Fight Against “Right-rail Blindness”

I’m a long-time reader of articles written by the Nielsen-Norman Group (NNg), an evidence-based website user experience research company operating since 1998. One of their website’s fine authors, Hoa Loranger, (also author of the much-acclaimed book, Prioritizing Web Usability) produced a concise article recently in which only the headline caught my eye out of a list of articles. My choosing to read it was partially induced by my empathy for web accessibility. Fight Against “Right-rail Blindness” is pretty catchy, eh? The other reason is that it further enforces part of a presentation I share while guest lecturing upperclassmen at local high-schools: website visitors naturally steer away from areas that look like advertising.

Nielsen Norman Group

The first thing to understand is the term “right-rail”. In web development, for a desktop browsing experience, this is the right-most portion or column of the web-page. What often gets put into a right-rail is supplementary bits of information – things that are ancillary to the main content of the page. As a side-note, this would be content that follows after the main content in hierarchy. Depending on the website, this might include additional reading, advertising, and/or site-wide call-to-action (CTA). In trafficked websites like Google and Facebook, having ads placed here is the de-facto standard – hence the “training” of the general public.

Here’s the 4 main tips Loranger mentions and we continue to use to prevent “right-rail blindness”:

  1. Don’t design content to look like banner ads – a clean sidebar design garners trust
    “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 than what appears to be irrelevant advertising.”

    These CTAs look too much like external advertisements

    These CTAs look too much like external advertisements

  2. Position content away from the banner ads to avoid “guilt by association”
    “…people perceive elements that are placed together to be related. It’s fine to feature ads on your site. People are used to it. However, whenever possible, group external and internal promotions separately, and make them look distinct to avoid any confusion.”

    The simplified content placed between "ad-like" content still gets ignored

    The simplified content placed between “ad-like” content still gets ignored

  3. Feature thumbnail images only if they communicate useful information quickly
    “Each image requires cognitive effort to discern, especially at small sizes, so choose them wisely. When selecting images, pick ones that supplement the content and are easily discernible in small sizes. Our eyetracking research shows that simple images, that have simple backgrounds and identifiable objects, attract more attention than busy images.”

    Thumbnails shown here are too small even with simplified imagery making them useless

    Thumbnails shown here are too small even with simplified imagery making them useless

  4. Feature content that is relevant and helpful
    “Consider when to offer broad or narrow topics. For example, at top-level pages (e.g., homepage and section pages), people are much more open to serendipitous discovery. However, at the article level, people are more topic focused and need highly relevant content.”

    This article features additional content that isn't within the same topic

    This article features additional content that isn’t within the same topic

In the full article Loranger supports these points by mentioning the relevant background research associated. It’s a well thought and insightful article published and read by those closer to the web development spectrum, so I thought it made sense to share with our readers – the potential web design client and current client (using our custom-developed APOXE CMS).

In summation, like all valuable space on your web page, use this information to make careful decisions about the content you’re placing in your “right-rail” so you can effectively see the benefit.

You can read the entire article here and feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

James is passionate about making the web a user-friendly place for all. He’s a seasoned web developer & usability pro who has built literally hundreds of websites over the past 15 years. No surprise, he writes frequently on web usability and accessibility issues.

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