customizing dashboard sidebar and recent members view

i am new to elgg and php so will not be able to do a plugin or anything smart like that. i want to display some llinks on the (left) sidebar in (river style dashboard view) but struggling to do so. I have tried playing with layout files in the folder *\elgg-1.7.3\views\default\canvas\layouts but didn't work. Is there an easy way to be able to do so? I am using custom_index plugin and have looked into layout folders there but didn't work. can someone please help this poor newbie? Many thanks.

Also, the recent members area only shows members with icons. Again, is there an easy way to modify it to display all members (not only with icons or avatars). Many thanks.