Even though a website prototype is intended to primarily represent functionality and an information hierarchy, it is natural that we form expectations for actual page appearances. Of course, the realities of page design, content creation and content entry all affect the final product, so to keep expectations understood during prototyping it is important to establish a shorthand. A consistent, standard amount of dummy text on prototype pages can indicate an ideal, average amount of copy, especially in areas such as list page abstracts, descriptions in feature boxes or marquee slideshow text. All thumbnails can be the same size, and images that will be later added freely into a content area can be distinguished from pre-formatted image slot areas. Inline notes in a distinct color (green in the examples below) also help clarify a prototype’s “shorthand”; for instance, this way I can note whether sidebar items could be placed on any page, and that the ones on a particular prototype page do not necessarily represent the intended final content for that page.
If the notes and “language” of a prototype are clear, it can be a useful reference for content creation and entry, and we can minimize disconnects between prototyped plans and real pages, expectations and results.
Here are some familiar disconnects between prototypes and real pages that we should watch out for.
The empty sidebar.
We want our sites to be as scalable as is sensible and possible within scope, so a prototype sidebar might show many widgets: a contact Call to Action, a video, and testimonial and content creation capacity. Maybe that video hasn’t been made in time for the go-live, and it’s been hard to contact people and ask for testimonials.
A sidebar with a lone CTA is not a bad thing, but it can be a little disappointing looking. A page can be made more interesting and scannable with headings, images, formatting in the main content area. This is always a good idea, regardless of what is in the sidebar. Here is a post about newsletter formatting, but the same principles apply to site pages.
The big plans/harder reality of content creation.
I explain that this amount of text stands for a substantial but not overwhelming amount of copy. I would say more than a few lines, a short paragraph at least, and at most about three average screen heights. While users do scroll down to scan pages, and the “fold” of the bottom of screen is not really a barrier, endlessly scrolling pages will not be read. Links to shorter subpages would be better, OR, if there is too little content, the page is probably not necessary to begin with.
The uneven homepage boxes.
It’s easy to imagine how the bottom of a homepage with feature boxes like this could be very uneven. If there are not programmed limits for the number of items in a featured content area–freedom is often desirable–the amount of content should be managed for usability and balance. Reiterating the simple concept that web content expands down helps with the jump from static prototype pages to dynamic content areas on the real site.