Have Amazon, Dropbox, Microsoft and Google got their information design wrong?

On an API documentation course we ran for a client yesterday, we showed a number of developer documentation websites, including ones from Amazon, DropboxGoogle and Microsoft. One common theme the delegates noticed was these sites contained a in-page table of contents, or a set of related links, on the right hand set of the screen.

Dropbox API documentation page

You will often hear Information Designers talk about F shaped reading, and that the right edge of the screen is ignored by users. If you put content there, they say, it probably won’t be seen by the readers.

So have Amazon, Dropbox, Google and Microsoft all got it wrong, by using the right edge of the screen to provide navigation? Have the improvements in screen technology and the introduction of tablets and smartphones changed which areas of the screen users notice?

What do you think?


Tom Johnson

I would put the navigation on the left. In the Amazon example you cited, it’s on the right due to some technical limitations with an older CMS (for tech doc pages). But yeah, I think the F shaped visual pattern is widely accepted. (BTW, if you look at the AWS documentation, you will see that the navigation is on the left.)

Personally, I’m more interested in how authors chunk up the navigation from a larger doc site and provide navigation across different products.

Ellis Pratt

Thanks Tom. I wonder if that’s also the case at the other companies?

APIs are comparatively simple from an information design perspective – typically one version, one product, one audience and one language. If/when it gets more complex, I wonder if approaches from the technical communications world, such as faceted navigation, related topics etc. will be used, or if API documentarians will develop new solutions.

Shane Taylor

I actually think this reflects a further break from the book-based paradigm of prioritizing navigation (TOC) over the topics. Placing the topic on the left and the TOC on the right flips this and makes the topic the priority and lets the TOC serve as supplementary navigation.

Helena Pichler

Personally, I don’t think it matters that much where the TOC is. We are used to it being on the right in the “classic” tri-pane layout, but I don’t think this is something most of the users would pick up on. The right-side TOC trend may have emerged due to the responsive design. These layouts don’t use iframes, and on a small screen the TOC would fold under the topic, which makes sense, I think – you’d want to read the topic first and then see what other related content there is. Let’s also not forget that there would usually be top-level navigation menu, and possibly breadcrumbs as well, so the user wouldn’t get lost. An example is the current Oxygen XML responsive webhelp that has the Bootstrap responsive framework at its core:

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