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blog of developer & bookworm benjamin read

Normal People Don't Understand Sidebars

We've reached a point that, like the image carousel, sidebars have become overused and for a lot of projects superfluous. And, as I've discovered, people don't always understand the concept or how they work.

Are you the type of person that tends towards simplification, or do you find that you complicate things?

I think we're all guilty of both in our own ways ... I know that I am able to break down information and usually systems into manageable chunks. But I also complicate things when I don't have a clear picture of what they're for.

My mechanic showed me a new wing mirror for my car. "What do you think?" he chirped. I was paralysed. It was too complicated. What should I compare it to? What was my original requirement? How much was it going to cost me? I had no idea what to say.

Where Sidebars Are Useful

Sidebars in native desktop OSes are vitally important. I love having my 'favourites' list in Windows and OSX. But the web is different. You can't have a persistent element created for a specific user on a web page (I'm not venturing into web apps here - that's beyond this article).

But when you're reading a post, why would you have other content straggling down the side of the main article? Whats that search box for? As a user, I already have what I want.

Yeah, some of it might be relevant to the interests of your users at some point in their journey ... but even then you're stabbing in the dark. You don't know what their motivations are.

Ever heard of this? Sidebar Blindness is becoming increasingly apparent in eye tracking studies. YOUR users are ignoring that content more and more.

Why?

Because it contains nothing relevant to them.

That's the pattern we're building here. "There's nothing I'm going to find useful there, I'll just ignore it."

What a shame. About 33% of your screen real estate (not to mention overheads in terms of design meetings, development work, etc) is going to waste.

If we want to claw back that 33% or more, we need to start thinking this through more.

Clients Don't Understand Sidebars Either.

The other edge to this sword is that often clients don't understand the nature of sidebars. I had a project recently where we created one simple sidebar for a project. We thought that was all that was necessary based on the brief we were given.

But then, near the end of the build, the client said they wanted different content on this page from that page. Then a few days later, they wanted a 3rd layout for the sidebar on another page.

It transpired that the client didn't understand that the sidebar was dynamic content, and was the same content area on each page. They didn't get it. And they got caught up in this big discussion about what should appear on each page.

Then we had to build it. It would probably have been more efficient to have on-page content by the time they'd finished with it, but it was too late in the build, and with a looming deadline, to refactor it out.

Conclusion

Rather than building a sidebar, would it be better for you to provide distraction-free reading, allowing the user to focus on getting the information they want from your site quickly and easily, thus increasing positive feedback?

Take the opportunity to focus on your content so users empathise with you. Provide a delightful experience that appeals to their sense of style, and use key opportunities to reinforce your brand.

That way, we avoid sidebar blindness, avoid sticky client meetings, and potentially huge amounts of code refactoring ... and wasted money.

But better than that, we use that 33% of screen real estate much more wisely.