Making a Mountain Out of a Breadcrumb Trail

Oct 20, 2004 - 2:01 pm 0 by
Filed Under Usability

It's times like these that I really empathize with web designers struggling to meet the demands of "How to build a web site that will do such and such and nobody will get lost or confused doing that such and such."

I can also understand why they shriek in horror when someone mentions the word "usability".

To think that a study on breadcrumb navigation required TEACHING participants on how to use navigation...well, read this from the article I mentioned earlier this week, called Do you hear what I hear? ... or why it may not matter that users still ignore breadcrumbs

  "A recent paper by Hull, Chaparro and Halcomb (2004) builds on this approach, seeking to identify how much instruction is necessary to teach users to see and use breadcrumbs. Within their study, they asked participants to find and select a list of items (related to a camping trip) on a major retail site. Before setting a participant loose on the site, they presented her one of 3 levels of instruction about navigation:

No instruction Modeled exposure to breadcrumb navigation with no verbal instruction (what they refer to as "mere exposure" a la Zojanc (1968)1 Modeled Exposure to breadcrumb navigation accompanied by explicit instructions to use breadcrumb navigation The explicit instructions group used breadcrumb to navigate approximately 1/3 more than other groups. This seemingly small increase in use of breadcrumbs to move around resulted in significantly faster task completion, fewer visited pages and less reliance on the back button.

Hull and colleagues conclude that minimal training may be sufficient to get users to increase their use of breadcrumbs, and as such increase their task efficiency. Specifically, they argue that training makes sense in Intranet environments, where the ROI for the training would be more than offset by increased productivity.

Compare this to a common usability "rule of thumb" that essentially says, "If you have to show them how to use your web site, it's not built right." This is similar to its cousin, "You should never rely on a FAQ or Help section. The answers should be built into the site."

The research paper does inject this - "Still, the idea that users need to be trained should be a red flag. And the idea of providing training to public Web site users is not viable. Maybe these users are telling us something about breadcrumbs."

Which brings me to the mountain. Can you believe that so much research has been done on breadcrumb navigation and still so many everyday folks don't know what they are?From - Breadcrumb Navigation: An Exploratory Study of Usage

  "Eighty-nine percent of the participants reported seeing a breadcrumb path on the sites; however, it is not known if the participants understood the function of the breadcrumb path. "

And from Breadcrumb Navigation: Further Investigation of Usage

  "There are three different types of breadcrumbs represented in websites � path, attribute, and location (Instone, 2003). Path breadcrumb trails are dynamic in that any given page will show a different breadcrumb trail based on how the user reached the page. Attribute breadcrumb trails display meta information showing many different trails representing several possible paths to reach the page. The location breadcrumb trail is a textual representation of a site�s structure, e.g. Home > Furniture > Chairs > Leather Chairs. This representation of information allows users to link to major categories of information along a continuum of sequential order. Regardless of how users arrive at Leather Chairs, the breadcrumb trail displayed is the same. "

Of these (who in the heck knew there were so many types?), the most common is the Location Breadcrumb Trail. I found that a location one came in handy when I wanted to tell a story in About Cre8pc. The breadcrumb navigation displays a "Then - Next - Now" thing.

What I used differs in that I didn't have sub-categories to take visitors to. I did, nevertheless, want to break up a section and offer choice. It's still a "Location", but they all reside on the same plane as the main level I started down. This likely breaks a breadcrumb rule because I'm not pointing out a hierarchy in mine. But, no matter where the user comes in, that little sequence of links remains the same.

For my other web site, I felt it was less professional to blab on and on like that, so I condensed it to one page - About UE. Both sections are about me, but are presented in two different ways. Had I stuck EVERYTHING into one long page and not broken it up like I did on the Cre8pc site, I would have driven my readers nuts.

The breadcrumb idea let me be a little creative though. And stretch the boundaries for breadcrumb usage. (Am I contributing to user confusion about them? Yes. Most likely so.)

I bring all this up in the hopes of conveying the message that, like a lot of things in our SEO/Usability/Web Design/Marketing world, much ado is made about teeny things. It's great fodder for forums (cough), but in the end, please make your choices based on your visitor and customer needs (and your site objectives, etc.)

Your experienced ones will love the breadcrumb navigation. Your less experienced ones will hug you for that Help page you made for them.

Should any of this trip your trigger, I started a discussion thread at Cre8asiteForums called Do you use breadcrumb navigation?.


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