Why breadcrumb navigation is better than the Up button

In this week's edition of the Windows Desktop Report, Greg Shultz covers the breadcrumb navigation system in Windows Explorer in order to try to convince you of its benefits.

Almost as soon as last week's blog, "Modify Windows Explorer Command Bar for All Folders," hit the site, I was receiving emails from readers asking if the technique could be used to put the Up button on the Command Bar. It seems that a lot of folks prefer that little button to the breadcrumb navigation system now found in Windows Explorer. As you may know, Windows XP was the last Windows operating system to have the Up button in Windows Explorer.

After spending some time researching the idea, I did indeed find a way to put the Up button on Windows Explorer's Command Bar in Microsoft Windows 7 via a little VBScript magic and some registry trickery. However, while testing the solution I kept thinking about how much better the breadcrumb navigation system in Windows 7 is when compared to using the Up button and began to wonder if those folks who so adamantly want the Up button back really understand how easy it is to get used to the breadcrumb navigation system.

Therefore, I decided that in this week's edition of the Windows Desktop Report, I would cover the breadcrumb navigation system in order to try to convince you of its benefits. If after reading this blog post you are still not convinced, then next week I'll show you how to put the Up button on Windows Explorer's Command Bar.

This blog post is also available in PDF format in a TechRepublic download.

A quick look back at the Up button

As you know, the Up button made its debut in Windows 95's Windows Explorer and was a part of the file management user interface with every upgrade of the operating system for six years after that, as illustrated in Figure A. As such, we all just got very used to using the Up button as an easy way to move up the folder tree structure one folder at a time.

Figure A

The Up button has been a part of Windows Explorer's navigation system since Windows 95.

Then, in 2007 when Windows Vista appeared on the scene with all its new UI features, the missing Up button caused a lot of anxiety when we accessed Windows Explorer. In 2009 when Windows 7 appeared under the guise of fixing all that was wrong with its predecessor, many folks were surprised to find that the Up button hadn't been returned to its rightful place at the top of Windows Explorer's user interface.

However, even though the absence of an Up button may seem to be a chink in the new and improved user interface, it's really not. In fact, once you get used to the breadcrumb navigation system, you'll discover that it offers the same capability as the Up button and much more.

The breadcrumb navigation system

While you may not realize it, you are already quite familiar with the breadcrumb navigation system. Chances are good that many of the Web sites that you visit on a regular basis incorporate a breadcrumb navigation system.

In most cases, breadcrumbs appear across the top of a page and provide you with links back to each previous page through which you navigated to get to the page that you are currently viewing. Breadcrumbs essentially provide you with a trail that you can follow to get back to each page that you've visited since entering the Web site.

For example, a typical breadcrumb navigation system on a Web site may look something like this:

Home Page > Category Page > Subcategory Page > Article Page

In this case, you click through several pages to get to the Article page. At any time, you can move to any of the other pages in the breadcrumb navigation system simply by clicking its name.

Now, if you look at the example Windows Explorer window, shown in Figure B, you can see the same type of navigational system in the Address bar. Each folder that I've navigated through is shown in the Address bar separated by a forward arrow.

Figure B

In the breadcrumb navigation system, each folder in the path is separated by an arrow.

In this case, if I'm working in the Text Files folder and need to go back up to the Greg folder, I would just click Greg and would move up one folder. If I want to go all the way back to the Computer folder, I would just click Computer and would instantly move up four folders.

As you can see, not only does this system allow me to easily move up one folder at a time, it also allows me to move up multiple folders with just one click. If I were using an Up button, it would have taken me four clicks to move up from the Text Files folder to the Computer folder. That is one feature that makes the breadcrumb navigation system more efficient.

Moving down

As I mentioned, in addition to providing the same capability as an Up button, the breadcrumb navigation system offers other features that make it a very valuable tool. For instance, you can use it to move, or drill down, through your folder structure. As you can see, in between each folder name in the Address bar is a forward-pointing arrow. Well, if you click on any one of these arrows, it will instantly turn into a drop-down list showing you all the folders directly below the one you select. For example, if I click the Greg folder in the breadcrumb, I can easily see and switch to any of the folders below, as shown in Figure C.

Figure C

The breadcrumb navigation system also incorporates a drop-down menu system to help you navigate beyond the indicated path.
Better still, once you click an arrow, you can simply hover over any one of the arrows in the breadcrumb path and see a drop-down list showing you all the folders directly below that one, as shown in Figure D.

Figure D

Once you activate the drop-down menu feature, you'll be able to see all your navigation options with a simple hover operation.

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Using the Context menu

When Microsoft developed the breadcrumb navigation system, they also added a new context menu to the Address Bar. When you right-click inside the Address Bar, you'll see the context menu shown in Figure E, which provides some very useful commands.

Figure E

The new context menu provides some useful commands.

If you select the Copy Address command, you can create a copy of the currently displayed folder or you can create a shortcut. To create a copy, just navigate to another location, right-click, select Paste, and you will end up with a copy of the folder. To create a shortcut, just navigate to another location, right-click, select Paste shortcut, and you will create a shortcut to the folder.

If you select the Copy Address as Text command, the complete path to the currently displayed folder is copied to the clipboard. You can then paste that path anywhere you wish, such as a document.

If you select the Edit Address command, the breadcrumb will turn into a regular path that you can edit. (The same transformation occurs when you just click the blank space inside the Address Bar.)

If you click the drop-down arrow that appears at the end of the Address Bar, you will see a history list of the last folders that you have opened in Windows Explorer. If you want to clear that history, just select the Delete History command.

What's your take?

Are you one of those folks who miss the Up button? Now that you have more details on how the breadcrumb navigation system works, will you give it a shot? If you are already using the breadcrumb navigation system, how do you like it?

For those of you who are still not convinced, be sure to tune in next week and I'll show you how to put the Up button on the Command Bar.


Greg Shultz is a freelance Technical Writer. Previously, he has worked as Documentation Specialist in the software industry, a Technical Support Specialist in educational industry, and a Technical Journalist in the computer publishing industry.

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