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Designing Better Breadcrumbs | Sequoia IT Services

Short Summary - In this article we will spotlight design patterns and techniques to design better interfaces. You can search more examples in “Smart Interface Design Patterns”, a 6h-video course with 100s of hand-picked examples, focused by Vitaly.

Well lots of people are not as much excited about breadcrumbs navigation. But you know, those little crumbles of pathways that exemplify where a user currently is in the complex hierarchy of the website. Their design is superficially obvious, so is their position on the page, and it doesn’t seem like much transformation is needed for breadcrumbs to shine.

As it turns out, there are lots of fine tiny details that can either make breadcrumbs mystifying or infinitely more useful. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at some of them. We’ll inspect when we actually require breadcrumbs, how people use them, and how to design them better to speed up users’ navigation on our websites.

Let’s start by exploring how people navigate websites in the first place, and how just breadcrumbs help us in our journeys.


How Do People Navigate Websites?

Every usability test manifests that there is no single, general and long-standing way of exploring websites. Depending on the task at hand and the frequency of visits, users use various modes of navigation. It’s not unusual to see that on some websites, search is hardly used but main navigation gets a lot of attention. On others, categories barely get any clicks but search queries go through the roof. And sometimes breadcrumbs happen to be the most famous navigation selection on the full site.

Australia Post Service combine plenty of navigation patterns on one page. They all serve different purposes, and work well.

On Australia Post, for example, different types of navigation require working together. The global navigation bar, the main navigation, the breadcrumbs, the sidebar and tabs. Users can jump between different levels, they can easily go backwards with breadcrumbs, move forward with horizontal navigation on the top, move to the side with the sidebar navigation and switch contexts within the sections of the page with tabs.

We rarely browse through every section one by one, and we hardly even notice all the navigation obtainable on the site. For frequently visited websites, like news websites, we’ll be using a very limited set of pages and attributes. Actually, we likely won’t be able to remember what features and sections we are clicking, but we probably will remember where they are located in the interface.

Once you landed on the page, how would you make sense of where you are? Here, breadcrumbs help a lot. Example: Postal Service Iceland.

When we land on a website we’ve not at all visited before, e.g. national opera website, we evaluate the breadth of options and features at first. This normally happens by scrolling up and down the page - first slowly, then faster - and getting familiar with the navigation menus. We click by sidebars, switch between tabs and open mega-drop-downs. We just stroll around, believing in navigating signposts and our exceedingly untrustworthy curves. We scan, identify patterns and trust our affinities.

And sometimes, if we don’t search what we are after, our journeys turn into wild investigations of the pages and categories of all types - frequently passionate, chaotic, time-taking and annoying. If anything doesn’t work as anticipated, we just don’t use it anymore because we don’t believe it anymore. And once we don’t really have any choices left, we abandon all together.

Sometimes, redesigned websites get a significant traffic drop. It’s not because something has gone wrong. On the contrary: we meet users where they are, displaying answers directly, so there is no need to visit the website.

Nevertheless, when navigation and search are hardly used, it’s not certainly because the website is poorly designed or built. On the contrary: the content might be so well-organized that people actually search what they want very fastly - perhaps even before visiting the website in the first place, just by inspecting Google’s search results. And once they do, there isn’t really much reason to stay on the site.

While we often focus on exit rates and bounce rates and time spent on a page, these shows rarely reveal the full story of what exactly users are doing on the site. The fact that anyone spends 4:30 minutes on a given page isn’t necessarily a good indicator; and the fact that anyone leaves within 30 seconds isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

To track how well users know and use navigation (or search), we require to track how successful users are at a task at hand. You can think about it as design KPIs builted and studied over a longer period of time. It’s worth collecting insights about user-focused metrics like:

  • Task completion rates,

  • Task completion times,

  • Time to first share,

  • Customer support inquiries,

  • Ration of negative reviews,

  • Accuracy of submitted data.

Our task, then, is to cover a path for users that’s obvious, clear and unambiguous to assist them complete their tasks. And that generally means supporting three directions of navigation: forwards navigation, in reverse navigation and sideways navigation.

For websites with a shallow navigation tree, breadcrumbs can be integrated into headings and titles. Crafts Council does just that.

