3. Feature thumbnail images only if they communicate useful information quickly.
You have only milliseconds to inform people of your offerings, so make each visual element count. Images should provide visual interest and serve as communication tools. When done well, thumbnails help tell the story by providing context. People appreciate images that contain useful information and balk at generic images that contain little substance.
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.
Cnn.com: These images contain too much detail to discern easily, especially as thumbnails. When people can’t make out the information quickly, they automatically dismiss the content and everything else surrounding it.
4. Feature content that is relevant and helpful.
Avoid turning the side column into a junk drawer. Have a strategy for tailored content based on users’ needs. Anticipate the user’s task and offer recommendations to match. Don’t display the same set of links or articles across different pages: it undermines the usefulness of the suggestions and trains people to avoid it. From the user’s perspective, seeing the same irrelevant list repeatedly is like speaking to an agent that doesn’t listen.
Relevant suggestions feel natural and unforced. 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.
Tripadvisor.com: This is an effective use of the right column. The information is highly relevant to the article and the visual presentation connotes valuable content, not a pressured sale.
Npr.org: This site misses the opportunity to engage with users. None of the suggestions are remotely related to the story. Also, the top-right block looks too much like an ad, violating tips 1 and 2.
Contrary to what many website creators might think, when it comes to side columns. Be subtle and relevant, and the right rail can provide value to your site.