Lorem ipsum and the art of prototype testing

Printers and typesetters have used lorem ipsum for over 500 years to demonstrate visual design elements. Meaningless chunks of Latin makes sure everyone involved in the visual design process focuses solely on font, typography and layout – rather than the words. (In case you are wondering, lorem ipsum is all about pain and was written in 45BC by Cicero.) But this tradition is under attack in the digital sector: in particular, the rise of agile methods and content strategy are conspiring against it.

Last summer, I was at Future of Web Design co-running a workshop called Pyschology for Designers with Joe Leech. The following day I was invited to sit on a UX Question and Answer panel discussion with Joe, Stephanie Troeth and Paul Boag.

One of the questions we were asked was is “Lorem ipsum dead?” Joe, Stephanie and Paul all agreed it is. The consensus was clear: make wireframes as realistic and meaningful as possible. And don’t use Latin as virtually no one understands it. Jakob Nielsen and Rolf Molich have been pleased to see their user interface design heuristics so robustly defended.

Wireframes as design specifications

With the rise of powerful and quick prototyping tools, like Axure and Balsamiq, it is relatively easy to create and maintain a set of wireframes which specify a design. They are tangible and visible. Wireframes are very effective for developing shared understanding between project members across business, design and technical teams: in terms of communication, they beat a functional requirements spec every day of the week.

Indeed, Axure and Balsamiq are so powerful that the drive to capture more and more things into the wireframes takes over. A bit of content strategy insight here, an actual photo there and so on. It works well for client sign-off and communication with technical developers, too. And when we come to test these wireframes, this received wisdom says it is better to test wireframes that are as meaningful as possible, as close to the solution as possible.

Wireframes are prototype test materials, too

Now, as a specialist in usability testing, I am all for realistic and meaningful wireframes. But when it came to my turn on the panel I said “No, lorem ipsum is not dead”. Everyone laughed! So, let me tell you why I said this: it is because wireframes are more than just design specifications, they can be prototype test materials, too.

A classic technique in any usability test is to ask a participant about their expectations of what might happen after a particular action they might need to perform. (Indeed, the workshop at Future of Web Design explored in depth how people create mental models based on expectations of the effect of their actions). But this technique is often performed poorly and without sufficient control in usability test sessions.

It usually goes like this: users are ‘in the flow’, the facilitator asks the expectation question, the user flows ahead and performs the action anyway.  And lo and behold, the next screen loads and they see the design specification wireframe, as ‘finished’ and full of as much meaning the team has been able to specify.

Figure 1: How not to ask about user expectations.

Figure 1: How not to ask about user expectations.

And typically, the participant’s answer to the question is completely scuppered. They look around the screen and say ‘yes this is what I am expecting’ – not revealing a different expectation for fear of looking stupid or worse, being nice and not really thinking about the consequences like not wanting to register or not being able to remember a login. The opportunity to properly explore their expectation is lost. So, what can we do about this?

We could stop their flow, for example, by saying “Don’t click on anything but tell me what are you expecting when you hit the Check Out button?” but breaking the flow is bad, people can ignore instructions and when the facilitator is tired and doing the sixth session of a long day, we can just forget to say it. So, the solution that preserves user flow, works well with tired facilitators and enables effective and unbiased enquiry around users expectations about the effect of their actions? Yes, a wireframe where key pieces of text are changed back into lorem ipsum. This way when the user gets to the next screen we can ask for their expectations as to what should be there.

Figure 2: How to ask about user expectations.

Figure 2: How to ask about user expectations.

Long live lorem ipsum!

It is on the foundation of this useful technique that I fully expect user experience designers to return to lorem ipsum over the next 500 years to evaluate expectations of interactivity without the bias of ‘meaningful content’. Meaningless text means we easily control research activities to focus solely what users expect from their actions; we just have to identify the right step in the user journey where we test these expectations. This is a fundamental skill. Just imagine if the original designers in the $300 million dollar button story had done things this way in the first place. Long live lorem ipsum.

 

Share this post

About the Author

Principal UX Research Consultant working with clients like Department of Education, National Trust and Nokia. Co-founder of UXBristol conference and Bristol Usability Group.

1 comment

  1. Bonny Colville-Hyde says:

    I love this Dave, thank you for posting. It’s the fashionable thing to be down on Lorem Ipsum, and in many ways I hate it, but you’ve got a great point here which will make me re-asses my testing materials next time I run research :-)

Add a comment

Fields marked with an asterisk (*) are mandatory.

Comment details