I was talking to a website owner the other day about a new website he wanted to build, and I was encouraged that he didn’t start by talking about the colours or fonts. He did, however, skip straight past the structural design stage to the page layout, although I soon put him right on that one.
Once we did get talking about the page layout, it was interesting to see that his first sketch was instinctively three columns, with the main page content in the middle and what he called “stuff that’s the same on every page” down either side. Perhaps inevitably this meant navigation down the left and calls to action down the right.
Oh, where should I start?
Well, the first thing to say is that this approach might have been fine in 1998 when we didn’t know any better, and when design options were more limited. But we can be so much more intelligent now.
One thing on which most people agree is that the top of the page should answer the question: “Am I in the right place?” So a company logo and an explanation of the site are essential. It’s also a good place to show the extent of the site, and an ideal way to do this is to have compact but easily legible site navigation.
Now that our visitors can see, at a glance, whose site they’re on, and that there’s plenty more there if they want it, they glance down to the page headline. Now, in the western world, we read left to right, and top to bottom. So if the eye is drawn to the headline, anything to the left of that is skipped over. And anyway, you want to present visitors with where to go next after they’ve read the article, surely? By the time they’ve got there, anything static up the top and to the left will have scrolled away into history.
Similarly, the right hand column is often used for calls to action. But at what point do we want our calls to action? Either within the main text, and/or at the end of it. Why consign them to history by leaving them up the top of the page on the right?
A right-hand column can be used as a second attempt at getting the readers’ attention if the headline has not done its job. It is, after all, probably the next place on which attention would fall. I used this principle on our blog (below).
Just because most pages on a website use a common layout template (to ensure design consistency), doesn’t mean that they all have to have the same, one-size-fits-all navigation and calls-to-action. The thinking is often: “Well, on some pages the call to action would be ‘send for a brochure’ and on others it’s ‘give us a call’, so if we need every page to be the same, we’d better just have ‘contact us’ in the margin”. But pages do not need to share these things. This is lazy, ineffective design.