The sidebar that shows on the IP.Board index page in 3.x helps with this goal to some extent, however people who visit the forums app infrequently may miss out on valuable content. This became an even more important issue when the decision was made to decouple IP.Board as a standalone application. What if the focus of your site is Gallery or what if IP.Board is not even enabled for example?
Our solution was to extend the sidebar across all applications as shown below in IP.Downloads.
You may notice from the screenshot that the announcements block is not specific to the downloads application. Any block can show in any application and they are configurable using moderator permissions. This immediately addresses the issue of content discovery.
While the sidebar is now global in 4.0, it is important to note that individual areas can enable and disable the sidebar if necessary. Some areas of the suite simply require more room in order to display ideally, so the sidebar is disabled in these cases (e.g. the calendar "monthly" view needs a full page table grid to display in its ideal format). Further, you can configure sidebars differently for different areas of the suite in context-sensitive manner. You may show a recent topics block in the IP.Board application, for instance, while showing a recent files block in IP.Downloads. Or you can show both blocks in both areas - the choice is yours.
Many areas of the suite have specific things they wish to automatically show in the sidebar and will do so. This is determined at a programmatic level and is not something that can be shut off. For instance, in IP.Downloads the primary screenshot and the download button show in the sidebar, while in IP.Calendar a map and a button to download an event show. Each application has the ability to output arbitrary content to the top of the sidebar where-ever necessary.
It is also worth noting that have the inherent ability to display in the sidebar site-wide as well.
Editing is carried out inline from the front-end, rather than the ACP, and can be customized based on the application, module or individual view. The technicalities of this are beyond the scope of this blog entry but what this means in practice is that you can vary what is shown in the sidebar for each individual area of your site. Ordering of the blocks is of course fully supported using a simple drag and drop interface, and some sidebars additionally have configuration options available to them as needed.
Here is a video demonstration of how editing the sidebar works in IPS Community Suite 4.0.
With this approach it was important that performance was not compromised and for that reason sidebar blocks support varying degrees of output caching. The active users block which must always be kept up to date utilizes no caching, a more general block showing overall statistics is cached for all users at once and other blocks that rely on permissions are cached for each user group combination. The level of caching used is determined by the developer when writing the block so, while it is important to mention that this performance aspect has been considered, it is something that is transparent to end users and admins in day to day use.
Community integration is a key strength of the IPS platform and the new sidebar in version 4 expands on this even further allowing you to share content across all areas effectively.