In preparation for my workshop on faceted navigation at the IA Konferenz 2010 in Cologne this past weekend, I’ve been thinking about faceted navigation quite a bit recently. In particular, I’ve been considering ways to explain and teach the subject effectively. )One not-so-trivial side effect of teaching is that the instructor can learn just as much as the students.*)
Looking at loads of examples and implementations of faceted navigation gets your creative juices flowing. In particular, I kept thinking how I would have done my last project that involved faceted navigation different or better. Hindsight is always 20/20.
So maybe breadcrumbs aren’t just quite dead yet. It really depends on how they are implemented. Perhaps we’ll see even more innovative uses of the mechanism in the future.
I’ve been toying around with how to make breadcrumbs effective main navigation mechanisms–just with sketches on projects and on my own. The basic idea is to have rich, dynamic options available from each of the nodes of the breadcrumbs. (This isn’t new, I know (see references below), but there are very few real-world examples of it). So merging rich breadcrumb trails with faceted navigation would also seem to make sense, in my opinion.
Greg Nudelman not only beat me to the punchline to integrate dynamic breadcrumbs with faceted navigation, it looks like he’s also tested them. Good work! Check out the full report in an article on Boxes and Arrows entitled Faceted Finding with Super-Powered Breadcrumbs. He calls the approach Intergrated Faceted Breadcrumbs or IFB. Greg writes:
I believe Integrated Finding [sic] Breadcrumb design is more intuitive and resourceful than other faceted breadcrumb solutions due to the following key design recommendations made based on several years of designing and researching finding interfaces:
- Combine hierarchical Location & Attribute breadcrumbs
- Use Change instead of Set-Remove-Set
- Automatically retain relevant query information
- Label breadcrumb aspects
- Make it clear how to start a new search
- Allow direct keyword manipulation.
There are a series of images in the article to illustrate each of his points. To some degree, Greg’s solution reminds me of the Newssift results interface–only the IFB is better. (Newssift is now shut done and I don’t have have a screenshot handy).
In the interest of continuing this line of thought, here is some (hopefully) constructive criticism of the IFB approach.
- Longer labels – The horizontal arrangement of breadcrumb trails potentially limits scalability for longer labels. All of the examples Greg shows are fairly short. The question is, what do you do with a really long value, such as a publication title with 100 or more characters? One suggestion would be truncation with a onHover display of the full value.
- Including a search field in the breadcrumb – I’m not sure if this is necessary or even desired. It might encourage more searching, which could lead to zero results quickly. It also assumes a simple all-in-one search engine. But if you have an advanced search or search with lots of fields, it would be harder to include this. Sure, the IFB solution is few online ecommerce situations where search is generally just a single input field, so it could work. But I’d suggest putting that just above breadcrumb itself to give more room and clarity to the IFB. Of course, I could be proven wrong. Also, the keyword search in the IFB seems to always be at the end, contradicting the breadcrumb as a “path” trail. An alternative might be to convert the user-entered keyword to a value and represent it as you do the other nodes of the IFB. Accessing the dynamic menu for that keyword would then provide the option to edit it, and you could possibly include search suggestions at this point as well.
- The relationship to the filters on the left isn’t yet clear – In the screenshot of the IFB for Walmart, there are filters on the left of the screen that should be updated to reflect their correct state. Which brings up the question, how do you represent the filters once a value has been selected, particularly if multiple selections are possible? Flamenco keeps the facet header on the left (but they only allow for single selection per facet at any one time). That could work here too. But maybe all you need is the breadcrumb, even from the beginning. Tru, this would take away the “path-ness” of the trail, but you could represent the facets horizontally as a breadcrumb trail with a value of “All <facet name>” as the default value for the start. In the end you’d only have the IFB and no list of filters on the left. But there are problems with that approach too.
- Name for “super-powered” breadcrumb – We should come up with a name for enhanced breadcrumb. These have been called “selection list navigation bars ”  and “look-ahead breadcrumbs”  by others (the former of which I don’t like at all). The problem with “look-ahead” is that in the IFB you may be looking back. But perhaps it works. Other options might be “enhanced navigation breadcrumb trail” or “rich breadcrumb navigation” or “dynamic navigation breadcrumb.” Thoughts?
I quite admire Greg’s thoughts on the IFB and am jealous of his work. It’s quite inventive, and that he did testing (for apparently no project) shows real initiative.
BTW, Jason Hobbs just gave a talk at the IA Konferenz 2010 above the relationship of theory and discipline to practice. He urges us to follow the path of practice-led research. The IFB is a good example of this (I think).
 Bowler, D., Ng, W., and Schwartz, P. (2001). “Navigation bars for hierarchical websites.” University of Maryland, Student HCI Online Research. http://otal.umd.edu/SHORE2001/navBar/index.html.
 Ahmed, I. and Blustein, J. (2005?). Influence of Spatial Ability in Navigation: Using look-ahead breadcrumbs on The Web. Int. J. Web Based Communities.
Also see this excellent resource on breadcrumbs in general: http://www.ils.unc.edu/~aery/inls181/final/index.html
* Arnold Schönberg begins his book on composition: “Dieses Buch habe ich von meinen Studenten gelernt” or “I learned this book from my students.”