breadcrumbs and sense of place

Reading The Oversimplification of Mark Hurst, I’m not sure Peter particularly disagreed with any of Mark’s key points. And of course it’s oversimplification, it’s
a) a blog
b) a guru pronouncement
both notorious for going for the pithy over the compete.

Did mark actually cause any harm? I’d say unlikely, certainly not in that post. Navigation is important, but breadcrumbs in their traditional format rarely are seen or used. The recent study on how training user how to use breadcrumbs results in them using them begs the question: who has time to go to every user’s house and teach them to use breadcrumbs?
(Okay, if you’ve got an intranet, this is a woohoo moment for you.)

C’mon now, breadcrumbs are one of the oldest web conventions (as seen in this 1996 Yahoo) so if people aren’t using them now, what makes you think that that might change suddenly?

The breadcrumb is visually weaker than the rest of the page, and often easily overlooked. It also is often labeled “you are here” making it informational as opposed to a object for use. It also causes the user to do some mental gymnastics. The user must hold the site structure, however breifly, in their head to use the breadcrumb, which is probably more thinking than most users want to do mid-task.

The breadcrumb is indeed supplementary, and if real estate is precious, it probably can go, as long as it’s key purpose– widening a search among a large set of objects– is preserved.

What about it’s other theoretical purpose, going back? Trust me, users love their back button, and when in one site usability test session I tried to get them to use something other than the back button by saying “what if I took away your backbutton” they threatened to lynch me. Back is the one thing you can pretty much take off your table of worries, as long as you don’t mess up the back button.

Alternatives to the breadcrumb include the BBCi solution of combining breadcrumbing into the navigation. “see all X” is another way to get users to widen their choices, and causes no mental strain. I’m sure there are many more.

Regarding goals– peter is right about a multiplicity of goals on each page, and that is a conversation for another day. I do believe every page has a heirachy of goals, just as there is a hierachy of users and moreover each section of a page has its own goal– this is the place for answers, this is the place to get more answers, if this answer didn’t suit you, this is the place where you refine your search for answers…. I will have to save this for anotherr day.

it’s about pushing the cognitive work off the user and onto the designer. we cannot rely on simple solutions.


Add Yours
  1. 1
    George Girton

    Breadcrumbs are great for the designer; they force her to stay organized. Are they necessary to help the user propel himself to his goal? Wiithout knowing the site, we cannot say. Certainly, once the site has been organized, breadcrumbs and all, the crumbs are just another design element of which my favorite design question can always be asked: If you remove it, does the page design still function?

  2. 2

    I always thought Jesse James Garett was the leading information architecture at adaptive path. he’s just the quiet one. peter often insists he isn’t an IA at all.

  3. 4

    We ourselves are the users.

    So, when do we use the breadcrumbs?
    For instance would we really need Breadcrumbs on this blog? Definitely not.

    It is quite true that deigners are “obsessed” with problems that are not mission critical, but only spontaneously fall within the technical scope of their possibilities.

    Breadcrumbs are NOT mission critical, so undoubtedly too much time is devoted, in this obsession, to a feature that adds nothing _so_ relevant to a page.

    There are circumstancs where anyway I appreciate them: if for instance an essay is divided in more pages, I’d like to have not only Breadcrumbs to the past but also to the future: how many other pages are there? At what point am I in reviewing them all? Are there too many pages and I should quit and resume tomorrow, or should I just go on and guess because Breadcrumbs to the future are not there?

    As for the past, Breadcrumbs are useful only depending on the website: if it is a website that hosts many forums, I like to have Breadcrumbs that can let me switch back for instance to the forum list page. Not sure Breadcrumbs arte the answer, but they do the job.

    If you are to provide Breadcrumbs then one should make a more comprehensive job: not only where the user is now, but where he could go next and what he has already visited: clicking the back button is often useless to locate a page viewed ten pages before and that now I think I’d like to find again.

    Memory Breadcrumbs would be more useful: not where I am but: where have I BEEN ALREADY – in case I want to go back precisely there without hitting back 20 times?
    That is a memory Breadcrumb set (which I never see implemented anywhere).

  4. 6

    Users don\’t care where they are

    Mark Hurst tell us that users don\’t care where they are and that breadcrumbs are nice but irrelevent. Peter Merholz wholeheartedly disagrees and Christina Wodtke provides a little balance to the argument.

  5. 7
    Ron Zeno

    (IRONY MODE ON) Glad we’ve got Peter to make ad hominem attacks (“he’s misguided”, not Mark’s viewpoint, opinion, analysis, etc.) that others have no qualms about at all! Go Peter!(IRONY MODE OFF)

    I guess the mark of a guru is being able to attack others without anyone caring.

    Does anyone think that Peter is doing anything but attacking others, without the least bit of support for his own perspective other than a blatant strawman argument?

  6. 8

    btw, I didn’t’ mean to slam peter: he knows heaps about IA and is a excellent interaction designer, and I think his work with modeling is showing some really promise of super niftiness.I was just commenting on Manu’s classification of Peter, which my inner-IA resisted.

  7. 9

    he finally admits it! LOL!

    it’s a funny old world,; he’s said “I’m not an IA ot me a hundred times”, guess I’m just out of the loop on the latest.

    he is a good IA, no matter how you slice it. But so is mr. garrett.

  8. 10

    The Page Paradigm…and its discontents

    Via InfoDesign, over at Good Experience, Mark Hurst contends that The Page Paradigm still holds today, On any given Web page, users will either…click something that appears to take them closer to the fulfillment of their goal, or click the…

  9. 11

    The Page Paradigm…and its discontents

    Via InfoDesign, over at Good Experience, Mark Hurst contends that The Page Paradigm still holds today, On any given Web page, users will either…click something that appears to take them closer to the fulfillment of their goal, or click the…

  10. 13


    Ah, Peter. Always the topic of contraversy. Well, all my conversations and the stuff he’s been kind enough to share with me uphold that. He is a personality, but it doesn’t mean he ain’t smart– ’cause he is. And he’s brave enough to be wrong in public– but it doesn’t mean he isn’t right often as well.

    Dig around the epinions posts on his site– probably the most public evidence.

  11. 14
    Ron Zeno

    “Dig around the epinions posts on his site”

    Don’t know what you mean. The comments on his sight, where he removes any he doesn’t like?

    I’m asking because all my experience with Peter’s writing has been quite different. Ad hominem attacks seem to be common, as are the straw-man arguments. Am I missing something?

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