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I am working on an interface for a system which enables users to browse a large model of a business' processes. The many items in this model are arranged in a "net" structure. When viewing a single item (i.e. when viewing a page which lists all attributes of the item), how can I make it clear to the user where this item is in the overall structure?

System structure

The client says it's more accurate to describe the relationship between items as a net than a traditional tree structure (with layers of items nested inside each other). This is because an item in the model can be a 'child' of many disparate categories of items - it can have many parents.

Conflict between menu structure and site structure

Many of the most important items in the system are accessible via a traditional multi-level navigation menu, but the items in this menu (and the structure of those items) are manually defined by administrators to bring only the most crucial items within easy reach. It is not a representation of the structure of the system itself. This is another potential issue, as the two models may conflict, which could confuse the user.

Problems with breadcrumbs

As there is more than one possible path through the net to reach each item, a traditional breadcrumb is not ideal.

It would only show one path through the system, meaning only one direct parent element would be shown. If an item had many parent items, showing only one would not allow the user to locate all related 'sibling' items.

There would also have to be logic in place to decide which of the many possible paths should be shown.

Possible solutions

None of these seem ideal.

  1. Show a breadcrumb trail of the path the item is found under in the main menu. If the item isn't in the main menu, simply don't show a breadcrumb.
  2. Show a breadcrumb trail of the path the user took to arrive at this item, effectively mirroring the browser's own "back" functionality.
  3. Show a list of all direct parent items, enabling users to find their way to all sibling items.

I hope this all made sense! I would greatly appreciate any suggestions for solving the UI problem I have described, or for addressing any more fundamental issues you perceive.

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I think you can simplify your decisions by breaking two things apart. 1-How the user got there, 2-What are the parents of what you are currently seeing. For solving 1 I would use breadcrumbs, for 2 I would see how e-commerce application do it. E.g. Razors can be in several categories: beauty,self-care,tools, ... –  jff Feb 5 '14 at 11:56
In one such system I use, the designers made a history strip where navigation hierarchy would usually be. It's fine and works well, it's only badly designed because it's hard to distinguish the elements from each other. However, that's a mistake of graphics and not of concept IMHO. –  yo' Feb 5 '14 at 12:24
Why does the user want to know where he is in the overall structure? Is it because they want to reach this item again (navigation)? Is it because they want to know what related items there are (discovery)? Is it because you think they want to know where everything on the site is, and are trying to guess at the whole information architecture from taking a look at the parts/product pages (mental map generation)? Breadcrumbs in a tree-structured site are useful for all three, but with a more complex site structure, you might need a different solution for each (if you want to support all three) –  Rumi P. Feb 5 '14 at 12:46
I'd suggest something (maybe a pull-down draw or sidebar) that puts your current item/term in the centre and arranges its parents around it, with their parents around them, similar to what Music Map (music-map.com) does. –  Agi Hammerthief Mar 19 '14 at 18:57
NeilDawson: Maybe it would help if you give some examples. –  donquixote Apr 22 '14 at 2:15

4 Answers 4

Is there a reason why the site is so Parent / Top heavy with the navigation? If each piece of content is to be part of many different categories (parents), I wouldn't completely dismiss breadcrumbs altogether.

You can consider creating a dynamic breadcrumb which tracks the route that the user did take. Each node in the breadcrumb can also be a dropdown that links to other parallel pages in that level. This way it's an adaptive historical view.

The breadcrumb could display smartly based on the page levels within the site, and not just take the browsing history.


It would set the pages up as separate branched breadcrumb.

If on PAGE 2, the breadcrumb would be: HOMEPAGE > PAGE 2

If on Page 5, the breadcrumb would be: HOMEPAGE > [PAGE4 v] > PAGE 5

Whereby Page 4 is a dropdown with parallel pages.

Having an Anchor like the Homepage will help to orient the user.

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But is there an advantage of telling the user where they've been, rather than where they currently are? And how many items would you show in the trail? What if they've been to one place, then the homepage, then another page, then homepage again... would you show all that? I'm not sure that's really all that useful to the user. –  JonW Mar 3 '14 at 16:46
The purpose of the breadcrumb is not to substitute the browser back button. It can follow the hierarchy. –  Pdxd Mar 3 '14 at 18:45

I don't think it's a huge problem not to have a breadcrumb, especially if it would be misleading.