Forwards Navigation

We come to websites for a reason, and on some websites, it can be as particular as checking a bank account or exploring a large data set. So once we finish on a homepage or on a dashboard, we move forwards in the hierarchy on the site, from very large to very particular pages, in an attempt to complete that task that we’ve set out to achieve.

Stripe Docs combines various directions of navigation at once — it’s easy to navigate forward, backwards and sideways with the main navigation, sidebar navigation, in-page navigation and breadcrumbs. All at once.

In navigation terms, we move from a homepage to a category to sub-categories to additional in-page navigation to search that specific feature that we require to finally click on. And if we are lucky, we can skip the whole journey and reach that feature from a mega-drop-down or calls-to-action earlier. The better we, as designers, minimize the distance between the aim and action, the better the user experience will be.


Backwards Navigation

It’s not always that we have specifically one particular task in mind though. More often than not, our goals are multi-faceted, and we change our minds, overlook things, make unforced decisions, and get preoccupied by blinking notifications. So our digital journeys are rarely strictly linear, and this holds true mainly if the navigation on the site is somewhat complicated.

In such cases, generally, we end up moving backwards. In fact, we move back to fix ourselves, pick a route to investigate, and move forward in another direction. And then we do the same dance again, and yet till we have completed our aim. In many ways, this process is the same as writing an article like this one. There is a simple idea that drives the article forward, but there are tripping blocks and reappraisals that pull you back.

On the web, this happens particularly when we end up on a page that looks to be leading nowhere, has out-to-date content, doesn’t reveal a much-required feature, or when our search query is too ambiguous to offer accurate and related results.

Deutsche Bank’s navigation doesn’t highlight where the user currently is.

One simple test that we fastly use is to give a user an URL and ask them to explain in which section of the website they are nowadays, and also locate similar, or related sections. In the Deutsche Bank example above, it would be a tiny bit hard since there are no highlights of the current page in the navigation.

The current level of navigation isn’t highlighted in the navigation bar by default.

As it turns out, we are in the third level of navigation. Generally “Sparen and Anlegan” should be active and highlighted on the page, but it isn’t. It’s only when we open a hover menu that we can spot what the current page actually is (“Online Weltpapier Sparplan”). Traversing backwards is a little bit cumbersome on Deutsche Bank.


Sideways Navigation

As if it wasn’t enough with all the going back and forth, occasionally we also move sideways - almighty jumping up and down between different levels and sections and pages and sub-categories. This usually happens when we want to explore similar topics or related pages, or explore more information that’s in some way connected with the current page.

This also happens when we are searching for available options and haven’t made up our minds yet. Generally, we explore, browse and click around trying to generate a comprehensive picture of what we have in front of us.

Austrian Postal Service supports sideways navigation with an Additional information sidebar on the right.

And as we do, we require signposts that guide us in the right direction. In reality, given how much movement is happening, having a regular and foreseeable trace of how we navigate is surely helpful. In fact, that’s precisely what breadcrumbs provide.

At the first glance, it might look that breadcrumbs are assistful only for backward navigation, but often we use them to move back, search a better route and move forward again. In that way, they provide all directions of navigation, and they do it well.


When Do We Need Breadcrumbs?

One might wonder at first if breadcrumbs are literally still necessary these days. We assuredly must have learned a thing or two about designing navigation menus over the decades, and search has become fantastic and accurate in pointing users to the right direction. To be sure, smaller websites can be very successful without having to depend on breadcrumbs at all.

This also holds true if a website has entirely minimal sections, but doesn’t contain many nested levels. Then, advisable what category a given page belongs to, or the tags related with the page, is perfectly enough.

Because The Economist has a quite flat navigation, indicating what category a page belongs to might be enough.

That’s the case in The Economist, for example. The website does hold a lot of topics to browse through, but it doesn’t hold multiple levels of navigation. Actually, the navigation structure is quite flat: much of the content comfortably sits on the same level. If we were to add breadcrumbs in this case, most breadcrumbs wouldn’t hold more than one section anyway. Rather then, the designers of the site select to display the section prominently next to the title. This is reasonable because it actually provides exactly the same purpose.

“The Economist” doesn’t use breadcrumbs but clearly indicates where the user currently is next to the title. One needs to learn that it’s actually a link though.

Not every website is like Not every site is like that though. As sites begin to grow and gain more levels of navigation, eventually it becomes very difficult to gain a fast understanding of available choices. For example, if a user has landed on the 4th level of navigation, but this isn’t clearly tagged on the page, they will have a quite hard time trying to expand similar items.

