This post is not about a Grimm fairy tale. It’s about a wonderful navigational feature for websites known as breadcrumbs. Some UXers think they can be unnecessary, while others think they play an important role in helping users orient their location within a website, and in providing them a “trail” or “path” back to previously visited sections of the site. I fall into the latter category.
I use the Internet everyday and have years of experience with website browsing. Yet, despite my familiarity and comfort with web browsing, I still find myself relying on breadcrumbs more often than I probably realize. They are particularly useful because I, like most users, enter a website through what I like to call the “side door.” In other words, many users do not go directly to a website’s homepage (the “front door”) and begin browsing and/or searching on that main entrance page. Instead, they enter a website a couple of sections or pages deep, usually via a Google search (this is using the “side door”). For example, when I go to Google and search for a Black and Decker power drill, one of the first search results that shows up is a link to the Black and Decker website: http://www.blackanddecker.com/allproducts/power-tools-drills.aspx. As you can see, this page is already a few clicks “deep” into the site; I entered the site through the side door. The hypertext breadcrumbs at the top of the page (Home > Products and Accessories > Power Tools > Drills) tell me where I am located/oriented within the site, and it gives me the main path to the broader sections of the site. What’s more, these breadcrumbs are not visually intrusive on the page, nor do they take up much space.
Some UXers maintain that a website can provide more subtle visual clues to orient the user’s location within a site (e.g., highlighted boxes or links). In my experience, however, subtlety and navigation do not mix. Users shouldn’t have to guess their location within a website. Breadcrumbs take the guesswork out of it, and they do so clearly and succinctly.
To cap off my ode to breadcrumbs, here are some great articles that discuss the benefits of using breadcrumbs, including one from Jakob Nielsen and one from Smashing Magazine: