More on Breadcrumbs as a Design Cop-Out

Jared Spool

December 30th, 2008

My article, Design Cop-out #2: Breadcrumbs, is one of the most controversial I’ve written in recent years. People either agree completely or think I’ve gone off the deep end.

When people disagree, it’s often because they think I’m suggesting that we stop putting breadcrumbs in our designs. I’m not suggesting this at all.

I’ve defined a design cop-out as something that happens when the designers focus on treating a symptom instead of addressing the root problem. A cop-out is a red flag that should be raised in the design process, to ask the question, “is there a better way to solve the problem?”

At doteduguru.com, blogger Michael Fienen wrote a thoughtful rebuttal to my article with many of the questions I often get when I start talking about my thoughts on Breadcrumbs. Responding to Michael’s points makes for a nice way to talk about these issues, so I thought I’d take some time to do that.

Surfacing the Content

In the original article, I said:

The idea behind how breadcrumbs should be used is simple: the user ignores them until they get to a page that isn’t quite what they wanted. They discover the trail of links and click on the one most likely to contain the correct path to what they were originally seeking.

To which Michael responded:

I think [this idea] is patently incorrect. A user doesn’t necessarily click on a bread crumb because they think it will take them somewhere better or put them on a correct path, nor is there any reason to believe they are used only by lost visitors in the first place. They click them so that they can surface up in a web site and potentially begin navigating anew.

Micahael’s not the first to suggest this. Many information architects I’ve talked to hold this, as we see it, common misconception: breadcrumbs are not only a loss-recovery mechanism—they also serve as a tool for “surfacing the content” of the site.

What’s interesting is when we’ve studied users, both in the lab and in the wild, we almost never saw them interested in “surfacing the content” or learning more about the site. Sure, they want to find the content they desire. If the target content is on more than one page, then they need to get to the subsequent pages. But beyond the user’s explicit target content, we never see them show any interest in the other available content on the site.

Since our early studies on the web, more than 12 years ago, we noticed that users are always on specific missions when they come to sites. With only one exception, users never visit a site “just to see what it has.” (The one exception? Web designers.) They always have a mission:

  • Buy a new winter coat and accessories
  • Find out what my portfolio is worth
  • See if my favorite blogger has posted anything new
  • Figure out a nice gift for my niece even though I have no idea what 15-year-olds want these days

Even the last one, where the user can’t describe the outcome, is not about the site. It’s about their niece’s gift. That user (like every other user) would want to surface all the content related to their goal, but will show no interest in content that’s unrelated. Only designers are interested in seeing what’s on a site.

In our studies, almost 94% of quests on web sites have a single objective. When the user reaches the target page, they’ve accomplished their goal. (Or, at least the “finding” portion of the goal. There still may be transactional component, such as purchasing.)

So, in 94% of the tasks, if the user turns to the breadcrumbs, it’s likely because they couldn’t find their target page and are lost. That leaves at most 6% where the user completes their initial objective and needs to start on a subsequent objective: “Ok, I’ve bought the down jacket. Now I’d like a matching hat, scarf, and gloves to complete the outfit.”

Michael’s argument is even if multi-objective quests happen infrequently, the breadcrumbs still serve a useful purpose, revealing the rest of the content to the user:

Assuming you have taken the slightest modicum of care with building bread crumbs, users will recognize them as a reflection of the hierarchy of your site’s information architecture, making them a tool that users have no reason to ignore if they are viewed as an aid to going where they want to go.

But that’s the point: users don’t care about the hierarchy of the site. The thousands of users we’ve observed for the last 12+ years clearly tell us that users don’t care how the site is constructed. Users only care how to get from they page they are current at to the page containing the content they seek. Even with repeated use, they’d prefer that each site visit just have clear scent. Memorizing the nooks and crannies of an information architecture is not their desired outcome.

Secondary Navigation

Michael agrees with this statement from my original article:

We’re recommending that when teams see users needing breadcrumbs, they look for other holistic design solutions. They’ll need to watch users and see the circumstances leading up to how the need arises. In almost all cases, they’ll find a better way to solve the problem than traditional breadcrumbs.

He goes on to say:

The key to successful bread crumbs is that they should be a secondary navigational tool. But, I would argue that people don’t use them because they need them, they use them because they see them as a means to get to where they want to go. As far as the user is concerned, that might be a quick link, an A to Z index, a menu, or a bread crumb (and all of these, minus menus, are generally secondary tools). The thing is most users neither know these terms nor care about them. All they care about is “I click here and go where I want.”