The bigger problem is that most complicated sites have many issues related to content as well. Frequently labels and headings are obscure. Or multiple sections have subsections with the same titles, so it’s not clear what exactly a specific page refers to. Or maybe there are multiple points of entry to the website, but it’s impossible to easily search out which one you’re currently at, or which one is a better fit.

It’s difficult to say where exactly one is in the hierarchy of the site. “Perspective” above the heading is a link, but it’s not obvious. Breadcrumbs might be helpful here.

At first glance, it’s difficult to say where precisely one is in the New England Journal of Medicine. There isn't a clear label for the current category that one would instantly understand. If you’d like to explore more related articles, how would you navigate there? As it turns out, “Perspective” above the heading is actually a category and a link to that category, but because it’s seeming in light grey, it doesn’t look like an interactive element. To expand more, we’d require you to click there, yet it’s not necessarily obvious to everyone.

Many complicated projects will have some sort of breadcrumbs. They are often added to support users coming via search results, news feeds, or personal messages, who don’t have any prior knowledge of the website and how it’s organized. In such cases, breadcrumbs assist users fastly understand where they have landed. In fact, on information websites, users frequently heavily depend on them to explore the site.

Larger websites like Unilever will probably need breadcrumbs to allow jumpts between multiple levels of navigation.

In instant, as long as you have a relatively shallow navigation tree, you likely won’t require breadcrumbs. None will require them when searching the right page on the site isn’t the precedence for most users. If, for example, they expand data, filter tables, manage accounts or use search frequently, breadcrumbs won’t be of much help.

But if you have many pages and sub-categories and nested navigation levels, or your navigation grows to three, four or even more levels, your users are probably to benefit from genuine signposts along their journey. That’s where breadcrumbs prove to be essential.

The question, then, is how to make them appreciable and obliging without being unnecessary and redundant? As it turns out, that’s an art and craft of its own.


A Short Story of Confused Breadcrumbs

There doesn’t look to be any other interface component that’s apparently as compatible as breadcrumbs. After all, there are links to sections, and they are differentiated by some sort of a circumscribe. And most of the time, that delimiter is an arrow or a chevron, which also indicates relationships.

But where should these icons actually point to? Should breadcrumbs show where each item lives (icon pointing to the left), or rather the path that a user has taken so far (icon pointing to the right)? After all, when using breadcrumb, users will be navigating backward, not forward.

Stockholm University with chevrons pointing to the left.

On the Stockholm University site, chevrons disinclined point to the left. Since breadcrumbs are usually inspected right to left, the icons show where a specific section or page lives.


On TVM, arrows show where a specific section or page belongs too. The last time in the breadcrumbs (Huidige pagina) means “current page”. It’s sensible to presume that some users might think that the page it’s pointing towards is the current page.

KBC, with chevrons pointing to the right.

On KBC, chevrons to the right are much more conventional and familiar to users. The delimiter could also be an arrow, and it’s only beneficial if all links in the breadcrumbs are actually underlined. This sets the right expectations early on.

It’s reasonable to suppose that users will search their way in both directions - left and right - but historically in left-to-right interfaces relationships are shown with icons pointing to the right. The direction shows that a category contains another page or category; and because we usually consider browsing through pages as a horizontal experience projected onto a timeline, we are usually moving from left to right. So, it’s certainly safe to stay true to this approach: it’s just more familiar to users this way.


Breadcrumbs Work Best Under Global Navigation

To assist users understand where they are, breadcrumbs require to be visible to users. This looks to be quite obvious at first, yet in practice, breadcrumbs appear all over the map. Sometimes you can search them in under the main promo header, sometimes close to the top of the page, sometimes on images, and sometimes in the footer. So what’s the right position for breadcrumbs?

Deutsche Post, with the breadcrumbs appearing under the main navigation bar.

It’s common to see breadcrumbs seeming all the way on the top of the page, and its perfectly reasonable option to select. Deutsche Post, a German postal service, is just an example of that. In fact, that’s where many users search for breadcrumbs first, because they join them with navigation.

Gothaer, with breadcrumbs appearing at the bottom of the page.

Not every website follows this pattern though. On many of its pages, Gothaer displays breadcrumbs just above the footer. It’s likely not the first spot where users would search for it though. The website does look wonderful, but the position of breadcrumbs might not be patent and is probably suboptimal.

