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I'm working on an application for studying a course. Users will use it to augment their learning, and will read course information, as well as do some tests, etc.

The current design has a left-column on every page. It would need to take up about a quarter of the horizontal width, based on the current design.

While I feel that the current design, on a desktop, already has enough horizontal space for reading the course materials, I feel it would be easier to read if the left column was hidden when the user is in "reading mode". The body text would remain at the same font-size and line-length.

The left column contains two side-bar navs, each of which link to content which may be relevant to text being viewed, but they occur further up the hierarchy, so they aren't immediately relevant.

I was thinking having a handle for a slide-out behaviour might be the way to go.

The core navigation would still be usable through an interface along the top of the page. However, this is instinctive on my part, I don't have anything to show to my colleagues to give them confidence in the idea. I've shown them a rough draft, but they're academics and won't believe anything that hasn't been written down in impenetrable jargon by one of their peers.

Is there any support for the idea that a view that focuses solely on the materials to be read is easier to read for users?

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Do you mean that the whole content would then expand to fit the screen width, or just that that the navigation is hidden but the content remains in the same place? –  JonW Aug 13 '12 at 10:51
    
Just that the navigation is hidden. I don't want to make the text larger or the lines longer. –  puppybeard Aug 13 '12 at 10:52
    
Even if you were to find a paper that studied a similar issue, it's unlikely to apply directly to your design due to differences in content, users, formatting, etc. You may want to consider a small usability evaluation, or at least mock up both alternatives (post them here if you do) so that your team can discuss them. What content is in the left column? Does it contain elements that might distract from the main text? Can the user open and close it manually, or would it just not appear on certain pages? –  Mike Wheaton Aug 13 '12 at 11:37
    
I changed my question to address your questions. –  puppybeard Aug 13 '12 at 11:54
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1 Answer

I agree that performing a usability study would be useful to your question. Are you even sure you need to change the design? Do you know that users are not happy with the current left-hand menu?

I also design for an online learning platform. We have a persistant header that is quite high, and I know from testing that it gets in our users' way when reading or responding in forums. It would greatly improve readability to reduce the width of this header, perhaps with a slide-out like you mention. That being said, this is a header while you are talking about a left-hand nav.

If you check out the Information Architects website, you'll see how they have maximized readability by getting rid of any distractions on the sides. Also, keep in mind their well-known article about typography (web design is 95% typography) and how this is the key to readability on the web.

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