Looking at Breadcrumbs in a New Way

One of the findability features in our help systems that we often overlook is the breadcrumb. Breadcrumbs typically sit above the page title and highlight the hierarchical path that leads to where you are. Here’s a screenshot of a typical breadcrumb, taken from Adobe Illustrator’s help:

Typical Breadcrumb

Greg Nudelman discusses breadcrumbs in one of his chapters in Designing Search: UX Strategies for eCommerce Success. This post mainly details notes from Nudelman’s book.

One problem with breadcrumbs, Nudelman notes, is that “breadcrumbs cannot show customers where to could go next. They show only where they’ve already been” (p. 199).

Nevertheless, Nudelman says the breadcrumb aligns with a search/browse pattern that supports common finding practices. Nudelman cites a presentation by Peter Morville called “Search & Discovery Patterns,” where Morville explains that “browse and search work best in tandem… The best finding interfaces achieve a balance, letting users move fluidly between browsing and searching.” (p. 203-4)

In other words, when looking for content, users prefer to search and browse, browse and search. Users perform a combination of the two as they try to find what they’re looking for. This is because, Morville explains, “what we find changes what we seek.” For example, search results for your initial query might show you the correct terms, which then informs your next search.

Breadcrumbs are powerful tools because users can easily modify the breadcrumb path to browse the information they want to see. Nudelman explains,

Providing the ability to change attributes while automatically retaining all relevant query information turns the breadcrumbs into a powerful and flexible finding mechanism, without making the resulting interface overly complicated or difficult to use. (p. 210)

For example, in the above screenshot, I may not want instructions for creating a drop-shadow effect. But rather than returning to the raw search and formulating a new query, I can click the Special Effects breadcrumb and browse the other special effects available. The breadcrumb allows me to modify part of my search without starting over from scratch. Nudelman says users would rather salvage part of their search and refine it rather than starting over:

In my research, people seldom want to start the query over completely from scratch, unless they specifically indicated this action. Instead, a vast majority of the people interviewed wanted to retain as much of the query as possible with every change of the facet values and desired the system to help them construct a query that “makes sense,” gracefully dropping facet selections that no longer applied to their modified query. (p. 208)

One problem with breadcrumbs in most webhelp system is that they perpetuate the myth that content lives in just one place, which is not necessarily true.  Content in the digital space can appear in many different arrangements and paths.

Nudelman notes that Edmunds.com’s search results show tag selections as breadcrumbs.


I would like to see webhelp move away from a single hierarchical organization of content to one that simply shows tags that are stacked together in the query. This shift would be a new paradigm for the way help is organized. In Edmunds.com, each of these keywords is metadata for the content. There may not be an official hierarchical order to the content, like there is most webhelp systems. The order is dynamically generated based on the metadata you select.

I recently wrote about tags as being more of a web-based method for classifying information. See Using Tags to Increase Findability.

For more information about Greg Nudelman, see his site, Design Caffeine.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  • http://www.chaprbooks.co.uk John Tait

    Have you used DITA’s subject scheme maps? If I follow the thinking correctly, this would allow you to create ad hoc taxonomies and use these (perhaps throwaway) schemes to select parts of existing output. The advantage is that it’s possible to create taxonomies as needed. You don’t fall into the trap of trying to classify the world into a single taxonomy.

    I think Emacs’ org-mode will implement something similar using “tag groups”.

    I used to work for Derwent Information (a long time ago). They are a patent information company. They solved a lot of the problems with tagging by using their proprietary Manual Codes.


    This system has obviously been developed and refined over many years. Subject expects apply the codes to patents, which allows their customers to search vast amounts of patent information.

    Having a code rather than a tag stops the problem of similar tag names. It also allows the tags to be redefined and tweaked over time, rather than you being trapped by the tag’s name. Some codes are quite specific and some are more general. There’s an additional simple hierarchy under the codes, but the codes themselves don’t (seem to) follow any real design other than what works in real life.

  • http://www.sesam-info.net Jonatan Lundin

    Breadcrumbs give the user valuable information on where they are located in the information architecture. As you say; where they have been. Breadcrumbs can help reduce anxiety as a result of “information lostness”. I’ve understood that some users get anxious if they do not know where the current page/topic is located in the complete structure.

    But breadcrumbs are also valuable from a feedback perspective. Users need feedback. Why? For many reasons, but one is to evaluate the world. Users are goal driven. To reach a goal, users needs to do an action. An action can be divided into execution and evaluation. A user does something in the real world (execution – the task) and then evaluates (perceive and interpret) the world to verify that the state of the world is as wanted.

    So when a user clicks a topic (execution) in a search interface – node in a TOC etc, the system opens the topic/page and shows the breadcrumb. The breadcrumb, as a feedback mechanism, makes it easier for the user to evaluate a correct system state. I’ve not read Greg Nudelmans book, but I guess feedback is covered? It would be interesting to hear any discussion on feedback as a way to increase findability.

  • http://www.chapbooks.co.uk John Tait

    I think breadcrumbs are useful for navigating filesystems (which are hierarchical) but less so for information.

    Maybe breadcrumbs reinforce the idea that information should be hierarchical, which isn’t really the case. There’s little reason for task-based information to be in a strict hierarchy, and certainly not a deep one that requires breadcrumbs to navigate it.

    The best kind of hierarchy is one that is adapted to the reader’s own particular needs in that instance.