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I have a case where there is a multi-step system that a user goes through, like an in depth booking process.

For example the user has to go through 6 steps to complete the booking, the system currently has what looks like breadcrumbs showing their place in the process (they are dynamically generated and named accordingly).

For example if the user is on step 3 of 6.

step-1 >> step-2 >> step-3 >> step-4 >> step-5 >> step-6

My argument is that this is not only trivial but distracting. The "breadcrumbs" or "visual steps" look like links, yet they are not. Also why does this information even matter?

Have there been any studies or discussion on this UI element.

ps. It reminds me very much of the "you are here" arrows you see on a map, but in the case of booking , I'm having a hard to finding out if it's actually as useful.

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3 Answers 3

up vote 13 down vote accepted

The use of the progress bar pattern is helpful if a user would benefit from knowing where they are in a multi-step process. As you noted, it should not be styled to look like links if it is not clickable.

Here's an example from the Yahoo Design Pattern Library:

enter image description here

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+1 though I would still be tempted to click those process step arrows in your picture. :) –  JOG Jun 19 '12 at 6:46
    
@JOG you would be able to click the different step arrows once you have visited that step of the process. You just can't "fast forward" yourself to the end. –  JeffH Jun 19 '12 at 13:51
    
Of course, though the breadcrumbs the OP described "look like links, yet they are not". –  JOG Jun 19 '12 at 14:06

Research shows that its better not to depend on breadcrumbs as user might not use it effectively. But in your case if you create visual design not look like just a link, expected result can be achieved. It should be made look like a section instead of having plane text.

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1  
I find usability.gov research to be weak. One article written by Heidi A. Uliasz concludes completely opposite of the research she cites in her article. She provided absolutely zero support for her conclusion. Did she misread the research? Or just make her own conclusion? –  mawcsco Jun 19 '12 at 14:15
    
@mawcsco - Its interesting to know your point of view. But as this is an official U.S. Government Web site (managed by Dept of Health & Human Services); I consider it to be good. Even the book 'Research-Based Web Design & Usability Guidelines' which is US Govt official edition, seems to be covering guidance on lot of UX issues, with the help of research citation mentioned for each module. I do agree that the site and this book needs to be updated to align with recent industry changes. The site has many articles by many authors. Doubting it due to someone seems a bit irrelevant. –  Spicerjet Jun 19 '12 at 17:10

Personally, I find a long series of wizard like windows wearisome. But it depends on the application and my expectations. A casual, once-in-a-while user who has a significant number of alternatives may get frustrated by the 4th or 5th step and exit the process. A frequent user or a user who is accustomed to such wizards in their industry would be far more tolerant.

Some kind of status indicator also conveys both how much work is left to be done and how much has been accomplished. This works in your favor in two ways. First, giving your user a light at the end of the tunnel gives them hope and assurance (as said, depending on the user's expectations). But second, if you have a user who is not accustomed to many-screened wizards, showing them how much they have done gives them a vested interest in finishing (via ye olde "sunk cost" psychology). If you are worried about losing a customer, showing them how much they have already invested can help convince them to stick it out a little longer (although this is not infinite, so getting the number of screens down to a minimum is essential).

Personally, I have always favored the progress bar which uses images or animation rather than boring text, just to keep me engaged and interested. For example, you could use a series of images (preferably of people) acting out what the process would look like in the non-digital world. Then, gray out all but the step you are currently on. It would give the user a connection with the real-world process and help them to justify the time they are spending on the computer. People are notoriously less patient with a computer then they are with real-world processes, so a subtle reminder of how long they'd be willing to wait in the real-world might help to keep them a little longer.

I can't give you any specific studies on the progress bars effect on a user's psychology, but I think if used correctly they can be a very useful and powerful visual cue to connect him or her with the abstracted process which is mostly invisible to them.

EDIT: As a side note, if you are not giving them a way to correct a mistake on a past window, but rather forcing them to restart the entire process, then you are much more likely to lose them over something as simple as a mistyped street name. The ability to go back in a multi-step process is extremely valuable. You may want to consider investing in such a capability.

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