Lorem Ipsum and content strategy

Jonathan Stegall
December 19, 2023

Wikipedia uses this image of Lorem Ipsum and describes it as a technique to focus attention on graphic elements.

Lorem Ipsum is the design industry term for a block of nonsensical text used as a placeholder. It emerged from a real need for unfinished text, but it doesn't address the content problems that teams in government need to solve. We recently put our design and policy expertise together to look at practices that can arrive at something that both looks and functions like real text. Let's see how you can do the same.

Many designers learn to use Lorem Ipsum early on, especially those with a background in print design specifically or graphic design more generally. Using Lorem Ipsum, designers can produce polished designs and typography without waiting for finished text. Designers can use automated tools to generate headings, lists, paragraphs, words, or any other configuration of text that look like they belong, without the coordination and attention to detail required by good copywriting and editing.

Lorem Ipsum serves an additional purpose: warning readers that the text is not final. The source Latin material is more than two thousand years old, in a language most people don’t read, and even when translated is not meaningful. By using it, designers enable conversations about a design, including the details of its typography, without needing to debate the words.

While Lorem Ipsum now comes in many more versions than that of the original Latin text, it still serves the same basic purposes for web design as it did for paper. At the same time, the web is a different environment than print, and the always simplistic division between “design” and “content” has become increasingly untenable.

The problems Lorem Ipsum does not solve in the private sector are rooted in the differences between Lorem Ipsum and real web content. Real longform web content is of variable length, whereas designers like to make precisely sized text boxes to paste Lorem Ipsum into. Real content tells users what they can do with it. Buttons get pressed, links get clicked, navigation gets followed, text gets read and understood. Not only is Lorem Ipsum nonsensical, it doesn’t even match the kind of typographic structure and hierarchy that visually differentiate all of these things. Even if Lorem Ipsum made sense, it can’t prototype that kind of structure because it all looks the same.

These problems exist in government work, but they can be even more intense. We work with government policy experts, professionals who specialize in using words with total accuracy and precision. Showing our partners and clients Lorem Ipsum — or worse, believable but incorrect made-up text — is a fundamental offense to their values.

Designing for real content

When designing user experiences, it remains true, including in government work, that designers often don’t know the final content. The team may or may not have a subject matter expert who can draft content. Lorem Ipsum was a solution for these problems. But it’s not the only solution.

Designers can also work within teams to create intermediate structures for content. For starters, we can draft plausible labels for forms, text for buttons, possible text for headings, and we can better understand what kind of items will be contained in lists. If we have subject matter experts, what we create together can be very plausible. But even if we don’t, user research can help us to understand what kind of content our users will need and what kind of behaviors our content will need to support.

Content strategy

In 2008 Kristina Halvorson introduced many design teams to a name for this work, and much more: the practice of content strategy. Since then content strategy has been defined and practiced, by Halvorson and others, in the form of articles, podcasts, books, conferences, and consulting firms. One way of synthesizing many of these definitions is this: Content strategy creates concepts, plans, and guidelines to create and maintain the messaging and structure of content so that it meets user and organizational goals.

As such, content strategy becomes a natural way to build better designs. For teams in government that have policy staff, it becomes a natural way for designers and policy staff to collaborate and build content that fits well within a human-centered design process. Designers who know how to work with content strategists can integrate practices of user experience design – especially design research and design strategy – with content in a design before it is finished.

A1M has worked on teams with designers but without policy SMEs, designers with and without policy SMEs, and designers and/or SMEs with and without content strategists. All of these formations can use the practices of content strategy to improve the design process.

Integrating user research and content strategy

When a team does user research, many of the learnings can be directly applied within the practices of content strategy.

User interviews, for example, teach us what kind of language meaningfully describes users’ needs, workflows, tools, problems, and other parts of their lives. We can use that language to structure the concepts we need to communicate. We can use the patterns of their work to structure our content plans. And we can use their needs to structure our guidelines.

Content strategists may use a document like this, called a content template, to answer questions about a piece of content before it has been written. This is not only a document to guide copywriting, though: it is a key place where user research, content planning, and interface design can interact.

Usability testing, for another example, teaches us how much our interfaces align with what our users need and expect. But this is not only the case for interface design elements; it directly applies to the tools of content strategy. When it is informed by these tools, we incorporate the concepts and plans for content into our designs, regardless of the finality of the language.

Usability testing has, for many years, tested designs that aren’t finished; it’s one of the greatest values the practice brings. It can do the same with content structures, and in doing so we reduce our reliance on placeholder text like Lorem Ipsum. We instead can rely on what we’ve learned from user interviews, from the SMEs we work with, or from the assumptions we’re making.

Integrating policy and content strategy

When a team learns and incorporates the practices of content strategy, it opens up a different capacity for policy SMEs to be involved as well. They don’t have to wait until a design is “ready” to begin contributing to its content. Instead, they can contribute to real content processes.

They can create page templates that give structure and hierarchy to individual content elements. They can create content inventories that give similar structure and hierarchy to information architecture. They can incorporate real names of things to show how they will fit together.

This kind of content strategy document can help designers understand the real names of things that will need to be included in the interface, and what kind of interactions users might need to take.

They can incorporate their own expertise into all of these things, which again reduces our reliance on placeholder text like Lorem Ipsum. Instead, we’re able to rely on, and collaboratively build towards, content that functions like real content.

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