Windows

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.

About

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.

58 comments
Alternity
Alternity

I understand his reasoning. Yes, the "back" button and the breadcrumb method take me back easily to where I've been before. However, I navigate a LOT using shortcuts. When I take a shortcut, often I want to go UP in the folder hierarchy. I want to see the folder enclosing the one I'm currently in. I miss the UP button. I know I can go up by clicking a folder name in that path display, but it's not really obvious which name to click on; sometimes I click the wrong one. I really would rather have an up button.

alianos
alianos

But what if you search something, found it somewhere, and you want to see that freaking parent folder? "Search results in steamapps>Borerlands" But I want to go UP and see what else is in steamapps, not go back to search results (which by the way, idiotically enough, are not cashed and you have to wait for them all over again even if you press the arrow on the breadcrumb). This is similar to any case where you want to go up in the physical folder, but the physical folder is not how you got there. No matter how much we argue about the usability of the new system, if there are enough people feeling it should be there, and if its as easy as a VBscript and some registry keys, then it should be put there by microsoft (hide it somewhere in options, see how nobody complains anymore).

grantd
grantd

whatever happened to the ability to turn the folder pane on and off for individual windows? Some windows do not need it eg a folder of commands launched from a toolbar. In such circumstances, the navigation panel is simply a waste of screen real estate.

perry_awm
perry_awm

The breadcrumbs were one of the things that made me fall in love with Vista. I miss being able to customise the toolbars in Word, though; I grew fond of the Ribbon within minutes of starting to use it, even after using old-school Word since the early 90s, but I do miss being able to customise the buttons that show up.

billfranke
billfranke

I've been using breadcrumb navigation since I read the article. It's a lot easier than the up button because I can go all the way back to Computer from where I am now in one click rather than in the four clicks it would take me with the Up button. And I'd not always make it back there with the Back arrow. Some of your readers don't seem to understand that the Back arrow is not part of the breadcrumb trail. And some seem dogmatic about having as many choices as possible when there's no need for choices. Too many choices can lead to bloatware, and most efficient workers take the shortest route rather than slogging through the same old rut. You are absolutely right about this, Greg. Thank you for the great info. It saves me a lot of time and aggravation: I no longer complain about that missing Up button, so my blood pressure doesn't rise when I don't see it. :-)

mikifinaz1
mikifinaz1

They should be hung from the nearest tree. System changes need to be driven by users not engineers. Read "The Evolution of Useful Things" by Henry Petroski This book will give the average person an idea of how these blockheads think as well as some insight into why most things are so screwed up right out of the factory.

mikifinaz1
mikifinaz1

I like the up button because it gives me a quick and dirty way to build folders and bump up within a larger directory; an activity I do often. I don't like having to screw around with bread crumbs. I don't know if this is for the frustrated command liners who get hot pants over command paths or people who can't figure out where are in their system, the lost and clueless.

Hazydave
Hazydave

What I want back is the "select all" menu option for a folder.

SOAdmin
SOAdmin

For those who still want the UP button, here is a simple alternative. You can just use your keyboard, ALT + UP ARROW. Works just like the Up button.

j.tarry
j.tarry

Hi, until you wrote about this, Greg, I hadn't missed the up button and was using the breadcrumb system without realising it!

