Not long ago I realized I'd taken it for granted that everyone knows what "breadcrumb" navigation is, and I was wrong.
Sometimes when the subject of using breadcrumb navigation comes up in web design discussions at Cre8asiteForums, we're gently reminded by courageous members that not everyone knows what we're referring to.
At a recent Usability Workshop conducted by Scottie Claiborne (I assisted) at Jill Whalen's High Rankings SEO Seminar in Boston, some sites that were reviewed could have implemented breadcrumb navigation to help their visitors drill down inside sections. But when we suggested this, attendees asked "What is breadcrumb navigation?"
I've written about them in a few articles, such as How To Impress Search Engines and Users - Focus: Web Site Navigation. I wrote, "Breadcrumbs are used in conjunction with regular navigation. They don't replace it. They're nearly always text links, in a smaller font."
An example of them in use is in Scottie's Successful-Sites newsletter web site, in her contributing authors section.
Studies have been conducted on their use by Human Factors International, and another paper has just been released, which you may be interested in reading. Kath Straub, Ph.D., CUA, Chief Scientist of HFI, and Dr. Eric Schaffer, Ph.D., CPE, founder and CEO of HFI cover the topic in Do you hear what I hear? ... or why it may not matter that users still ignore breadcrumbs
"In the last decade, we have seen some important changes in the way that users behave on the Web. We know now that on information pages, users will scroll. We also know that 3 clicks to service is not required, as long as the navigation path accurately reflects and reinforces the users information model. We have learned that if designed from the interaction perspective, rollover menus can be usable. (Designers still struggle with this last one.) This evolution may reflect the fact that users now have more exposure to the web and are more familiar with how it works. Alternatively, this could reflect that descriptions of user behavior in the browser environment is becoming more sophisticated. Or maybe it's a bit of both.
There are some things, however, that user's simply do not seem prepared to learn on their own. Multiple-select interactions is one of those things. Breadcrumb navigation is another."
What it all boils down is what usability usually does boil down to, sooner or later. Design choices and elements are dictated by site requirements and even more so on who will use it and how they will use the web site.
This means discovering who uses the site and watching how they interact with it. The article goes on to say, "In bricks-and-mortar retail environments, being exposed to something increases your likelihood of buying it. Think candy in the supermarket checkout aisle. Further, the longer you browse, the more you are likely to buy. It is reasonable to believe that these same effects hold in on-line environments."
This is why I often recommend "call to action" prompts, alternate buy and browse paths, breadcrumb navigation, embedded links within content and offering options that go beyond the traditional "Click to enlarge" image approach.
A well placed breadcrumb scheme near a photo that says
Front view | Side View | Inside out View etc. or
Sunglasses on square shaped head | Sunglasses on male | Sunglasses on female | Sunglasses on Youth | Sunglasses on pooch or kitty
helps keep your potential customer on the site and offers an aid in visualizing how something will look. Thus, this convinces them to purchase from your site, and not your competitor, who didn't stop to consider what online consumers need to make purchasing decisions.
The article is an informative read, especially if you're not sure about whether you should try using breadcrumb navigation. Maybe it's not necessary. Or maybe it will be just the thing your web site needs.