Thursday, September 04, 2008

Breadcrumb Navigation

Breadcrumb Navigation Increasingly Useful (Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox)

Breadcrumbs won't help a site answer users' questions or fix a hopelessly confused information architecture. All that breadcrumbs do is make it easier for users to move around the site, assuming its content and overall structure make sense. That's sufficient contribution for something that takes up only one line in the design.

Breadcrumbs have always been a secondary navigation aid. They share this humble status with site maps. To navigate, site visitors mainly use the primary menus and the search box, which are certainly more important for usability. But from time to time, people do turn to the site map or the breadcrumbs, particularly when the main navigation doesn't quite meet their needs.

Despite their secondary status, I've recommended breadcrumbs since 1995 for a few simple reasons:

  • Breadcrumbs show people their current location relative to higher-level concepts, helping them understand where they are in relation to the rest of the site.
  • Breadcrumbs afford one-click access to higher site levels and thus rescue users who parachute into very specific but inappropriate destinations through search or deep links.
  • Breadcrumbs never cause problems in user testing: people might overlook this small design element, but they never misinterpret breadcrumb trails or have trouble operating them.
  • Breadcrumbs take up very little space on the page.
So, despite the merely mid-sized benefits, the overall cost-benefit analysis comes out quite strongly in favor of breadcrumbs. Their downside is incredibly small: while they do take up space, that space is minute. When you divide a mid-sized numerator by a tiny denominator, the resulting fraction is substantial.

The main argument against breadcrumbs is that many users overlook them. So, why do something that only benefits a minority?

As I've long argued, breadcrumbs are different than most other little-used design elements for the simple reason that they don't hurt users who ignore them.

Site Map Usability

Site Map Usability (Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox): "Despite the prevalence of good site maps these days, users don't use them very much. So why bother making a site map for your website? Because it can help users understand your site and what it offers.

I still recommend site maps because they're the only feature that gives users a true overview of everything on a site. One could argue that a site's navigation serves the same purpose. For example, some navigation offers drop-down menus that let users see the options available in each site section. But even with these menus, users can see only one section of content at a time.

A site map lets users see all available content areas on one page, and gives them instant access to those site pages. Site maps can also help users find information on a cluttered site, providing a clean, simple view of the user interface and the available content. Site maps are not a cure-all, however. No site map can fix problems inherent in a site's structure, such as poor navigational organization, poorly named sections, or poorly coordinated subsites.

If site maps required a major investment to design, they wouldn't offer sufficient ROI to be worth doing. But because all of our guidelines call for site map simplicity, making a good one doesn't require a lot of work, and it will help some of your users. More importantly, it will help users at a critical time:"