A case against sidebars

I was reading this good article about software commoditization over at OSDir.com, today and I paused when I hit the article’s sidebar on the use of the word commodity in Shakespeare’s works.

I was torn… a ‘graph to the left me, a ‘graph to the right of me. The sidebar was longer than one screen (and what is one screenfull anyway?), so I decided to continue reading the piece, but I didn’t come back to the sidebar.

The short story, embedded in the text of a large piece, has been a staple of publication design for a while now, but I don’t think it makes the transition to the small screen very well.

With printed material, my eyes merely need to scroll down the column of type until the end or the jump, and then I can move back to the sidebar. When I’m done with that page I’ll flip the page and repeat the process with stories that catch my interest. (Oh, if the Web had such a simple interface…).

But on the Web (or any screen-based medium), I actually have to scroll up.

There’s been research that shows users prefer scrolling to paging, and I think between that behavior and the prevalence of scroll-wheel mice, there’s no doubt that you’re better to have your reader scroll than page.

I think there are two strikes against embedded sidebars (unless they’re very short — like 2 graphs short).

1. The first is interest.
If I’ve gotten to a story-level view of an article, then there’s probably a fairly high interest level on my part in the article… I drilled down through all your index pages, so give me my content.
Presenting related content is good, but in the format of a sidebar, I’m torn between the article I looked for and the new content.

2. The second is physiology.
When we’re presented with a single column of type, our brain and eyes are ready to start at the top, and go downward in a sideways motion (take your pick).
When I get to the bottom of a single-column story page, I’m ready to move on, it just feels unnatural to move back up to read.

Perhaps the best solution is to provide a list of related links, including sidebars, right at the top of the article.

In addition, sidebar-style content — content that really should be attached to its main bar — could be placed at the end of the story.

On a single-column, single-page story, that’d be the logical place to put it.

About Chris

Python developer, Agile practitioner trying desperately not to be a pointy haired boss.
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