On DHL, one might skip the banner altogether due to advertising blindness. The image though isn’t an ad.

The text on the banner is actually the title of the page. “Standard shipping”, on the other hand, is one of the sub-sections on the current page. The breadcrumbs above “Standard shipping” look to relate more to the banner, rather than to the sub-section displayed under it. This might be confusing to some users.

Allianz.de, with the breadcrumbs appearing in teh top area of the banner.

In difference, on Allianz.de, breadcrumbs are put on top of the header image, easy to spot and easier to connect with that header. It looks to be just a bit more obvious this way. The only refinement could be subtle underlines to look that each breadcrumb is actually a link.

SwissLife, with breadcrumbs and benefits shown and displayed on the header banner.

A similar website, a similar industry, but managed slightly differently: SwissLife. There are many levels of navigation on the top, with breadcrumbs above the heading and placed on top of the image. Dissimilar in the previous example, here the header is more useful - just also unlucky and much more difficult to read. The text could live on a darker background, for example. The overall design pattern though looks to be quite right, now with useful content seems right in the header area.

SDU, with a dedicated area for breadcrumbs. The chevrons pointing to the right.

On SDU, breadcrumbs live under the main navigation and just above the title of the page, in a dedicated area, housing multiple levels of navigation if required. All of them are links, except the last item which is a label, highlighted in bold.

When we land on an unknown page, we tend to first verify that they are on the right page. Clearly, we look for confirmation that they are still on the right path towards their goal. Generally, we focus on the main heading of the page, and sometimes on tags and sidebar links to get the confirmation that we require.

If at any point we require to move backwards or sideways, we require to be able to search breadcrumbs fastly. Displaying breadcrumbs just under the main navigation or just above the main heading is the most obvious and familiar way to achieve just that.


Breadcrumbs Should Be Visible Without Scrolling

So even if breadcrumbs live above the main heading, it doesn’t mean that they are easy to use. In fact, the further we move breadcrumbs away from the top of the page, the more difficult they are to spot. This might sound like quite an overstatement, but if you look closely at the example below, can you actually spot where the breadcrumbs are hiding?

On LVK, breadcrumbs are hiding somewhere. Where could they possibly be?

Yes, it was to be sure a bit of a tricky question. Of course, the breadcrumbs are hiding behind the sticky cookie consent assent prompt. With the global navigation and a sticky navigation bar, along with a large visual promo area on the top, we end up with almost 0% of the screen committed to the content that the user has come to explore on the site. In fact, much of the site is polluted with navigation, not content.

This alone is a bit inadequate, but it also has a negative side effect. While the composition of the page might be beautiful and clearly pleasing, now every time a user wants to explore any page, they require to scroll down one full page to get to the first sentence of the actual information on the page.

Users have to scroll full page every time they want to read the content on the page.

This problem is somewhat more critical than it might look at the first glance. Of course, users know how to scroll, and they do scroll strongly. But if every time you move from one page to another, you require to scroll a full page to start reading that page, you might be less disposed to browse more, so we shouldn’t be awaiting people to browse by a lot of pages and searching what they seek. And with people leaving the site, that extra scroll on every page can fastly become quite damaging and quite expensive.


On the University of Gothenburg website, much of the screen space is used for navigation menus and visuals. Every time a user wants to expand a page’s content, they are required to scroll the full screen first. It might assist to change the feature ratio a tiny to assist users focus on the content of the page.

UBS doesn’t require any scrolling to display the content.

No need to scroll on UBS. The sidebar navigation is stable and consistent, and users can explore the content instantly across many sections in the left sidebar. No breadcrumbs are required here either.

It’s worth testing if removing a promo banner has any effect on the design KPI’s outlined earlier in the article. Naturally, sometimes we want to leave a lasting impression, but sometimes we want to communicate information, and a visual would just get in the way. Boring? Maybe. But effective.

Signal Iduna, with the breadcrumbs appearing right under the top navigation: no scrolling required.

Also a little bit less thrilling, but a little bit more anticipated and easier to spot. On Signal Iduna the breadcrumbs are shown at the very top of the page, under the main navigation and above the call to action. A good reference example to keep in mind when designing breadcrumbs navigation for a corporate landing page.

Why not use two sets of breadcrumbs navigation? One for the family of websites, and one for the sections on a site. Example: BAG Switzerland.

