I look forward to seeing what you find out. Knowing what people want to do on the site and what specific things are impeding them will also help you understand what elements of your page are important, and when.
Coming back to the inclusion of a sidebar, it’ll depend on what user goals the containing content aims to serve…perhaps the layout could accommodate a different structure for the content you’re considering putting in a sidebar. Think content-first around your users’ goals and the structure and form will start to fall into place.
If there are internal requests to put in ‘quick links’ into a sidebar so users will find them, perhaps you could first consider the factors leading to not finding those links in the first place. Maybe the links are buried and/or not integrated with the body content? If there are ads (incl. campaign site ones) to display, is there a way in which sponsored web ‘real estate’ could work harmoniously with the content rather than distract from it? If the sidebar is a side nav what’s your information architecture like, and how much do users need at any one time before deciding where to go next becomes overwhelming?
It wasn’t until about end March this year that Digital Guides had a new and improved side nav, formerly on the far right side of the screen and attached to an ‘intro’ content item.
We only use a sidebar (which collapses down into a page-top accordion on small devices) for category navigation. This was because we found through prototyping, site analytics and usability tests that our users tend to focus more on one section of the site in a session or two, less so going constantly between topics of very different categories, eg service design and signing off on a content brief. Our side nav therefore didn’t need to provide links to everything local to the category AND then some.
And then I thought through edge cases like very deep pages and main pages. On Digital Guides we have a few main ‘category’ pages for in-depth topics, like Content Strategy Guide’s landing page: https://guides.service.gov.au/content-strategy/
We have a primary nav bar across the top of all pages that tells users what the overall structure of the site contains and which bucket they’re browsing. To go a bit deeper into the chosen bucket we list all of the next-level (level 2) pages in a sidebar, like so . This serves as a quick lookup and point of access for frequent/returning users, whereas the cards with the descriptive text in the main content area of the page communicate the relationship between topics and an overview of what they’re about.
Going further into these content modules (topics can have sub-topics and sub-sub-topics or templates attached) on Digital Guides, I ensured that users would know where they were in the site, where immediately relevant pages could be found (as siblings or direct children) and what parent it belonged to. Some decision timing tests (Side nav) helped me narrow down a viable concept for how much information and how much styling might be adequate before putting a simpler concept in front of end users.
Before this, the Digital Guides team had done many iterations on the content types for our pages and we upgraded the site to use UI Kit 2, which also meant (much to my own relief) we could ditch our earlier prototype scaffolding and make best use of the available space. Supporting navigation via a left-anchored F-frame didn’t just work aesthetically and more flexibly with our responsive grid, it also eliminated disjointed breaks in the content and freed up more space for where users predominantly give focus.