It’s Time To Retire the 3 Column Template

The web is a constantly evolving entity. Technology changes and trends emerge; some are more pervasive than others, such as the 3 column template. Three column templates are most commonly used by ecommerce, news and blog sites. Many content management systems use 3 column templates as well. As smartphones became ubiquitous, the use of 3 column templates has declined, but it’s long past time for their retirement.

So, what’s a 3 column template?

Well it’s exactly what it sounds like – a larger center column with narrower columns on either side. The main 3columnLayoutpage content is placed in the center column; the other two columns are used for supplementary content. Typically, businesses will use the two columns on the sides to display news, cross promote various products or services, blog posts, and more. It is believed by many that a symmetrical layout like this is beneficial to the user and, by proxy, the business. A symmetrical layout is thought to be more user-friendly and visually more pleasing since it makes the center content the focus.

Those are all great things, right?

No, not really. Three column templates aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, especially in this time of everything being scaled back and simplified. While 3 column templates allow businesses to display a wealth of content, it’s really to the user’s detriment. Putting that much content on a single page can be confusing. It makes it difficult for the user to know what is important, and the core message of the page gets muddled. Not to mention the fact that it may even be difficult for the user to find what they’re looking for.  The left column is typically used for sub-navigation and tends to remain consistent throughout. However, due to its nature, the third column can be unpredictable. It can contain any sort of content and for this reason can be confusing to the user, causing them to have to relearn each new page which can be frustrating. The last thing anyone wants is a user to leave the site entirely because they can’t find what they’re looking for or they’re overwhelmed by all the content and modules.

What’s the solution then?

A clear picture of the user’s journey through the site and each page is necessary. More than half of American adults have smart phones and the number of people accessing websites solely on a desktop is starting to slowly dwindle. In 2013, a PEW study found that 34% of cell internet  users go online mostly using their phones and not using some other device such as a desktop or laptop computer. When a user views a site that has a 3 column template on a mobile phone, those columns become stacked on top of each other. There is no clear delineation between content areas, and this further confuses the message as the user will just keep scrolling until they hit the bottom of the page.

The best approach for both desktop and mobile sites is to tell a story as the user scrolls down the page. At the top of the page are the branding elements, the primary message or product; and then as the user scrolls down the page they’ll learn more about the product/service; and finally at the very bottom, a call to action.  This way you control the messaging your viewer sees in a clear and concise way. It’s up to us to control what we want the user to do and not just throw the kitchen sink at them.

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There are currenty 3 responses.

August 21, 2014

The 3 column grid is still valid for desktop users. The smartphone issue is resolved by good responsive design. If it ain’t broke…

Andrea Macino
August 20, 2014

As a designer, all I can say is GOOD RIDDANCE!

Chris Foss
August 20, 2014

As developers, it’s hard to migrate away from what has been a staple on the web for so many years. The three column template. Sigh. So long, old friend. I’d say that you’ll be missed, but… you won’t be.


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