One could of course go even further, and place the breadcrumbs all the way on the top of the page, above primary navigation, and above the logo - that’s precisely what the designers of Bundesrat Switzerland have selected to do.

In this specific case, breadcrumbs act as a global type of breadcrumbs navigation allowing for jumps between a larger family of websites, not sections on a given website. This goes very much in line with Erik D. Kennedy’s laws of locality. In fact, that’s entirely what the navigation is, and it’s not to be mistaken for a more common breadcrumbs navigation we’ve toured earlier.

Short summary, a simple way to make sure that breadcrumbs are found and understood easily is to always keep the breadcrumbs visible without scrolling, and ideally close to the main heading of the page. That’s where users expect to search for confirmation and some clues about where they currently are.


Avoid “Disabled” Breadcrumbs

If you take a closer look at the previous examples, do you see any unpredictabilities in their designs? In some implementations breadcrumbs are purely a text label representing the structure of the site; in others, each breadcrumb is actually a link guiding to sections of the site.

And on some sites breadcrumbs are a sort of select-your-own-adventure game. Some breadcrumbs are links, while others are disabled, purely representing the location of a given page in the overall hierarchy of the site.

Some breadcrumbs are accessible, while others aren’t. Example: Sparkasse.

In Sparkasse’s breadcrumbs, “Startseite” (Homepage) and “Karten” are actually links, but the sections in between are not. There might be very good reasons for this decision, but the general expectation is very clear: all breadcrumbs are links.

Removing some links from some breadcrumbs can be baffling, and is probably to cause a minimal hefty rage clicks. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to discover that these unreachable breadcrumbs get quite a few rage clicks: even though they might look different, it doesn’t certainly mean that they will not work. After all, they might appear different because these sections have been visited previously.

Some people might assume that the last breadcrumb is a parent category of the current page on Deutsche Bahn.

Do we know if the current page is a link or not? On Deutsche Bahn, the styles for text labels and links are similar - unless you start hovering or tabbing through the sections. Plain underlines would make it a bit more obvious.

In simple terms, if a component in the affiliate acts individually or provides an important or different purpose, we make it stand out by highlighting it in some way. In the case of breadcrumbs, there are two different types of crumbs: the current page (if we select to display it), and the breadcrumbs on the path to that page.

Just a bit of underline can go a long way. A mock-up based on Deutsche Bahn.

The current page shows where a user is, and there is no requirement to navigate there because the user is there already. Nevertheless, if that page looks exactly like the rest of the breadcrumbs, it suggests that they all have the same type function, or that they all are links.

This guides another problem along: depending on the title of that last breadcrumbs, you can feel users presuming that the last appearing item isn't the current page, but a parent of the page. Therefore, willing to move back, they click on that last item, but indeed nothing happens. That’s confusing, too.

To avoid that problem altogether, we can either display the current page differently or avoid it altogether.

Breadcrumbs on Gov.uk don’t include the current page.

In fact, it’s detaching the current page altogether that Gov.uk has opted in. The current page isn’t shown in the breadcrumbs. Every breadcrumbs that is displayed is a link, with proper :active and :focus states for keyword users. It looks to be working well even so because the breadcrumbs are situated right above the heading.


That Question About That Last Item

As we saw in the previous section, one fine little detail where breadcrumb designs often vary is the presence of the current page in the breadcrumbs. Above, the current page is shown through the heading right under the breadcrumbs, so is it necessary to duplicate it? On the images below, one example involves the current page in breadcrumbs (DocuSign Developer), and on the other, it does not (Stripe Docs).

On the left: DocuSign Developer Docs, on the right: Stripe Documentation.

It seems that it doesn’t really matter that much as long as breadcrumbs seem straight above headings. In that case, the last item can be put away as long as proper explanations are used to declare the heading, nevertheless, the more likely we are to involve the current page in the breadcrumbs as well - just to offer more clarity.

KBC, with the breadcrumbs appearing under the main banner.

In the example above (KBC), the relationship between the heading and the breadcrumbs might not be as evident as it is in the previous examples. Had we removed the current page from the breadcrumbs, users might be presuming that they are on a “Self Banking” page, which isn’t the case. Observe that the title appearing in breadcrumbs is the same as the heading of the page - this is supportive, but unfortunately isn’t always the case.

