UIEtips: Design Cop-out #2 – Breadcrumbs

Jared Spool

August 21st, 2008

We’ve received some interesting comments about last week’s article on site maps as design cop-outs. Christian & Michael both asked: Why is it a cop-out to provide a site map anyway? Christian explained that they are easy to create and maintain, so what’s the big deal?

It’s a good question. While creating a site map is easy, there’s a lot to creating a great site map.

First, you have to research which links you’re going to include, as a site of any decent size will have too many to list. Then, you have to figure out how to describe each included link (as to also give scent for the ones that didn’t make the cut). Then, you have to determine how to organize and display the links. And finally, you have to keep it all up-to-date for the entire life of the site.

None of this is easy for most folks. It takes skill and time to do a good job. Since every team we’ve encountered is resource constrained, diverting those resources to creating and maintaining something users shouldn’t need in the first place is a hard sell. Therefore, site maps are often neglected.

The same is true of the article topic in this week’s issue of UIEtips, Design cop-out #2: Breadcrumbs. Like site maps, breadcrumbs are hard to do well. And they are also a treatment of the symptom, with the real problem that the user is on the wrong page to begin with. Work to ensure the only place users end up is on the right page, and you’ll no longer need to provide breadcrumbs to rescue them.

Read the article – Design Cop-out #2: Breadcrumbs

Information architecture — organizing the site’s content to make things easy to find — is just one of the full-day, in-depth seminar topics we’ll be covering at the User Interface 13 Conference, October 13-16, in Cambridge, MA. If you want to learn state-of-the-art techniques from the world’s most renowned experts in design and usability, this is the place you need to be.

What are your thoughts about breadcrumbs, site maps, and other design cop outs? How have you tackled the key challenges in your site’s information architecture? We’d love to hear your thoughts.
Leave us a comment below.

20 Responses to “UIEtips: Design Cop-out #2 – Breadcrumbs”

  1. Todd Follansbee Says:

    Bread Crumbs in the purchase process give an indication of where you are, where you were AND where you are going next. Sure there are other ways to do this but we find that good implementations of bread crumbs are helpful here.
    for example Select Product > Confirm Personal Info > Review/Edit Order > Submit Order
    Unfortunately the formatting doesnt translate but if you are at Review/Edit order, it is black, Select Product and Confirm Personal Info are hyperlinks allowing easy access and Submit Order is greyed out until you complete current page. It shows that you will have one more chance to check the order before you submit it. This outlines steps simply, and clearly reduces anxiety, while encouraging a move along the conversion path. Again there other ways to do this but crumbs is simple, easy to understand, with well understood behaviors, all elements of good usability

  2. Paula Thornton Says:

    Thanks for taking these topics on Jared — the sacred cows. As in music, there are structures that have to be understood before you can improvise and successfully ‘break’ the natural laws of structure.

    Navigation of any sort is a crutch. It’s a synthetic structure to connect a person to what they need/want. The ideal would be to have no navigation. The reality is somewhere blended between.

    Sadly, I only use sitemaps when the clearly obvious scenarios aren’t supported — therefore I’m having to use it as a crutch for a bad design. In those cases, the sitemap is extremely useful, but it’s useful for the wrong reasons.

    All navigation is wrong. It’s a compromise of a collection of mental models — therefore it matches no one’s natural mental model. Our job is to optimize the dichotomy of reality — that’s design.

  3. Stella Says:

    I don’t think breadcrumbs are there to “rescue” people (when they end up on the wrong page). While I’m sure that is one of its functions, I also see it as a good reminder of where they are (if you’re site is huge), but also, it’s another way to navigate. And I like having choices!

  4. Roy Zornow Says:

    Isn’t “cop out” a little strong? I don’t know any UE professionals who would advocate for breadcrumbs as a substitute for information scent. You provide a fine example of how they can be used as a helpful adjunct.

  5. John Roberts Says:

    “Work to ensure the only place users end up is on the right page, and you’ll no longer need to provide breadcrumbs to rescue them.”

    When so many people enter individual pages in sites directly from search engines, I think breadcrumbs and other context-setters are more valuable now than they ever were before.

