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The great content conundrum

If you grew up in the 1980s (like me), you might remember choose your own adventure storybooks. With titles such as ‘The cave of time’, ‘The throne of Zeus’, and the fantastically bonkers, ‘You are a shark’ they were called ‘choose your own adventure’ because you got to do just that. Unlike a traditional children’s book, you’d have to make choices as the story unfolded. Each choice would direct you to a different page of the book, providing a multitude of different stories and endings. Invariably you’d always choose the wrong option and the story would come to a disappointing end, but hey entertainment was limited in the 1980s. I’m going to rekindle the excitement of those choose your own adventure storybook days by presenting a scenario and some options for you to choose from. Choose your option wisely and go to the corresponding heading to find out how the story unfolds.

Choose your own UX adventure

Option A. Use dummy content

Option B. Wait for the content

Use dummy content, or wait for the real content?

So, which option do you go for? Did you use dummy content for the design or wait for the real content to be created? It’s hard one. It’s a bit like working out which came first, the chicken or the egg? A design will dictate the content required, so perhaps you should design with dummy content, and then add the real content in later. On the other hand, content is the foundation of a good design. Perhaps the content should come first so that the design can be built around it. It’s a conundrum alright…

Given that both choices in the story ultimately led to a less than happy ending, perhaps it’s not even a simple choice between the two. I’ll discuss a sneaky third option in a bit but first, let’s look at designing with dummy content, and then designing with real content in a bit more detail.

Designing with dummy content

On the face of it designing with dummy content makes a lot of sense. Not only does creating real content take time, but according to the website, “It’s a long established fact that a reader will be distracted by the readable content of a page when looking at its layout”. Perhaps therefore by using dummy content, such as the example below, a designer can focus on the visual design, and layout of a page, without being distracted by the pesky content. Hmmm, I’m not so sure.

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Using dummy content can seem tempting, but typically leads to design issues later on

The problem with designing with dummy content is it’s a bit like planning a sandwich without worrying about what the filling will be. After all, it’s not the bread and butter that make for a truly great sandwich, such as the legendary BLT (bacon lettuce and tomatoes), it’s the filling in-between those two slices of bread.

Content is integral to a design, and a design should really be built around that content. By using dummy content, a designer is invariably making lots of assumptions. Assumptions about the type of content, the format of the content, the length of the content, even the content that will be available. As I like to tell my colleagues, ‘Assume’ makes an ‘Ass’ out of ‘U’ and ‘Me’ (I’m sure they’d tell you this never tires) and invariably when real content is placed within a design, all of a sudden that design doesn’t look quite so great. Paragraphs are too short, or too long. Titles are too long, especially when translated into very wordy languages like German. Images are of a different size or proportion. Content that was assumed would be available isn’t. I like to refer to dummy content as wishful content, because it’s how a designer wishes the content would be, rather than how it will actually be!

Using dummy content for designs also makes it harder to get feedback. Feedback in the form of design critiques, and in the form of usability testing. Content provides context, and without that context, there is little for users and fellow designers to feedback on. Sure, they can talk about the aesthetics, but not much else.

Many years ago when I was working at an agency, I was asked to carry out some task-based usability testing for some designs featuring dummy ‘lorem ipsum’ content. I think that the client mistakenly thought that using dummy content would mean that users would just focus on the aesthetics of the design, and being a very junior member of the team at the time, I foolishly didn’t challenge this idea. Unfortunately, users were so thrown by seeing what they assumed to be latin text plastered all over the design, that the sessions had to be abandoned because so little useful feedback could be collected.

So, if designing with dummy content isn’t all that it promises to be, what about designing with real content?

Designing with real content

As I’ve already said, content is the foundation of a design. It’s the stone pillars, the bricks, the beams, the joists holding up a design. We’ve seen that using dummy content can lead to risky and often damaging assumptions, so surely therefore a designer should always be designing with real content? As Jeffrey Zeldman, web designer and founder of A List Apart puts it…

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Well yes, in an ideal world content would always precede design, and a design would always use real content. But, we don’t live in an ideal world. If we did my beloved Norwich City Football Club would have won last year’s Premier league and I’d be writing this from a sun kissed beach in the Caribbean! As we saw in the choose your own adventure story at the start of this article, one of the problems with designing with real content is that it creates a dependency. The design is dependent on the real content being available, and that is rarely if ever the case. You can almost get into a catch 22 paradoxical situation. The design can’t progress without the content, but the content can’t progress because it’s based on the design. So, with this this sort of stalemate looming, what can be done? Step forward our hero of the hour — a content strategy.

Why a content strategy is the real answer

Imagine that you’re an architect. Not a UX architect, or a technology architect, but a good old-fashioned bricks and mortar architect. I’d like you to come up with some plans for a new house that I’d like built. In order to draw up those plans, would you need to know every detail about the house? The specific bathroom suite to install? The furniture to put in? Where every picture will be hung? No, of course not. You’d need a pretty good idea of what the content of the house should be, the rooms, the dimensions, the proportions, but not every detail. Well, the same is true of UX design. You don’t need to have all of the real content available upfront for a design, just a pretty good idea of what the content will be.

The best way to do this is to have a content strategy in place and to identify the content upfront. This doesn’t only include copy, but pictures, videos and other resources, such as downloads. Creating a content strategy is a large topic in its own right, and I’ve linked to some articles at the end of this one that can help you with this. The key is to plan out the content before starting the design. For example, creating a sitemap outlining the pages for the site or app, and the content on each page. Take a look at these example sitemaps if you’d like some inspiration.

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Creating a sitemap like this example from Framfab helps to identify the content required for a design

Armed with your content strategy you can start putting together some realistic content. Notice I’ve written realistic, not real. You don’t need the final copy, just something that is close enough. This realistic content is sometimes referred to as proto-content. As Liam King outlines in his excellent article, Designing Content-First for a Better UX a good way to do this is to borrow content from similar websites or apps. For example, for the tourist website featured in the choose your own adventure story, you might nab images, articles and listings from other city tourist sites to utilise for the designs. Something I’ve also had to do in the past is to write some draft content, as a bit of a filler. This can not only provide some realistic content for designs and for getting feedback, but also gives copywriters a good idea of the sort of content required for the site or app.


To design with dummy content, or to design with real content, that is the question. But is it? We’ve seen that there are issues with taking both of these approaches, and that designing with a solid content strategy in place, along with using realistic, not necessarily real content is the best approach. Good luck with your own content conundrums.

See also

Image credits

Website template from CSS Author
Jeffery Zeldman by John Morrison from

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Former techy turned UX Jedi. Checkout out my blog (UX for the Masses) for more about me.

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