Sunday, January 10, 2010

On the breadcrumb metaphor

I've heard the term used in UI work: people refer to "breadcrumbs" when they mean a navigation aid that shows UI path used to arrive at a point in the program. This supposedly prevents a user from feeling lost. It could be a trail of screens or dialogs like Options > Advanced Options > Applications. I don't have an objection to that. I do think, on the other hand, that "breadcrumbs" is a pretty bad term to describe this UI construct.

The most famous example of using bread crumbs to mark a trail resulted in those crumbs being eaten by wild animals and the adventurers nearly becoming dinner themselves. All versions of of the Hansel and Gretel tale that I've read had the children successfully return home when Hansel used pebbles or small stones to mark a trail. This trick failed when Hansel used bread crumbs. With the crumb trail eaten by animals, they end up lost in the woods. They eventually wander to that candy house where they are trapped by a witch who tries to eat them. You know the rest.

So if you say you want to use breadcrumbs, are you really saying that you want to leave the user lost in the woods to be eaten by a cannibalistic witch?

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