The common use of the right column/rail by website creators to feature advertising has trained users to to avoid looking in this area. But research from Jakob Nielsen shows that the less graphical it is, the more attention users will pay allowing the right rail to provide value to your site.
The right-hand side of the page can serve many significant and practical purposes. It’s a place to feature secondary content—to recommend or extend the user journey to other areas of your site. Think of the sidebar as a knowledgeable customer-service agent, ready to help when the customer needs it. Designing this space well can have a profound impact on usability and how well your content is noticed.
Nielsen offers four tips for maximizing the impact from this part of your pages.
- Don’t design content to look like banner ads. A clean sidebar design garners trust. Banner blindness has expanded beyond the deliberate act of not looking at banner ads to encompass avoidance of anything that usually signals irrelevant information. People disregard colorful boxes in the margin of the page because such graphical treatments are commonly applied to ads. In fact, anything that’s overly large or colorful risks being ignored. Choose a light-weight, simple visual design for the right column—one that matches the content of the site. People are more likely to trust and click on links that look like valuable content.
- Postion content away from the banner ads to avoid “guilt by association.” People rely on visual patterns to help them determine the relationship among different chunks of information on the page. People perceive elements that are placed together to be related. To notice get visitors to notice your content, keep it within their line of sight and avoid wedging it between ad-like elements.
- Feature thumbnail images only if they communicate useful information quickly. Many site owners choose to feature thumbnails to create visual interest and attract attention. You have only milliseconds to inform people of your offerings, so make each visual element count. Images should provide visual interest and serve as communication tools. Research shows that simple images, that have simple backgrounds and identifiable objects, attract more attention than busy images.
- Feature content that is relevant and helpful. Anticipate the user’s task and offer recommendations to match. Don’t display the same set of links or articles across different pages: it undermines the usefulness of the suggestions and trains people to ignore it.