster, lower-risk way to isolate the content and test it with people than it is to just continually iterate on the design.”

Want more evidence? On her website bio, content strategist and Nicely Said co-author Nicole Fenton says that “she designs with words.” What do those four words mean? To properly unpack the phrase, I recommend you read Fenton’s 4,000 word essay Words As Material. Here’s a relevant snippet:

“I believe that writing is part of every design. If you can clearly define what you’re making and articulate its value, the steps to bring it out into the world will go much faster. It’s easy to put pixels together when you’ve already made decisions.”

I could go on, but in summary: all hail our new saviors Hay and Fenton. Hurrahs and happily ever afters.

Except. Except. Except. Words are still seen as humdrum; purchased in bulk for pennies apiece. No wonder we aren’t taken seriously by the pixel people. As Fenton notes, “Designers are invited to product meetings; writers hear about them afterwards.”

We’ve tried bleating “content is king” for at least a decade. That trite slogan isn’t working anymore — not that it ever really did. Maybe regicide is the answer. Although content people trying to usurp UX designers won’t be an easy sell.

My interim solution is to support the work of designers with tools and approaches that give them real content as soon as possible, while firmly insisting that Lorem Ipsum is an imbecile, an idiot and a pickpocket.

You have my word(s) on it.