Stereo Content

Do Multiple Column Layouts Add Value?

Christopher Butler from Newfangled wrote an interesting post this month about the current problem with the way content management systems (CMS) treat the design of content. He proposed a clever solution through modular content, describing it as Lego blocks that you can pick and stack to build your page.

Design through modular content allows the content creator to figure out where to place each content element as they go along. For example, an image may be placed on its own, in a slideshow, by the side of a paragraph, and so on. The content blocks allow you to quickly lay out various elements across the page in as many columns as you like, varying the column count per module to suit what is being presented, and should you change your mind, things can be easily re-arranged.

There is no doubt that this approach can help designers create visually attractive pages, but does it help them also make pages that are easy to read? The constraints of a typical CMS force all types of content into a single column. This may be viewed as a limitation. But it can also be viewed as a reasonable constraint that ensures the text is easy to follow. In a single column, you read from top to bottom. In a multiple column layout, you have to jump back and forth across various bits of text, pictures, captions and videos. This interrupts the reading flow and forces you to constantly figure out what bit to focus on next.

A stereo sound system provides us with an immersive audio experience. A stereo content system overloads the reader with choices they should not have to make. If a piece of content is not absolutely necessary to the ideas being communicated, it can be placed in a footnote or an appendix at the end of the page. If something is necessary, it should be integrated into the reading flow right at moment when it is referenced so that the reader’s chain of thought is not broken.

In the earlier years of the Web, and today to a large extent, sites were often split up into multiple columns, with the main content column being supplemented with additional links and information. For example, on a blog, it is typical to see a list of popular or recent posts displayed right beside the article you are reading. Such things defeat the main purpose of the page by fighting with the main body of the content for attention. Does the designer want you to read the article, or do they want you to keep clicking on the links in the sidebar? If not, why are they both presented simultaneously? In recent years, design has been moving towards simpler sites, spurred no doubt by the need to cater a growing mobile audience. In the process, sites have began to drop or severely limit their use of multiple columns. With less things trying to steal reader’s attention from the actual content on the page, reading experience has greatly improved.

Now, when we’ve cleared all that space from unrelated content, we’re looking to fill it again, this time however with something related. But in doing so we again make the page more difficult to follow, splitting the reader’s attention by giving them choices at every scroll. There is a reason the formatting of the book largely follows a linear, single column layout. It gives the reader a single thread to grasp and follow, with no breaks or forks along the way. The structure is simple and limited, but it allows for a great reading experience, a smooth, unbroken path from start to end.

It’s worth noting that there are chiefly two types of content. One sort, such as articles and stories, is generally meant to be read linearly from start to finish. This is the sort of content I am talking about here. The other type is scanned for interesting bits or searched for something specific. An example of that type is a product page, which may be scanned for interesting material on the first read, and subsequently searched for a specific technical specification when the reader is doing a product comparison. Another example of this would be the home page, which often displays various types of content not directly related to each other. There is no point trying to force that sort of content into a linear flow if it won’t be consumed linearly. In those cases Butler’s idea for modular CMS content could work well.

January 2014