I used to hate breadcrumbs.
Aug 26, 2015
I still do, in a way. More on that later.
What’s a breadcrumb, you ask? Let’s look back at the story of Hansel and Gretel. Published in 1812, the story tells of a brother and sister, Hansel and Gretel, who are marched out into the woods and left to die by their parents. Remember this is a fairy tale, not a children’s story. Anyway, the children leave a trail of pebbles as they’re being led to their demise so they can find their way home. Their stepmother was the one who wanted them dead, so you can imagine she was pretty upset when the children came home safely. She ordered her husband to take them out again, but the doors were locked so there was no time to go outside and gather more pebbles. A piece of bread will have to do. Hansel leaves a trail of breadcrumbs on their death march this time, but birds swooped in and ate all of the crumbs. There was no way home now. Their only survival tactic had been destroyed, so the children resorted to wandering around aimlessly in the woods. The story goes on and the children endure a bit of slavery and torture at the hand of an old cannibalistic witch who lives in a house made out of birthday cake. Spoiler alert: the kids survive, their evil stepmother is conveniently dead by the end of the story for unexplained reasons, and they live happily ever after with all the riches they stole from the child-eating hag in the confectionary castle.
The most interesting part of that story, to me, is that the breadcrumbs were the mistake the children made that lead to their near-death experience. If Hansel had considered the fact that animals eat bread too then he never would’ve found himself being force-fed fattening food to ripen him and be devoured by a blood-thirsty witch. He could’ve kept his original pebbles, just in case. He could’ve snapped twigs all along the walk of doom. He could’ve snapped his heels together three times and said “There’s no place like home.” He had options. There may be a fairy tale out there where breadcrumbs were the best option to evade certain death, but I haven’t found it yet. Yet for some strange reason everyone forgets about the pebbles.
Let’s circle back to web design. Breadcrumbs have been a “best practice” in web design since Hanson blessed the world with that one song they made.
The web has gone through a whirlwind of evolution since then. We don’t really “surf” the web anymore. It has become a part of our lives in every way. Our phones, our cars, our tablets, phablets, glasses and watches are all connected to the web. What does this mean for breadcrumbs? Well, let’s just say there are a whole lot more birds swarming around these days who love bread. Now, let me be clear: just because a bird eats your breadcrumbs doesn’t mean you’ve just received a death sentence. It just means you have to be much more careful with them and more deliberately consider whether or not leaving crumbs around is the best idea for your design. Don’t pull a Hansel.
Here are some good questions to ask and a few tips to help you decide whether or not breadcrumbs are good for your design:
- Beware of design fixation. Blindly using “best practices” inhibits creativity and can prevent you from finding the best solution.
- Does your entire site need breadcrumbs? Some site sections may have nicely layered content where others might not.
- What user need lies at the core of your temptation to add breadcrumbs? Most often the argument is “so people know where they are.” Change that way of thinking. People are trying to accomplish a goal. That goal is usually not to be able to recite your site architecture from memory. There will be wierdos, of course, but catering to edge-cases is the quickest way to turn a perfect sphere into a sea urchin. Approach the problem like this: “If people don’t find what they need in this part of the experience, what were they looking for? What’s the best way to get them there?”
- Freestyle a little bit. How can you “custom fit” breadcrumbs to work best in your design? Consider adding or removing features from them, depending on your users’ needs. Just don’t go crazy and create some sort of Frankenstein monster of navigation elements that people won’t recognize. It’s important that people are still able to recognize what they are and the purpose they serve. After all, they are one of the most familiar navigation patterns on Earth, and probably most other planets. Don’t mess with that.
I used to hate breadcrumbs because I saw them as a cop-out. If your design is thoughtful, well organized, based on user research and thoroughly tested then you shouldn’t need them. I realize now that it’s dangerous to close the door on anything in design. You never know when a certain pattern might prove itself more useful for your users than any amount of disdain you have for it.
I don’t hate breadcrumbs anymore, I just wish we’d call them pebbles. Pebbles were the better solution.