  6. Terrie Says:

    I agree with the previous comment, but in addition I often want to see more than one page on a site. Breadcrumbs are a very useful way of quickly getting back up the right level in the “tree” of pages. Having to use a main menu and then come forward again, the lack of a breadcrumb trail has been frustrating me this evening. Granted a side menu may also allow this but a breadcrumb trail usually fits nicely at the bottom of a page so saves going back up to a menu.

  7. Nathan Swift Says:

    I love breadcrumbs. They are refreshingly easy to implement, have a well established conventional logic, and present fewer design challenges than almost any other navigation element. Happy days.

  8. Jan Says:

    “And when the full moon got up Hansel took his little sister by the hand, and followed the way where the flint stones shone like silver, and showed them the road.”

    Hm, it should have been called “Flintstone Navigation”, shouldn’t it? 😉

  9. Suzanne Says:

    As an end user I love breadcrumbs. I love the reliable feedback about where I am, even if I don’t need to know it at the momoent. I don’t consider them a copout at all. I think not having them is a copout. 🙂

  10. Kirk Hansen Says:

    Just before clicking Send for the comment I’d originally typed, I scanned the others, and found John Roberts (#5) had already said it: breadcrumbs give context to searchers.

    To add my vote to his: I’m trying to figure out how often I navigate a site without using Search first–either an external search like Google, or the site’s Search box. I’d guess it’s something like 10%-25%.

    A suggested design principle: “Design each page for people who have no idea how they got there.”

  11. Jo Landers Says:

    I agree that sitemaps and breadcrumbs are no substitutes for a well organized site structure, but I think they both serve very useful purposes all on their own, even within the best designed website. I find sitemaps useful when I enter a large site and want to quickly get an overview of what kind of content is available, while breadcrumbs act as a visual guide to the hidden site structure, giving me a decent idea of how the information is structured and where to go next. I whole-heartedly agree with the comments about using breadcrumbs so you don’t have to keep going back to a home page to get to the next place you would like to be, and to provide a visual cue to the process flow when doing something like ordering.

    No, sitemaps and breadcrumbs should not substitute for poor site organization. They are valuable completely on their own, and may help the designer pinpoint structural problems. If it is difficult to create breadcrumbs or a basic site map, that may indicate the site itself hasn’t been organized well to begin with.

  12. Daniel Szuc Says:

    Its painful when you see breadcrumbs implemented for a content structure that has content that is NOT needed in the first place. Its like directing people to content in a room in a house that users did not ask for in the first place.

    Spend the time on understanding content needs first and then structuring it to map users to that piece of content. Then determine if breadcrumbs are needed.

  13. Kyle Manning Says:

    Wow…..I just fat fingered my keyboard and ended up on this discussion. I was hesitant to read it at first but I had absolutely nothing better to do. So I read the article and and then did something else that I rarely do…..I read the comments.

    I would like to start by saying that Jared is a master of stirring controversy. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For such a simple topic as bread crumbs…..I’ve really gotten into this.

    I would also like to say that Paula Thornton’s comment was very enlightening as well. “Navigation of any sort is a crutch.”

    I really don’t think Jared is saying not to use bread crumbs in websites. I do think what he’s saying, tho, is that in his experience of observing sites that designers have become attached to bread crumbs as an up-front thought of the design of the site. Afterall, everyone else is doing it, I’m expected to also, right? “Let’s see..where should I put the bread crumbs”………then later……..”Let’s see ….. how many pages should I have in my site?”

    Someone commented about landing on a page from a search engine for example. And then later not knowing where they there potentially. I was thinking of this very article / page when I read this comment. There was key information about the page that was important to me. One is that I was on the 2nd article of a series of articles and two I realized that I hadn’t read the 1st article. But, I was soon comforted in knowing how to get to the first article because there was a link to it clearly in the first paragraph of this article. No the link wasn’t in a bread crumb trail but I still had context for where I was at.

    Yes, by the way, I can imagine that there are many occasions when breadcrumbs are very useful. I can’t say that I’ve never used one. But in agreement with Jared, I have to say that MAYBE … just MAYBE the crumbs were useful to me was because the site as a whole failed me from a design point of view and I was just too consumed by the pretty layout of colors and animated icons to know that I wasn’t having the best experience.

    So…if you took two different or even a hundred different websites with identical content but different information architectures and tested the usage metrics of the bread crumbs, I think you’ll see that they get used at different rates even tho the content is virtually the same across all the variations. Once again…..it doesn’t make bread crumbs bad, but they can give designers a sense of comfort that is mis-prioritized.