Michael is correct that users don’t distinguish between what he calls secondary navigation and the other types. The idea he proposes, “I click here and go where I want,” is a basic notion behind thescent of information theory: if the target content gives off good scent, users will click on it.

Let’s return to our down-jacket purchaser, now looking for matching accessories. If that user’s trigger words (such as “scarf” or “hat”) appear in the quick link, A-to-Z index, or breadcrumbs (Michael’s secondary navigation tools), then all is well.

Yet, on many sites, it’s dumb luck if the site designers have included the trigger words in those tools. In most cases, the designer hasn’t researched the specific trigger words users will want. Instead, they produce a set of generic terms (“accessories” or “outerwear”, for example) that may or may not resonate with the user.

So, I’d go further to say that all the secondary tools that Michael mentions are also cop-outs: fixing symptoms (in this case, providing a standardized navigation element) instead of the users specific problem (getting match accessories). (I wrote how sitemaps, which are parent to A-to-Z indexes, are also cop-outs in another article.) If I asked any designer worth their weight in salt to design a way for someone who just picked the down jacket to find the desired matching products, I’m betting, of all the design alternatives, Michael’s list would be the last choices.

Michael continues,

I agree with Jared that given perfect IA, smart menus, and intelligent visitors, bread crumbs are a waste of time. In reality, few people run sites that function in such a static bubble that one person has control over every facet of how information is disseminated. [...] It’s like saying “In a perfect country, we wouldn’t need laws to punish robbers, because no one would steal from each other.” The reality is, people do steal. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to stop them, and shouldn’t minimize the problem, but you still must address the issue. So what do we do? We create a ton of secondary navigational elements, build them nicely into our layout, and let the user decide how they want to combine them to go where they need.

In the stealing analogy, it would make sense to look at the economic conditions driving people to stealing. Solve those and the robberies diminish. Focus only on punishment and you end up spending your resources building more prisons indefinitely.

I’d say the same is true for breadcrumbs. Users don’t want choices in their navigational tools. They want clear scent to the content. It’s the designer’s responsibility to provide that. Anything else is just a cop-out.

Breadcrumbs are Simple to Implement

One of the most common objections to my argument is “breadcrumbs are so simple to implement that there is no harm to just doing it.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t true. On a site of any decent size (greater than 500 pages), breadcrumbs become very difficult to implement well.

Often, in an attempt to make life easier, the designers use the category hierarchy as the breadcrumb links. On the surface, this sounds like a good idea. After all, if the categories are well thought out, then they should work in breadcrumbs as well as anywhere else.

Alas, that isn’t the case. Breadcrumbs stand by themselves as solo links. The categories are usually created to be shown as a collection. A category may have a clear meaning when shown alongside its siblings, but is often baffling when shown alone.

Take this example from Michael’s post – the breadcrumbs from NewEgg.com:

Breadcrumbs on NewEgg.com

It’s not clear what the siblings are. I’m betting most folks would be surprised to find “Networking”, “PCs & Laptops”, and “Apple” to be listed as siblings to “Computer Hardware”, for example. Arriving at links that would describe the entire category well are difficult and usually require more than one or two words. That’s where it becomes difficult to implement breadcrumbs.

Throwing the Baby Out

As I’ve said before, I’m not suggesting that designers stop implementing them. I’m just trying to prevent the knee-jerk reaction of always including them under some misguided notion that they always improve the site.

In the best case scenario, they take no effort (as in automatically compiled by the CMS) and are ignored by users—thus are no harm done. But, that’s rare and unlikely for most situations.

Good design understands why every pixel is in the design. The designer knows how every element is directly serving the user in each instance. Automatic design (“every page needs breadcrumbs at the top, whether we have evidence it helps or not”) rarely accomplishes this.

But, here’s the rub: In the end, it doesn’t matter what I say. It only matters what happens with your users on your site. If Michael’s observations of his users shows that breadcrumbs are the most useful way for them to achieve their objectives, then I think his site should have breadcrumbs—cop-out or not. (And I’d like to learn more about his situation, because I’m always interested in proving my theories wrong.)

Does your site need breadcrumbs? The only way to know is to watch users. It’s simple, really. When we see someone click on one, we stop them and ask what they’re hoping to accomplish. That gives us a use case to work with. If the use cases point to a breadcrumb element being the best solution, then we go ahead and make that work.

Some find my labeling specific elements (like breadcrumbs) as cop-outs is harsh. But, that’s the point. Had I said, “breadcrumbs might not help as much as you think”, you probably wouldn’t have given this topic as much thought.

My purpose is to get you to think twice about using them. If I’ve made you seriously question your usage of them, then I’ll sleep well.

