September 26th, 2005
Our friend Nathalie recently inquired:
I would like to know your opinion on the use of breadcrumbs. According to your research, is using breadcrumbs adding value or not or ?? what?
The most common use of breadcrumbs are called “location breadcrumbs”, which reflect the optimal path where a user can find the current page of information (independent of the navigation they used to get to that page). The other types include “path breadcrumbs”, which show the actual path the user followed to get to the current page, and “facet breadcrumbs” (Keith calls them “attribute breadcrumbs”), which are used in a faceted navigation scheme to show the current facets chosen. I’m going to guess that Nathalie is asking about location breadcrumbs.
In our analysis, breadcrumbs are mostly used when users lose the scent of the information they are seeking. They work their way through the navigation, choosing the links that have the best scent. At some point, they realize that they’ve lost the scent and now wish to back track. It’s at this moment that they turn to breadcrumbs.
In this context, breadcrumbs are only a little better than the back button (or links labeled “back” or “previous”). Users only pay attention to the breadcrumb when they have lost the scent or somehow need context as to where they are in the site. If users are looking for breadcrumbs in this context, it’s likely that it’s because the scent is poor. Instead of making the breadcrumbs robust, it’s better to invest the development effort in improving the scent.
Where breadcrumbs are useful is in a context we call teleporting. Teleporting is what happens when a user suddenly finds themselves in the middle of the information architecture, often because of a search result. For example, a user we observed on eBay typed “accoustic guitar” into the search engine and found several guitars, all listed with this incorrect spelling of the word “acoustic.” The user, realizing that there might be more guitars, clicked on the eBay’s breadcrumbs to see all of the listed guitars, regardless of spelling.
These days, where users teleport in because of Google searches and internal search requests, breadcrumbs give the user a way to find solid ground after they land.Tweet