As mentioned by others, take some time to figure out the basics use cases in terms of where users would be coming from and where they would want to go next.

You could provide a "recently viewed" list (similar to Amazon or another product-based site) to let users easily backtrack.

In addition, you're probably on the right track with a related-topics "list of parents" idea.

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If all items are effectively only ever one "level" deep, then it may be sufficient to provide a way for users to navigate from the item details back to the "top" level. So, a user would either be "zoomed in" one level to view the details of an item, or else they would be "zoomed out" to a place where they could see all items.

If some items can only be accessed from other items (and not from the top-level), then clearly this isn't going to be appropriate. In this case then maybe Option 3 from your original post would be the most useful.

If it were possible to somehow represent the "net" graphically (and interactively, such that users could view and click on an item to navigate to the details of that item) then that might be a good option. However, I suspect this would be much more difficult to implement than simply finding and listing the direct parents of the current item, and therefore it might be prohibitively expensive.

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There are many situations where different hierarchies are in conflict on a site. You could think of your site as an directed graph, hopefully not a cyclic one, of parent-child relationships.

If it is not cyclic, then it is a partially ordered set. But still far from being a tree.

A breadcrumb is a directed path through this graph. And the combination of breadcrumbs on your site - in an ideal world - should be like a tree that you get by ignoring some of the parent/child links.

So, it is really all about prioritizing, and knowing which of the parent/child relationships are more important to your site.

But, this said, there are some tricks to increase the amount of information you can put into your breadcrumb.

Composite breadcrumbs from menu + categories

I usually go about it like this:

  • The first part of the breadcrumb can be defined by the menu. E.g. the menu trail down to an overview page for items of the type that the user is currently viewing, which is linked somewhere in the menu structure.
    You can use the main menu for this, or you could use another menu, e.g. one that defines the footer sitemap. Obviously, as you mentioned yourself, conflicting menus can be confusing..
  • The second part of the breadcrumb can represent different attributes or categories of the item that is currently being viewed.

In fact the elegant way is to go backwards: First determine the immediate parent (which would be a category or attribute page), then look for any parent category, or an overview page that lists all categories, then see if that page is somewhere in the menu, and go further up the menu tree until you arrive at the home page.

Faceted breadcrumbs representing multiple taxonomies

Here it usually becomes difficult, because you can have different competing taxonomies. A classical example would be product categories vs manufacturers vs materials. There are different ways to handle this:

  1. You simply focus on one of the taxonomies, and ignore the others. E.g. one of

    • Bikes » By category » Offroad » Acme Model XYZ
    • Bikes » By manufacturer » Acme » Model XYZ
    • Bikes » By material » Aluminium » Acme Model XYZ
  2. Your breadcrumb represents accumulated filters, e.g.

    • Bikes » Offroad » Offroad bikes from Acme » Aluminium offroad bikes from Acme » Acme Model XYZ

    The labels could simply say "Bikes » Offroad » Acme » Aluminium » Model XYZ", but if you'd click "Aluminium", you don't get all aluminium bikes but only those from Acme which are also in the Offroad category.

  3. Separate the category links with comma instead of "»". E.g.

    • Bikes » Offroad, Acme, Aluminium » Acme Model XYZ

    This shows that the respective categories are not in a parent-child relationship with each other.

    If you'd click on "Aluminium" here, you'd really get all bikes that are made from Aluminium, independent of whether they are from Acme or in the Offroad category.

"History" breadcrumbs?

I personally don't think that breadcrumbs should depend on where the user has been before. This is the browser's job.
See "Hierarchy or History?" I completely agree with Nielsen here, even if this is from 2007.

Sites that don't need a breadcrumb

There are definitely sites where a breadcrumb does not make that much sense. Think of stackexchange, facebook, gmail. Maybe a breadcrumb can make sense in some sub-sections (user settings, help pages..), but not for navigating in a lake of unstructured information.

In this case what you want is

  • sidebar boxes with different kinds of "related stuff". Stackexchange does a good job of that.
  • a good search.
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