We're considering putting information in sidebars and are wondering how useful they are or do users simply ignore them?
The project in question is for a heavy content news site.
Sidebars can be often overlooked due to their history of being advertising heavy.
If a lot of the following issues are present in your side bar then it is most likely being ignored (and unnecessary).
- Has your sidebar remained the exact same for the last 3 months?
- Does your sidebar exhibit signs of “sidebar creep” ?
- Was there a time when people clicked around in your sidebar, but now you’re thinking you might have dreamed it?
- Do you have more than 4 affiliate buttons showing at one time? (not a guarantee of sidebar-blindness, but a possible indicator)
- Do you have 3 or more of your own offers and specials showing at one time?
- Do you have more than 1 social media feed in your sidebar? (ex: latest tweets, latest Flickr photos, latest Facebook statuses)
- Do you have anything in your sidebar that makes you look less cool than you really are? (ex: I have 40 Twitter followers! 12 people subscribe to this blog!)
- Is anything in your sidebar boring, unimaginative, or physically painful to look at?
Though the side bar has many neat features …
But putting content in the side bar for the sake of having one can be silly. I would not bring my 3rd section of primary content into the side bar vs where I initially had it for the sole sake of adding a sidebar.
If you're overflowing in relevant content that should be on the page feel free to add the sidebar However, if you are not, don't just add one for the sake of having a sidebar. In your scenario it makes sense due to the content-heavy nature of your site. You could have similar articles about the author or a variety of other things in the sidebar. I would avoid putting ads there because then people tend to skip that area entirely. You want to put ads sort of inline so as they are reading content they need to skip over that area always.
Lastly if a reader is engaged in the content why would you want to divert their attention elsewhere? -Article about retiring sidebars on blogs
Edit: in regards to responsive design I would ditch the sidebar entirely it when you make the cutoff for tablets and cell phones but now a days those distinctions are more difficult due to the higher density resolutions into such tiny devices.
Personally I tend to favor sidebars at typical desktop widths in order to factor out navigation (and other things) to allow the "main" content more vertical space and decrease its width for more readable line length. To do this in a responsive framework you need to transform the sidebar into a top-bar for narrower viewports.
For a news oriented site a sidebar (at desktop widths) seems appropriate to display the navigation and/or a "top stories" list.
Whether or not the sidebar is ignored depends on factors such as high wide it is, how the its content is styled. It's possible to make it "loud" enough to be noticed too much, that is it overpowers the main content. It's a design challenge to make it noticeable but not distracting.
During the design stage you must also be constantly aware that in narrower viewports the sidebar will need to migrate to a top-bar, usually with less content. So it helps to think of a sidebar as a convenience when possible, not always possible.