Another use case where carrying the current page in the breadcrumbs might make sense is if the breadcrumbs navigation is stifling. As users scroll down an assuredly long page, they might be losing the context of what absolutely they are seeming at this very moment. Keeping the current page in the breadcrumbs might provide a good recommendation point in such a case.

Our utmost goal with breadcrumbs is that users fastly understand what they are looking at and where they are. Both options give that answer. As long as the breadcrumbs look like headings, adding a current page to the breadcrumbs isn’t as important as one might think.


Avoid Truncations And Use Accordions Instead

Websites with many levels of navigation frequently don’t have space to show the whole path with breadcrumbs. This is also true for pages that just occur to have very lengthy labels, particularly in Finnish and German. One general way to work with this problem is to truncate some intermediate steps in the breadcrumbs navigation.

Some items in the breadcrumbs are truncated on TFF.no.

Frontier Motor Insurance replaces some paths with an ellipsis; the title is removed but the link is still there and can be inspected. With this approach, we are cutting the breadcrumbs, making it more tough for users to explore the full path.

Some items in the breadcrumbs are truncated on TFF.no.

One choice is to show the whole breadcrumbs, encased into multiple lines. Professedly, this would take quite a portion of horizontal and vertical space on screens that don’t have much space anyway. Hence this can be fairly problematic and is often advised against.

One item at a time on mobile on TVM, University of Antwerp and Syddansk Universitat.

When there isn’t as much space to show full breadcrumbs, it’s common to see breadcrumbs shown as only one item at a time. That’s reasonable but favors more jumps against faster interaction. The user has to go through many pages on mobile, and if they happen to be on a rough connection, they might be better off using the navigation menu. Preferably, we could keep the breadcrumbs visible as much as obligatory, without compromising the amount of displayed content on the page.

Visible on desktop, disappear on mobile. On Swisscom, breadcrumbs aren’t accessible on mobile at all.

Other times breadcrumbs fade entirely, such as it currently is on Swisscom. Then, users have to depend on global navigation every time they want to navigate, and often the current page has to be found by tiring drill-down navigation on a small screen.

Arrows everywhere! Designing a navigation within the parts of breadcrumbs can be a quite challenging task.

Another choice is to add some sort of drop-down to permit people to move between levels. In the City of Dusseldorf and Federal Statistical Office Switzerland that might be a little bit difficult to understand with a few too many arrows pointing to various directions.

Displaying breadcrumbs without multi-line wrapping on mobile. This requires scrolling, but is compact and probably better than removing breadcrumbs altogether.

A good compromise is to keep all breadcrumbs on the same line but avoid multi-line wrapping. Deutschland Auswärtiges Amt shows the whole breadcrumb for lengthy titles, but if it doesn’t fit, it disappears and encourages users to swipe left and right to expand the whole path. No breadcrumbs are shortened but need a bit of horizontal scrolling to be discovered.

The same pattern is being used on ADAC. Another option is to use a swiper assistant to move between levels anticipated. Sueddeutsche Zeitung is using it for primary navigation, but it could be helpful for breadcrumbs as well.

European Commission with a breadcrumbs accordion.

On the European Commission’s website, the parent category of the current page is always shown in full, but the parents of that section are trimmed. However, when a user taps or activates the truncated area (which is a link), the whole breadcrumbs seem. Actually, it’s a breadcrumbs accordion. Also, observe the visual difference between the current page (text label) and breadcrumbs (links). That’s a great reference to keep in mind.


Sideways Breadcrumbs

In all the examples above, breadcrumbs were mainly a static representation of the information architecture on the site. They support backward navigation, but moving ahead or to the side always needs another click. There is another way of helping users move forward faster. This needs a combination of breadcrumbs navigation and tap/click menus, also comfortably called sideways breadcrumbs.

An ADAC example below, breadcrumbs are classified as extended - with a drop-down that permits users to jump to other segments within the category fastly. That’s the notion of sideways breadcrumbs which offer fast access to the siblings of the current page.

ADAC uses sideways breadcrumbs.

The chevron in breadcrumbs might be missing to make it superbly clear, but the design pattern per se is useful since it importantly speeds up jumps between siblings. We can think about it as another approach to sidebar navigation which needs less vertical space and looks on demand. On mobile, breadcrumbs turn into a horizontal swiper with a drop-down that give away all available options on tap or on enter.

