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Using Breadcrumbs as a Navigational Aid

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Q: Breadcrumb trails seem to be common navigation aids. But in which ways and how often are they really used? Is it enough to rely only on the breadcrumb trail to tell the user where she is in the site hierarchy (for example when she arrives via a deep link), or do you still need to do that with headings, etc.?

Q: Breadcrumb trails seem to be common navigation aids. But in which ways and how often are they really used? Is it enough to rely only on the breadcrumb trail to tell the user where she is in the site hierarchy (for example when she arrives via a deep link), or do you still need to do that with headings, etc.?

First, it’s important to note that there are three kinds of breadcrumbs:

  • Location breadcrumbs, which show the location of the page within the context of the site (home>primary navigation category>secondary navigation category>page).
  • Path breadcrumbs, which show the path a user took to get to the current page (landing page>featured products>product 1).
  • Attribute breadcrumbs, like the ones on the bottom of Amazon pages, which show all the locations for a product.

Note that with the path breadcrumb trails, the user cannot rely on the breadcrumb to understand the site’s structure or hierarchy. This can cause usability issues as users may mistake the breadcrumb trail for a site’s navigational structure. In most cases, the second kind of breadcrumb can cause user confusion, and should be avoided.

However, a location breadcrumb trail can be a useful tool to aid in navigation. If you choose to use a location breadcrumb trail in your site, follow these guidelines:

  • Do not use breadcrumb links as the main means of navigation. Site visitors may not follow the exact breadcrumb trail to get to the page they are viewing, and breadcrumbs alone do not provide users with enough context. Also, several recent studies indicate that many users do not use breadcrumbs to navigate.
  • Place the breadcrumbs at or near the top of the page.
  • Include the name of the page the user is on, but do not make it a hyperlink.

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