Designing Side Panels That Add Value to Your Website’s UX

Best practices and use cases for effective side panel design

Photo by Danist Soh on Unsplash

Side panels are exactly what they sound like: a panel on one side of a screen. They typically contain secondary navigation, contextual information, or additional tools that are related to the primary content on the page. The side panel usually remains hidden until the user activates it through a button or mobile gesture, making it a non-intrusive user interface (UI) element that can provide valuable information or functionality without distracting from the primary content.

In this article, we’ll break down the panel design pattern and talk about some best practices and common mistakes to avoid when using side panels in your designs.

Side panels can help users complete tasks more efficiently, as they can access useful information or a navigation menu. However, it’s important to use your best judgment to ensure that you don’t overwhelm the user with the side panel or distract them from the main content of the page.

1. Navigation

Side panels are a great way to help users navigate through a website or application by providing quick links to important sections. For example, a blog might have a side panel that contains links to popular categories like “Recipes,” “Health and Wellness,” and “Lifestyle” with additional sublinks under each section. This allows users to easily find the content that interests them without having to search through the entire website.

Slack is a good example of an application that uses a side panel for navigation. The top section of the panel includes general links such as “Unreads” and “Threads”, while the sections below group channels and messages together. Each section in the side panel is collapsible to allow for flexibility in what is shown. The panel can also be closed or resized to the user’s preference.

(Source: Computerworld)

2. Discoverability

Side panels can be used to highlight important content or features that might otherwise be hidden or difficult to find. For example, Twitter’s website uses a right-side panel that contains links to popular hashtags or trending topics, almost acting as a secondary menu that allows users to discover new content and engage with the website in a more meaningful way.

(Source: Influencer Marketing Hub)

3. Customization

Side panels can also be customizable, allowing users to choose which elements they want to see and in what order. For example, Gmail allows users to select which apps they want to see in the side panel. The user can even hide the entire side panel by unchecking all the options. This personalizes their experience and makes it more likely that they’ll continue using Gmail in the future.

(Source: The Verge)

4. Help

For websites or applications that have complex features or workflows that users might need assistance with, a help or FAQ section in a sidebar can allow users to quickly access the information they need without having to navigate away from the page they’re on. This can be particularly helpful for users who are in the middle of a task and need quick answers to their questions.

(Source: Saas Interface)

5. Mobile optimization

Side panels can be collapsed or hidden on smaller screens, making it easier to optimize the design for mobile devices. For example, a mobile app might have a collapsible sidebar that can be expanded by tapping on an icon or by swiping from the edge of the screen. This allows users to access important features without taking up too much screen real estate.

(Source: Material Design)

A panel pattern typically includes several components that work together to provide users with additional information, options, or functionality. Here are some of the most common components found inside a panel pattern:

1. Panel

The main component of the panel pattern is, of course, the panel itself. This is a container that holds the additional information or functionality and is usually positioned off to the side of the main content area.

2. Header

The header of the panel often includes a title or label that helps to identify the content or functionality that is contained within the panel. The header may also include additional controls, such as a close button or a toggle button for expanding or collapsing the panel.

3. Body

The body of the panel contains additional information or functionality. This could be anything from a list of related items to a form for entering data. Panels are designed to be flexible and the body can contain a range of components to suit the specific use case.

4. Footer

The footer of the panel may include additional controls or information related to the content or functionality inside the panel. For example, a footer might include buttons for saving or canceling changes made within the panel.

5. Overlay

In some cases, a panel may be displayed as an overlay on top of the main content area. This can be useful for displaying context-sensitive information or functionality that is related to a particular element on the page.

(Source: Saas Interface)

By including these components in a panel pattern, designers can create a flexible and reusable interface element that can be used in a variety of contexts. Panels can be used to display additional information, provide additional functionality, or allow users to modify the content on the page without having to navigate away from it.

Designing effective side panels requires attention to detail and a focus on the user’s needs. Here are some best practices for designing side panels that provide a positive user experience:

1. Define the purpose of the panel

Before designing a side panel, it’s important to define its purpose. This will help you determine what content or functionality needs to be included and how it should be presented. Think about the user’s goals and how the panel can help them achieve those goals.

2. Keep it simple

Side panels should be simple and easy to use. Avoid overloading the panel with too much information or functionality. Instead, focus on the most important content and make it easy for users to access and understand.

3. Use a clear and consistent layout

The layout of the side panel should be clear and consistent. Use headings, subheadings, and other visual cues to create a hierarchy of information. Use a consistent layout and design language that matches the rest of the interface.

4. Make it easy to open and close

Side panels should be easy to open and close. Use clear icons or buttons to indicate how to open and close the panel. Consider using animations or other visual cues to make the opening and closing of the panel feel smooth and natural.

5. Use appropriate animations and transitions

Animations and transitions can help make the interaction feel more natural and intuitive. Consider using animations to show the panel sliding in and out, or to highlight the selected option when a user clicks on a button or link.

6. Provide clear feedback

When a user interacts with the side panel, provide clear feedback to let them know that their action was successful or if there are any errors that need to be corrected. Use appropriate messages, icons, or animations to provide this feedback.

There are several common mistakes that designers should avoid when designing side panel interactions to ensure a positive user experience. Here are a few examples:

Overloading the panel with information

One of the most common mistakes is to try to include too much information in the side panel. This can overwhelm users and make it difficult to find the information they need. Instead, designers should focus on providing the most important information in a clear and concise way.

Poor placement of the panel

The placement of the side panel is also critical to the user experience. If it’s placed in an awkward location, users may have trouble accessing it or may accidentally trigger it when they don’t mean to. Designers should consider the layout of the page and ensure that the panel is placed in a logical and accessible location.

Lack of visual hierarchy

Another mistake is to present all the information in the panel in the same way, without any visual hierarchy. This can make it difficult for users to find the most important information or understand the relationships between different pieces of information. Designers should use visual cues such as headings, icons, or color to help users quickly identify important information.

Inconsistent design

When designing side panel interactions, it’s important to maintain consistency with the rest of the interface. Using a different font, color, or layout can confuse users and make it harder for them to understand how to use the panel. Designers should ensure that the panel design is consistent with the rest of the interface and adheres to any established style guides.

Lack of user feedback

Finally, designers should provide clear feedback to users when they interact with the panel. For example, if a user submits a form in the panel, they should receive clear feedback that their action was successful or if there are any errors that need to be corrected. Without this feedback, users may become frustrated or confused.

Side panels are a versatile element in design that can provide users with additional information and functionality related to the main content of your website or application. However, it’s essential to follow best practices when designing side panels to ensure that they enhance the user experience and don’t become a distraction. By carefully considering the content and interaction of side panels, designers can create a functional experience that provides contextual value relevant to the user.

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