Study finds breadcrumb navigation useful

Written by Adrian Holovaty on July 28, 2002

A University of Maryland study examines the usefulness of what it calls "structural navigation bars" -- otherwise known as breadcrumb navigation. Researchers found test subjects "took about 60 seconds less time to navigate a site with the nav bars than without."

I haven't seen many cases of breadcrumb navigation on news sites, and I think that's a bad thing. The only two news sites I'm familiar with that use it are:

  • CJOnline -- The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal
  • -- The Maneater (student newspaper at the U. of Missouri)

(Disclaimer: I implemented breadcrumb navigation at

CJOnline organizes its breadcrumbs by topic (e.g. Home > News > Kansas), while organizes them by date and topic (e.g. Home > 2002 > July 17 > News > News story). In both cases, the breadcrumbs are extremely valuable tools, not only functioning as navigational shortcuts "up" and "down" the site tree, but also helping users orient themselves in the site. More news sites should be doing this.


Posted by Wohleber on July 29, 2002, at 7:04 p.m.:

The Detroit Free Press also uses breadcrumb navigation. The crumbs are largish text graphics and serve as section headers; it may not be immediately obvious to some readers that they are also navigational links.

Posted by anonymous on July 29, 2002, at 10:57 p.m.:

The New Zealand Herald uses breadcrumb navigation.

Posted by Adrian on July 30, 2002, at 12:09 a.m.:

Thanks for pointing those out. As it turns out, also uses a rudimentary form breadcrumb navigation on its story pages. Like the freep's, it's graphical and isn't immediately obvious -- probably because it's so big and bold.

Posted by Jay Small on July 30, 2002, at 5:22 a.m.:

Another form of breadcrumb is contextual navigation with highlighting, which we use on our Belo Interactive sites. Ours are constructed in three fundamental index layers; as you drill down, you are presented with new navigation contexts, and your current position in the site tree is highlighted, all within the left nav. Usability testing demonstrated to us that this method eased users' workflows on our sites, much as a horizontal-style breadcrumb will do.

Equally important, in my view, is relentlessly clear labeling of navigation hyperlinks. Adrian, you make this point well in several posts to this site. Newspaper section labels will make sense to a newspaper reader who happens to hit that paper's site, but may not always be clear to "outsiders." At a minimum, using the TITLE attribute of the anchor tag will, on hover, pop up a description you write, which may provide some assistance to readers unfamiliar with the offline brand's labels.

Posted by Adrian on July 30, 2002, at 6:49 p.m.:

Jay: You mentioned the navigation is all in the left nav. Do you mean the horizontal nav? I went to several Belo sites (, and found the left nav didn't change much -- at least on the pages I visited. However, I did notice (and like) the large section headline at the top of the content area, along with a few subcategories of that section. It reminds me of sacbee's navigation scheme, which is one of my favorites.

Posted by Jay Small on July 30, 2002, at 11:09 p.m.:

The left nav changes on our sites when you drill down into the "big four" sections -- the same ones referenced in the four tabs across the top right of the page.

If you go to, for example, and hit "Local News," the "core" left nav you see on the home page is replaced by contextual navs for the Local News section. A third layer of navs (we call them "tertiary") may exist underneath the large section label; that's what you noticed. At any place on the site, the core (home page) navs can be brought back to the front by mousing over "Home Menu."

Current drawbacks: it doesn't work reliably across all browsers, though we hope to address remaining compatibility issues shortly. And we're not AS confident in the pull-downs across the top (from a usability standpoint) as we are in the contextual menus and highlighting on the left. Another round of testing should help us determine their value.

Obviously, it's harder to explain than it is to see on the sites. :-)

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