20 Responses to “More on Breadcrumbs as a Design Cop-Out”

  1. Jon Kolko Says:

    Since our early studies on the web, more than 12 years ago, we noticed that users are always on specific missions when they come to sites. With only one exception, users never visit a site “just to see what it has.” (The one exception? Web designers.)

    This might be the cause of your controversy; users commonly visit sites “just to see what it has” in real life, because they aren’t always goal directed in real life. One needs only to observe their own father poking around on a Sunday morning, or visit the library and peek over people’s shoulders, to see this type of casual and non-directionally inclined behavior.

    The idea that people are always “task driven” ignores our need for entropy, for connection building, for time wasting, and for the emotional – watching funny videos of animals helps pass the time, but it’s hard to argue that as part of your 94%.

  2. Jonathan Firestone Says:

    Jared’s definitely given me something to think about. I don’t take offense to Jared saying breadcrumbs are a cop-out. I think they’re definitely a reflection of “yet another tool” we’ve placed on the page as Information Architects to “spread the wealth of information around” and see who picks up a dollar when they need one. Sometimes they are of value and we are expecting a user to make proper use of them in situations where a cryptic acronym, an occluded, or imperfect meaning just won’t suffice to get a person to understand what they’re looking at.

    A few factors need to be observed here:

    * The time you have available to you as an IA in the business of building (or re-building) a Web site is rarely enough to get the job done perfectly. Your goal is likely to get it (taxonomy/vocabulary/meaning) as close to “right” as possible in the allotted time, especially if a deadline is involved, and often only limited testing is permitted.
    * You are involved in a process of Information Evolution. The human mind is unique to each of us and imperfect. Different things have shaped our understanding of the information at hand. That does not mean you don’t try hard to make it all fit for everyone involved. In the end you have what the best in the business have always said is a work in progress. The content and presentation always evolves in a living site. It’s not always perfect or static as we evolve our understanding. It probably never will be. Welcome to the uncertainty principle, language and the human mind. It does get better with time, effort, revision and investment.
    * You also have cultural and business-related structural factors to consider. For example: I have little effect over a company using an acronym or cryptic but unique product name to describe the product they’re trying to sell — which despite testing, scores high enough that if you’re new to X product you might not know what it means yet, but you will with a little reading and comprehension. Once you know the product’s name, it sticks with the user and makes a good case for being a part of the navigation of the site in question. So I have to account for that in my IA buildout.

    Jared’s definitely right – it’s a cop-out. But I find breadcrumbs are often necessary because any help at all we give to the users of a site to improve “findability” is usually a good thing. Those breadcrumbs can often add helpful context, even at an unconscious level.

    Jon’s Kolko’s also correct. Definitely you’ll have entropy, time wasting, emotional drive and the need for connection building to cope with. Our users are often not really goal oriented — or I’d even take it a step further and say that because of the often-scattered human mind, we sometimes lose our purpose for arrival when we scan a site, because other things (like the graphic design or the way the info is laid out or that sneaky well-written, seductive story title in the lower right hand corner) have become more interesting to us. Or the IA was as it sometimes is, imperfect and fraught with human, cultural and structural intervention.

    Great article Jared. Thanks!

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  4. Michael Fienen Says:

    I really love how you break this down actually, and enjoyed reading the counter-counterpoint. I know we differ in opinion somewhat philosophically on the matter, but I’d be interested in talking to you about this some more some time backchannel if you ever get the chance, and discuss how things like this should influence the ultimate design of sites. I’m curious how our ideas compare.

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  6. Craig Says:

    Thanks for another thought-provoking article! I tend to agree with the cop-out point of view. But I would also note that in my usability testing of sites with breadcrumb navigation, NONE of the test participants actually used it for their primary navigation. In only a few very rare times, some participants used the breadcrumb navigation to go back up the navigation structure to try to re-orient themselves after becoming lost deep down in the site. But those instances were extremely rare, and none actually used it for primary navigation.

    I would agree that if you’re main navigation and information architecture are doing their job, this type of secondary navigation system is irrelevant for humans.

    Happy new year to you and all your readers!

  7. Eric Scheid Says:

    “Alas, that isn’t the case. Breadcrumbs stand by themselves as solo links. The categories are usually created to be shown as a collection. A category may have a clear meaning when shown alongside its siblings, but is often baffling when shown alone.”

    One site I use a lot has a category breadcrumb system, but they get around this problem by having each of the crumbs being a drop-down menu of siblings, with the current crumb indicated with a tick-mark. This is on a site which extensively rewards mouse-over actions for surfacing linked information so it seems quite natural.