l_e_cox
l_e_cox

My big problem with breadcrumbs is that they go sideways instead of up and down. You are talking to at least some people who actually think SPATIALLY. They are looking at an Explorer window, bu they are imagining the file "tree" that they are trying to navigate. (It's really like an upside down tree, or a root system.) So "up" means something spatially in the system that makes sense, while the breadcrumbs have to be mentally translated into the vertical model. Navigating through a file system is a lot like finding any piece of data that is related to others as part of a system. And adapting out physical models of data relationships to web-like interfaces is still in its infancy, it seems. The inverted tree with a one-click button to get closer to the "root" is a simple and powerful navigational paradigm. And part of this is because it has real spatial meaning. Building a better search paradigm depends heavily on getting the spatial translation right. It has to be obvious, or what they sometimes call "intuitive." I wish I could spend more time on this issue myself, because the current array of navigational aids on the internet can be SO frustrating to use! I lean to a more spatial approach, but this is difficult to implement without having web objects available that would actually behave like 3D objects on the screen as one manipulated them. Some progress is being made. The use of gestures in mobile touch screens is one example. What makes me shudder a little is the possibility that some people might be completely happy with these flat symbol-based navigation models and don't think of their target data in spatial terms at all. It could be that different people could be comfortable with radically different navigational paradigms. However that may be, I hope that at least some software will continue to be written for those who think more spatially and like to skip the flat significance of written words and little arrows in favor of simple spatial commands!

jor55
jor55

I got to work one day. logged on and 'Whoa! What's this?! Windows 7!' Spent the best part of the morning exploring the new layout and verifying (actually trying to find) my data. When I couldn't find the 'up' button I almost started to say 'Windows 7 s---s!' but then I noticed the 'breadcrumb' navigation chain (although I didn't know it was called that) and was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to use. Furthermore, it is still easy to use the older OSs when on other machines and use W7. MS did a great job in making the UI really user friendly - intuitive and simple! MS should have kept VISTA as a beta, and held out for W7 as the real upgrade from XP. They would have made a lot more friends and $$ too. Vista was the best 'sales assistant' Apple ever had.

Jinkemari
Jinkemari

Its blistering fast and its precise and easier to navigate . Why use the up button when all the contents are displayed just clicking the arrow and the flexibility to land anywhere :)

SaintGeorge
SaintGeorge

Why lose it? I still manage about 500 PCs with Windows XP, and no plans to migrate yet. So many thing changed in Vista and 7, it's hard for us professionals to keep track of them. What do you think happens to accountants, lawyers or plain office workers? There was no need to get rid of a simple small tool like this. Plus, what's the philosphy behind it? After all, now I can see a Users folder in the root directory and the same contents in the old Documents and Settings one (one links to the others of course). And there is several ways to get to the network configuration. So why all this cornucopia of old+new+more new stuff and not the up button? Makes no sense.

V.A.S
V.A.S

Well, hit the [Alt+up arrow] instead :) How about that?

johnh
johnh

I discovered the breadcrumb feature some time ago and make use of it regularly, but I must agree with a couple of others who still like the Up button. Why did they remove what was also good?

jonc2011
jonc2011

"Once you activate the drop-down menu feature, you'll be able to see all your navigation options with a simple hover operation." (article) I guess you mean activate it by clicking a breadcrumb, which then allows you to hover over a higher or lower directory? Another thing I learned today is that to see more levels you can widen the address bar, eg, by narrowing the search bar (by dragging the invisible divider)

pgit
pgit

why not both? They both have their uses... but the arrow button doesn't have a pop up menu when you mouse over it. I also find myself mashing it a whole bunch of times rapidly to get back to the computer. Bigger target so I don't have to be as precise. (far sighted)

johncwil
johncwil

Adding the breadcrumbs added new capapabilities. That's good! The up button is faster. Before, I new exactly where to move the cursor to get either New Folder or Up. Now, I have to visually look around, move the mouse to a different place, then click. It requires more attention and focus.

DonG43
DonG43

Now that I know about it (thanks Greg), it seems better than the up arrow. I don't know how many times I needed to know just where the folder I was working in was, so I had to click to see the entire directory structure. Now it is just there. Also, when I wanted to go up several directories, sometimes it was easier to start from the top again. Now I just click where I want to be in the middle.

