Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Breadcrumbs help hold a website together

In an upcoming website relaunch I’m working on, I’m making a few tinkers to the website. Overall, I’m trying to move the site from an organizational focus to a client focus – all in the hope of users finding the information they want and need quickly and easily.

One technique I’ll finally be deploying is breadcrumbs.

Breadcrumbs, for those that don’t know, are named after Hansel & Gretel. When being lead to their doom deep in the forest, Gretel threw breadcrumbs to mark their trail so they could return. To prevent you from getting lost in website wilderness, breadcrumbs are links on top of a webpage that show you where the page you are on is in the hierarchy of the site architecture.

Breadcrumbs don’t show you where you have been, as some believe they should, as that’s what the Back button and History files are for.

To see a sample of it, check out a HowStuffWorks’ article How Science Fiction Musicals Work. Note the links on the top-left corner that say “Main > Entertainment > Arts” – that’s breadcrumbs.

Jakob Nielsen Alertbox article yesterday Breadcrumb Navigation Increasingly Useful highlights the benefits of breadcrumbs and the arguments for and against.

Among the benefits Nielsen sites:

* 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.

The only convincing argument against breadcrumbs is the time it takes to add them to an existing site. It’s not something that can be phased in, so adding this to every page in a website is a significant effort, hence the reason I’m timing it with a relaunch.

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