    I’ve also seen drop-downs on the crumbs implemented in a slightly different way – each crumb acting as a header for it’s category, with the drop down listing all child-links. They always confused me. The difference between the two models is subtle, but profound.

    That said, I think the wowhead site is a lucky exception. Firstly, mouse-overs are extensively rewarded and so users are trained in mouse-hovering, and secondly they didn’t have much of a synonym problem in the first place (it’s a specialist community, and the language terms are already pre-set by the subject publisher).

  8. Jared Spool Says:

    @Craig: I think that if none of your users used the breadcrumbs, that may indicate that your site’s navigation is such that people aren’t needing it. I’d take that as a good sign.

    @Eric: I think the wowhead site has a really interesting approach to breadcrumbs. While they provide location information, they also provide the menu structure in detail. It would be interesting to see what would happen if you applied this to, say, JC Penney’s product hierarchy? Would it still work out?

  9. Ignas Says:

    I am all for Breadcrumbs are a cop out worldview. Since I have removed breadcrumbs from the web application I am developing, we have found out in how many cases we had not thought about navigation, and about real ways of coming “back” to the place that you came from. We (developers) would just use breadcrumbs for navigation, like “add an item, click breadcrumb, add an item” or even worse “go to a list of items, click on an item, click edit to go to edit form, and use breadcrumb to go back”, and while reaching all the content in the application was technically “possible”, users just could not find it. And without breadcrumbs we have noticed loads of “dead ends” (pages that only had 1 way to navigate out of them before – breadcrumbs).

    I think that every page should have links that users will actually want to follow, and that should be determined by someone thinking about the purpose of the page user is on, and not by automatically cramming all the stuff that is “up the stack”.

    If you would think about every and each link in the breadcrumbs, and think “how likely is it that the user will want to go there from this page?” I think most of the breadcrumbs would not pass the test and those links that would pass – probably have a better more prominent place to be.

  10. Daniel Szuc Says:

    Rarely seen people use breadcrumbs to help them achieve their goals. Often the breadcrumbs on the sites we have evaluated have been put together by a CMS with a content structure that does not meet the needs of people in the first place. Would also suggest that if breadcrumbs are too long it can represent a deeper structure in a site that may not be needed in the first place i.e. the need for a revamped content strategy.

    When people get lost they either go back Home to start again (to feel comfortable again), review the options in the primary navigation, hit the back button or leave the site completely to use Google.

  11. Jared Spool Says:

    @Ignas,

    Thanks! You said in 234 words what I was trying to say in 3000 words. :)

  12. Michael Zuschlag Says:

    Strange. I didn’t open my browser thinking, “I need to find out the latest thoughts on breadcrumbs,” and yet I ended up here. But then again, I didn’t end up here via breadcrumbs either.

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  14. Bradley Wright Says:

    Just some food for thought: given the popularity of SEO and web-development aimed at increasing page views through organic findability (via Google or similar), do breadcrumbs not assist the site in retaining users by giving them a clear continuation path? Don’t forget most of your users will be landing directly on pages now, rather than navigating to them.

  15. Jared Spool Says:

    Bradley,

    The question is in fact whether the continuation path offered by breadcrumbs is clear or if there is a more clear way to give them same path?

    In most cases, you can do a better job by deliberately designing the paths than by leaving it up to an automatically created breadcrumb system that may or may not be clear to the user.

    In either case the SEO outcome is the same. (Actually, by creating better text to describe what that path is, the SEO outcome is slightly better.)

  16. BenKimmel Says:

    Excellent discussion -
    Has there been any follow up to the Witicha study that seemed to determine that, when given a site with bread crumbs and an exact replica of that site, without bread crumbs, users offered bread crumbs actually used more clicks to get to an intended page, than those with no available bread crumbs?

    It seems that just because people use breadcrumbs (and they don’t very much) it doesn’t actually improve their navigating experience.

    http://psychology.wichita.edu/surl/usabilitynews/52/breadcrumb.htm

  17. Jared Spool Says:

    @BenKimmel:

    It would be hard to do the study you suggested in any easy terms, because as the Wichita study showed, only a small percentage (about 6%) chose to use breadcrumbs. So, to create the study, you’d have to create two sites, test in two groups (each site going first), and have enough of a sample size so that of the 6% who choose to use breadcrumbs, you could observe if they worked better. (Back of the envelope math says you’d need to test about 120 participants.)

    So, no. Nobody has done that study.

    If you’re looking to fund such a study, we’d love to help you spend that money… :)

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