Daniel Breslauer
Daniel Breslauer

Just press Backspace instead of pressing the Up button. I can't recall ever having used it.

wobblyo
wobblyo

I don't know about others, but when I click on the arrow I get a message saying 'Computing items...' and then have to wait while it completes, which can take quite a long time. I run Windows 7 professional with a Core i7 & 9GB of RAM & the folders are indexed by Windows. The only conclusion I can come to is I have a lot of zip files which also appear in the drop-down. Anyone else had this problem?

jhouse
jhouse

Personally, I use both... but still like the Up/Back arrows for simplicity and like one reader said, quick to do without reading and choosing. And in Folder view, the trail is easily visible. I use the "breadcrumb" method morre often in Internet Explorer.

abbos
abbos

Who decides what is better? Does MS do that for the user? Breadcrumps are handy but i prefer the UP and BACK buttons. Those buttons save me time. Using the breadcrumps you always have to look, read and think where you are and where you want to go back to. With UP and BACK i browse a lot faster when i dont have to go back a long way. So i do really miss the UP button and installed Classic Explorer and finally ended up a happy user. Which hadnt been the case with the default W7 style Explorer.

Who Am I Really
Who Am I Really

so I can see the entire Directory structure and go to anywhere on the directory structure quickly I turn off the following: (XP) a> Show common tasks ... (they're not common to me) b> Display simple folder view ... c> Hide extensions ... and I've only used the [b]Up[/b] button when in file open / save, save as dialogs

LyleTaylor
LyleTaylor

Not to pick a bone or anything, but the address bar in Windows Explorer is not about bread crumb navigation. While hitting the back button does indeed take you back through your folder browsing history, the address bar shows nothing more than the folder hierarchy of your current location - not your folder history.

jfuller05
jfuller05

The 'up' button is a definite miss for me because I did get used to it. The breadcrumb trail is a good concept, but I haven't crafted it into my regular use yet. I like typing out the path that I'm going to and using the folder up button. Like Palmetto said, the back button is not the same as the folder up button; I've often been frustrated with it. However, that is really the only beef I have with Windows 7 (the breadcrumb trail) and I can't really say that's a beef with 7, since Vista introduced it to us. I'll get used to it someday and maybe even like it. :)

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

That sucker above the Ribbon, to the left of the application title. Right-click it.

Alternity
Alternity

"System changes need to be driven by users not engineers"

Exactly. I think the programmers for Microsoft Word should be forced to use Word to document their development. That might help them to think like a user.

pgit
pgit

I've just been reading excerpts available on google theft, er... books. I haven't encountered anything that would make me think "blockheads" yet, however. What specifically does the author impart that casts a bad light on 'human factors engineers?'

TRMick
TRMick

Thanks very much for that, the first time I saw this the "up arrrow was on the next line, and I was disappointed with only Alt + ; but Yes it works well. Perhaps you could have added "to go down it's Alt + Left arrow" I wonder why it's not "down arrow"! As for bread Crumb, I can't find it. You can try to feed google with it in this manner " How to find, install, and use Bread Crumb" It'll spit the dummy! even adding "toolbar" "w7" ...No go

j.vette
j.vette

I seldom use the UP Button, but it seems that the simple backspace button does the same trick. Or am i misconfused?

SirWizard
SirWizard

BACKSPACE goes back to the previous folder. ALT+UP ARROW goes up one level in the folder hierarchy. If you have a programmable keyboard or button box (I have both) you can program an UP key and make navigation quicker and easier. I also use Classic Shell with the Up button exposed for access. I leave breadcrumbs disabled so that I can always see the path as a backslash delimited string, but I also have a toolbar button that provides the breadcrumbs for drilling down with hovering after the first click. I like having all possible options available, not Microsoft's RSI fantasyland of carpal-tunnel pain (Repetitive Strain Injury).

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

You assume the previous folder was the parent. If you use the tree view or shortcuts, the previous folder could be the desktop, My Computer, or any expanded branch on the tree

kwilner
kwilner

I most want to *see* in which branch my file is, in that 'extra' pane on the left; so I dislike the breadcrumb tactic, because it relocates all the folders into the right-side pane. With an overall view of the directory, the Up button almost is irrelevant; BUT I do use it enough to want it back. (Also, see a paper or two by Wayne Wilner (one of the Menlo Park PhD's who designed GUI's in the first place) regarding the visualistic basis of human memory -- unto 3D towers (viz. "Necromancer").

