Breadcrumbs: yes or no?

In web design, Breadcrumbs are those little navigational links you see across the top of some web pages, like

Home → Canada → Ontario → Ottawa

or

Media»Music»Classical»Beethoven

Good idea?

Breadcrumbs let you can see where you are in a web site’s information hierarchy, and let click to climb up to a more-abstract level. As of 2014-06-13, I use geographical breadcrumbs on OurAirports to let users climb up from looking at a specific airport to looking at the list of all airports in an administrative subdivision (e.g. province/state/governorate), country, or continent. I have haven’t changed the site design by the time you’re reading this article, you can try it out for Cairo International Airport.

I like breadcrumbs, because they reflect the way I think. I tend to organise information hierarchically, like a librarian, and breadcrumbs let me find my way around an e-commerce site (for example) without wasting time on frustrating searches. The article “Breadcrumb Navigation Examined: Best Practices & Examples” goes into great detail on different types of breadcrumbs and their benefits.

Bad idea?

While I love breadcrumbs, I notice that not many people use them on OurAirports. People almost never click up to see all airports in the same province or country; they really just want to look at a specific airport. Are my breadcrumbs just wasting screen space?

Back in 2008, Jared M. Spool posted an article “Design Cop-out #2: Breadcrumbs” suggesting that breadcrumbs represent a design failure:

The biggest problem is the lack of scent for the other areas of the site. If a user is in need of breadcrumbs because they are in the wrong part of the information tree, what they need most is good scent to the right part of the tree. However, the breadcrumbs only communicate the branch they’re on — not the branch they need to be on.

In 2011, Shanshan Ma wrote in “10 Ways Mobile Sites Are Different from Desktop Web Sites” that even if breadcrumbs belong on desktop web sites, they don’t belong on mobile ones:

However, breadcrumbs rarely appear on mobiles sites, and there is usually no necessity for them. Limited space is one reason breadcrumbs are uncommon on mobile sites. But the main factor is that the design of mobile sites prevents users from having to go too deep into a hierarchy to find what they are looking for.

What do you think?

Do breadcrumbs perform an important function in modern web design, or are they just a crutch for bad design?

About David Megginson

Scholar, tech guy, Canuck, open-source/data/information zealot, urban pedestrian, language geek, tea drinker, pater familias, red tory, amateur musician, private pilot.
This entry was posted in Design, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Breadcrumbs: yes or no?

  1. Blake Crosby says:

    I think it all depends on the hierarchy of the site. A news site for example, people usually flow from the “main page” that contains the list of articles, to the article itself.

    As where something like OurAirports, that more a reference type site, users just usually go to their destination using search.

    However, I think overall, they are just out of fashion. Users are much more technical savvy now and tend to use their browser navigation buttons instead.

  2. dpawson says:

    For ‘shops’ with a large inventory, I find them extremely useful. With good categorisation they work. A real alternative / addition to a search box.

    • I take advantage of breadcrumbs on commerce sites, too, but I wonder if I’m within a standard deviation of the typical user.

      • dpawson says:

        Big tick for thinking of it… surely on commercial sites you likely are? You might know how they work, but surely you’re no different from anyone else in knowing company X structural layout on their website?

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