City of Düsseldorf with sideways breadcrumbs.

The City of Dusseldorf applies a similar pattern but rather than offering access to siblings of the current page, at first it looks to be offering fast jumps for siblings of the parent section. That’s not the case though. Amazingly, the last item in the breadcrumb isn’t the current page but rather “other topics”, which also occurs to be a drop-down. A bit surprising, but sideways breadcrumbs make their look or appearance here as well.

Federal Administration of Statistics with a family of sideways breadcrumbs.

Certainly, when we look into sideways breadcrumbs, we don’t have to apply only at the last level. The Federal Administration of Statistics in Switzerland shows global sideways breadcrumbs that assist users jump between various departments of the Federal Administration family of sites. The breadcrumbs are the first thing that users experience on the site. Unfortunately, on mobile, breadcrumbs disappear fully.

Similar to other navigation choices, sideways breadcrumbs offer not only an overview of where a user currently is but also relationships between sections. Unlike other options, it doesn’t require much space to do that and often transfers a significant amount of information in a very small amount of space. As such, they can be very helpful and could be worth considering as a good extension of traditional breadcrumbs navigation.


Breadcrumbs Alone Aren’t Enough

We’ve explored lots of examples of breadcrumbs so far, and in some way, they all support the navigation patterns that we explored early in the article. Actually, there are many other solutions worth considering as well, and they don’t necessarily have to involve breadcrumbs. In fact, breadcrumbs alone aren’t enough to navigate the site easily - they complement existing navigation patterns, but can’t really replace them..

Let’s summarize and explore how a combination of many options can assist us resolve common problems around navigation.


Horizontal Layering

One approach is to use horizontal layering - that is, showing multiple navigation bars, one for each level of navigation. Thus, at any point, users can jump between levels, and they can see siblings of all sections in the hierarchy. BBC is a great example of a large website using this very pattern at large

Horizontal layering on BBC: for each of the layers of navigation, we can jump between siblings, and we can locate our current position in the hierarchy (although “Rugby Union” might be highlighted as an active selection).

Sidebar Navigation

Another approach is to apply sidebar navigation. Alternatively laying out navigation options horizontally, we can do so vertically. This gives us the flexibility to show more items on the page if required, and easily open and close vertical accordions without ever covering some of the options (which would somehow be the case with horizontal layering). That’s the pattern used regularly on Statistics Sweden.

Sidebar navigation on the Statistics Sweden complements breadcrumbs and “See also” in the right sidebar.

Tags

With sidebar navigation, we show the relationship between subsections and permit users to jump between levels fastly. However, if we just want to shows which category the page belongs to, we might be able to get away with using tags by choice.

They don’t show the relationship of a current page within the grading of the site, but it might be actually a better choice if we have close to hundreds of “sections” on the page. Expressing them in a horizontal or vertical bar just wouldn’t be possible.


Remember The New England Journal of Medicine? As it turns out, it does use both tags and a sidebar navigation. Connected items appear in the sidebar below the job board area, and the tags are shown at the end of the page. While this might be working completely fine for frequent users of the site, it might be not as clear to occasional users.

Breadcrumbs

All the options listed above do offer a sense of orientation, but they also need quite a bit of horizontal or vertical space to do so. All over the fully user journey, they require to be visible to guide users moving from one page to the next. All over the whole user journey, they require to be visible to guide users moving from one page to the next. Should they vanish all of a sudden on one of the pages, users are very likely to get lost. Add to it a healthy dose of noise in the search results and a bit of unwieldy navigation, and we shouldn’t be too surprised that users have issues searching what they are looking for.

In difference, breadcrumbs are succinct, compact, focused, and do their job well. Alternately showing all levels of navigation, they specify just where the page lives, along with fast access to all its parents, all the way to the homepage. And sometimes it’s indeed what is exactly: not more, and not less.


Breadcrumbs Checklist

Not every breadcrumbs navigation looks and works the same as. We’ve seen a couple of various patterns and fine little details in which breadcrumb design and implementation differ.

Constantly, here’s a general checklist of a few important guidelines to think about when designing better breadcrumbs:

  • Breadcrumbs are always require to complement main navigation.

  • Breadcrumbs fit best under global navigation.

  • They could also seem above main headings.

  • The bound should be pointing to the right (in RTL interfaces)

  • Breadcrumbs should be visible without scrolling.

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