    As a last analogy….is it possible that bread crumbs and many other common practices are like an emergency break. If I were a car designer, I would sure feel a lot more comfortable with it in there, but I’d sure hope that you never have to use it when you’re driving down the highway.

    Sorry for the long post.

  14. Craig Tomlin Says:

    Interesting topic, and interesting responses!

    Speaking from my own experiences, I’ve conducted dozens of usability tests on sites that have used breadcrumbs, and in all those tests not one user ever actually used the breadcrumb navigation! A few users did quickly glance at the breadcrumb trail if they felt they were lost, but none used it (even though many versions of breadcrumbs were tested, including the type that used blue text with underlines, denoting a hyperlink).

    In the vast majority of instances, the users typically did one of two things instead of using breadcrumbs, they most often tried the “Search” box (if available) and/or they tried using the main navigation to try to re-set themselves at a much higher level in the information architecture.

    After witnessing this pattern repeat itself many times over many tests on various sites, I began advising the web groups I was working with to eliminate the breadcrumb nav, in favor of using the gained space to present more content.

    However, I have been advised in the past by Search Engine Optimization specialists that there is one important benefit of breadcrumb navigation, indexation. This is becaue they believe the breadcrumb navigation presents a useful way for search engines to index a site. I guess that advice is not exactly user friendly, unless your users are spiders, but that’s what they recommended.

    I suppose that as with everything, it depends on how the site is structured and what sort of labelling & other navigation systems are in place before a determination of whether breadcrumbs are helpful (or not) can be made.

    Anyway, that’s just my 2 cents, and I really am enjoying the discussions on this topic, thanks all!


  15. Keith Instone Says:

    Flintstone navigation – I am ROTFL!

  16. Magnus Timmeras Says:

    I stumbled across the article about breadcrumbs. Sadly, it is only opinions presented, no actual facts from broader research. Actually, the comment by Craig Tomlin above has more empirical strength than the whole article. As a person new to the UIE site, I would like more well-founded articles, otherwise I’m afraid it’s not very useful.

    Another alternative kind of location breadcrumbs that I’ve seen (and really like) is to use a hierarchy of tabs (or menus). That way, the user can see all possible choices on each level, not just the specific navigation trail down to the current page. An example is the Swedish bank http://www.avanza.se (in swedish, but you can still understand the concept of the tabs).

  17. Magnus Timmeras Says:

    (I can add that as a logged-in user on the bank site mentioned, you get more levels of navigation. If you’re not logged in you only see two levels.)

  18. Terrie Says:

    Reading Craig’s comment, I must say I think he is missing a point. Why were his testers having to use the search if they knew where content was on a site? If they were involved in usability tests did they know the site?

    Many of us have sites we use time after time. We know them well, we just want help in getting quickly from oen part to another. If browsing the TV schedule a breadscrumb trail can take me back from a program details to that day on the channel, that channel or the range of channels. If shopping I can get quickly back to that department, and when finished there up a level to choose the next department. If tracing my family tree I can get back to the same census to try again, up a level to search in another year, or another level to look for different kind of info.

    In my opinion breadcrumbs are most useful when you know a site, not when browsing / searching for the first time.

  19. Bookmarks about Map Says:

    […] – bookmarked by 1 members originally found by XWhiteM00nPrincessX on 2009-02-09 UIEtips: Design Cop-out #2 – Breadcrumbs http://www.uie.com/brainsparks/2008/08/21/uietips-breadcrumbs/ – bookmarked by 3 members […]

  20. Dawn G Says:

    From the 2006 edition of “Research-Based Web Design & Usability Guidelines” (http://www.usability.gov/guidelines/):

    One study reported no difference in task completion times and total pages visited between groups that had breadcrumbs and those that did not. Participants could have used breadcrumbs thirty-two percent of the time, but only did so six percent of the time. It is probably not worth the effort to include breadcrumbs unless you can show that your Web site’s users use them frequently, either to navigate the site, or to understand the site’s hierarchy.

    One study found that test participants who received instruction on the use of breadcrumbs completed tasks much faster than those who did not. This time savings could result in increased productivity for users that search Web sites on a daily basis.

    Sources: Rogers and Chaparro, 2003; Hull, 2004.

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