Lorem Ipsum is the work of the Devil

Why you should use real content in your designs.

If you have worked with any kind of designer, chances are you have seen your fair share of “Lorem ipsum.” It is used when the design work is being done before the “content” has been written.

If you are designing a template for a news story, or really any kind of template that could hold different kinds of content, then “lorem ipsum” makes sense. But, there is an awful lot of UX design that is not served by the assumption that you are designing for “unknown” content to be created later. Often it is better to start by figuring out exactly what text and images will be shown, so you can figure out the best design for that content. The fancy UX term for this is a content inventory.

As an aside: calling text “content” is actually part of the problem. The thinking is that “content” or writing is somebody else’s problem and it encourages you to treat is an amorphous blob to be filled in later.

An example will illustrate my point: A client and I were working on the design for a skills quiz. The basic idea was to ask a series of multiple choice questions in order to gauge how proficient someone was at a specific skill. Our plan was that each question would have 4 or 5 answers arranged in increasing order of proficiency. So if you had some degree of the skill, you’d choose answer A, if you had more you’d choose B, and if you were an expert you’d choose D or E. We thought you’d be able to pick the answer that best described your skill level, click it and then we’d show the next question. (This was the first step in a longer process, so we weren’t worried about people gaming the system and just clicking D for every answer.)

Had we used “lorem ipsum” or some other kind of filler text, this design might have survived. Instead of doing this, though, we took the time to write some sample questions and answers. And right away our plan was in trouble. After writing a few questions, we realized that it wasn’t easy to make the answers exist in an obvious continuum. Consider this fabricated but illustrative sample question:

How familiar are you with color theory?
A) The primary colors are red, yellow and blue.
B) The secondary colors green, orange and purple are created by mixing two primary colors.
C) Complimentary colors are directly opposite each other on the color wheel.
D) Subtractive color describes the mixing of color for print and painting, while additive color describes the mixing of colors on screen.

Is it clear that the answers are on a continuum? Even if if it is, how do we instruct you to click on the most complex answer you recognize as true?

In the original design, we thought you have to click once on each question. Once we had written the questions we realized it was easier to understand if we instructed you to click all of the answers you agreed with and then click a button to see the next question. This requires more clicking, but less thinking. It feels easier even though you are more active.

Clients and beginning UX people will often try to reduce the numbers of “clicks” needed to accomplish something. Engineers certainly think this way. There is a balance between making something easy to use, reducing the number of steps required for an action, and making something easy to understand. We aren’t running out of clicks. So before you start trying to reduce the number of clicks, ask yourself if the action is common and clearly understood. If it isn’t both, the counting clicks is likely a waste of energy.

I always try to avoid using “lorme ipsum” text in wireframes. My experience is that you get a better understanding of the real problem and real opportunities when working with real content.

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