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We recently moved a forum options sidebar from the left to the right of the screen in an online community I help run.

The change generated a lot of discussion and in this post I’ll document how people reacted to the change and some of the ways I’ve managed the feedback.

Reactions to changing a layout

Initial reactions seemed to fall along three lines (in order of magnitude):

  • Users who felt uncomfortable with the movement. Things weren’t where they expected them to be, and it took them back.
  • Users who didn’t care about the change, they were more interested in doing what they always did on the site.
  • Users who liked the change immediately, for no particular reason.

After some time, reactions changed to (in order of magnitude):

  • Users who got used to the change, and carried on as usual.
  • Users who preferred things how they once were and had a reason for their opinion.

A change in layout does require a change in behaviour. It’s going to be strange at first – hence the reason I like to give things a month to see how they pan out.

Managing feedback from changing a layout

When we introduced the layout switch, we gave limited reasons as to why we made the change. One of these was:

We read from left to right, and the content is the focus of the forum, not the options first.

I feel very strongly about this reason and had researched how people were actually using the forum’s sidebar options over the previous six months to back up this decision.

On so many sites, the real content is crowded between sidebars and focus is taken off of the main purpose of the site. I’m not talking primarily about sidebars used for navigation here, but sidebars with related options and information to the center stage.

In a forum, I want readers to first focus on reading the forum topics and forum threads. That’s what the forum is there for. Not options and information such as “mark all read”, “bookmarked discussions”, “edit profile” or even “who’s online”.

However, one site member strongly disagreed with the change. Comments included:

“It goes against all the site usability rules.

We have millions of websites worldwide as irrefutable proof that the left hand side is the correct location for this panel. Surely they can’t all be wrong?

I would NEVER recommend to a client that they have their side bar on the right. People expect to see this stuff on the left because that is where it has always been. Nothing puts people off using a website faster, than not finding things where they expect them to be. For that reason alone, I am amazed that the change was made.”

The other day I came across this quote:

“Any architect who tells you that the bathroom always needs to be in a certain place in every house is obviously insane or a control freak. Why do we think any different from “usability gurus”? (Dan Saffer – UX Week 2007)”

I responded by saying:

“If the sidebar was primarily used for navigation, then I would have left it on the left hand side. It is not primarily a navigational aid. It has a login, forum statistics, options, filters and preferences along with two banners.

As a person who makes a living from designing websites, research-based decisions are important to me. I am not advocating that right hand sidebars are right for every site, but with our sidebar content, I believe it is the right decision.

Based on thorough research of the last six months of 2007 of how users of this site are behaving, very few people are using the sidebar to navigate the forum.

Putting the options and preferences to the right hand side means that the focus goes back on the content – the forum topics and the forum comments, which are the most important things in a forum. We also subliminally reinforce the message that people should read topics first, before clicking the “add discussion” button.

To navigate through the forum, one does not need the information in the sidebar – and in fact, the only link people are using in any real quantity is the link to the off topic forum, one which is not an essential aspect of the site.

When people come to the forum page and click on another link within the site, here is what they are doing:

44% Reloading the forum page (i.e. checking to see if something has changed since last load)
42% Clicking through to one of the latest forum topics
6% Clicking through to an item in the top menu
3% Logging in / changing things in their account page
3% Clicking through to the Off Topic forum category
1% Adding a new forum topic
1% Searching the forum
1% Other (< 0.5% each)

Within forum topics, the click rate on the sidebar ranges from a mere 0.1% – 2%. The bulk of people click on the forum link at the top, a pagination link, the bottom/top of page links or something else in the main menu.”

(Note: slightly edited for brevity.)

While I strongly believed my decision was the right one, I was still open to changing things back after a month – when initial reactions had died down, and people were used to the new furniture positions.

Aside from the one member who felt strongly about the issue, it hasn’t been mentioned as an issue by others since that time.

So, we’re about to reach the end of the month and I look forward to the responses from people. Again we’ll survey logged in members over a two week period.

The sky hasn’t fallen, and traffic is up. My prediction is that the vast majority will say they are happy with how things are, or don’t care what happens.

Dealing with people who disagree with change isn’t easy and you’re not going to please everyone.

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