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I don't understand how users are going to avoid harmful files and attachments if they can't see the extensions. I turn it off in all my hard drive images.

Sensei Humor
Sensei Humor

More choices = good. Different people work different ways. Some times I use Back, other times I want to use Up. Which I can no longer do in Windows 7. :(

lehnerus2000
lehnerus2000

I haven't read the book. What about the idiotic way the Navigation pane, automatically scrolls the list AWAY from the direction you wish to go. When I try to drill down through the tree structure, Windows Explorer HELPFULLY scrolls the selected folder to the bottom of the pane. If it scrolled to the top it wouldn't be so annoying. Does anyone know a hack to disable this auto-scroll behaviour?

pgit
pgit

Such as what if you need to 'select all' and you have a leaking jelly donut in your left hand? Or maybe you're texting the GF about lingerie or something equally uninterruptable?

SOAdmin
SOAdmin

The backspace key is the same as the "Back" button on the toolbar. It goes back to the last place you were at. As far as I can tell, it doesn't go up one directory.

catseverywhere
catseverywhere

What exactly do you mean by "classic shell with the up button exposed for access?" And how are you disabling breadcrumbs? If that can be done with just windows alone (no third party replacements) I'd like to do that myself. I would much rather see an absolute path in the address bar, helps with cut and pasting the path for such as backing off mail folders prior to reimaging...

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Is that hardware or software? I've never heard the term before.

johnh
johnh

I agree wholeheartedly. This default has never made sense to me. It makes a user more likely to click on the file with the same name, but different extension, that you don't want them to click on. Bottom line to me is that it has more potential for harm than benefit!

pgit
pgit

But not on a few other of my posts in different threads. That's progress I suppose =(

pgit
pgit

I posted the above and it showed a different user name than I've had before? I also get locked out when trying to post, and prompted to log in even though the top of the page shows me logged in. Anyone else having weird problems since the forum "upgrade?" The above shows an email address as the user name, and it's not the email address I signed up with here. It should have shown me as "pgit," let's see if after having to log in yet again to post this it gets the name right...

SirWizard
SirWizard

I first heard the "button box" term myself nearly two decades ago referring to a box with a lot of buttons on it used as an additional AutoCAD user interface for entering frequently used commands. Generically, it's a hardware device somewhat like a keyboard that contains many programmable buttons. My button box of choice is the X-keys Pro from PI Engineering, "The No Slogan Company." The X-keys Pro is approximately 9 inches square and an inch thick. [Apologies to metric readers.] It includes 58 flat buttons (keys) arranged in four banks on its top face. Each key is fully programmable to send keystrokes, mouse clicks, Unicode characters, and/or assorted commands to the computer as though they'd been sent by the physical input devices or software. Each key has a clear removable top so that I can underlay it with printed text, symbols, and colors to indicate what I have programmed each key to do. What do I program on such keys? CTRL+X, CTRL+C, CTRL+V, and the like. Right-click and save target as Set web print preview to two pages at 100% Toggle mute for multimedia Frequently used strings (my name / street address / town,state,zip code / phone numbers) Application-specific commands (Crop the image, resize, and preview centered for printing) Hardware specific commands (Print pages 1-2 of the current document on the HP printer) Arcane Unicode symbols (right arrow / interrobang / minus [different from a hyphen]) ASCII characters (multiplication [0215] / n dash [0150]) Clear all tabs in the line Append a short string from the clipboard to the current filename, just before the extension Little macros that I use on the fly 10 times for a minute and then throw away [and so on] Programmed keys can be set application-aware so that the same key can have different meanings in different programs. Finally, PI Engineering staff have a fine sense of humor, as evidenced by such things as the nutrition facts on the side of the box in case you want to know the percentage of daily requirements for protein, carbohydrates, and thermoplastics if you eat the X-keys either plain or with half a cup of peanut butter. Ingesting the X-keys would void its warranty.