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Warning: this article was posted in May 2011 and some parts may now be out of date

Lately we’ve been working on a lot of content heavy websites here at UVd, all of which follow the very common hierarchical structure (or taxonomy) of the web: categorised sections, which contain articles of content that are all related to that category.

When we are faced with the problem of having to show a way of navigating this hierarchical structure within our HTML it’s very common practice within our industry to use a breadcrumb pattern of markup. The most common of which up until recently has been to use an un-ordered list element <ul> and the navigation links to be list-items within the list, example of which can be seen here:

Chris Coyier of CSS-Tricks recently wrote an article on the issues surrounding this age old pattern titled “Exploring Markup for Breadcrumbs, and suggested some markup solutions to tackle it. As Chris stated the use of a <ul> is

“semantically wrong putting each navigation item on the same hierarchical level.”

The final solution he suggests uses the HTML5 <nav> element to wrap the items, which satisfies our semantic goodness needs denoting that everything contained within it should be treated as a navigation structure, and then uses the rel attribute and the up to indicate the hierarchy on each level:

Although this solution is now semantically correct and the rel attribute allows each item’s level to become machine-readable there was something that still bugged me about it, it’s accessibility towards users using assistive devices or screen reading based browsers. The up value is still in debate by the spec editors and isn’t likely to be supported in any screen readers for a long time. After a lot of experimenting and some in-depth discussions with a fellow frontend dev friend of mine Dan Claydon and a sprinkling of ARIA I’ve come to this solution:

The advantages of this pattern are:

  • The use of the WAI-ARIA aria-labelledby attribute to instruct the user agent to use the label inside the <p> element to label the content of the navigation list
  • Semantics: using the <nav> and <ol> elements to create a much cleaner structure to both machines and humans
  • Separation of structure and aesthetics. You can use the CSS2 :after pseudo attribute to place the visual > separators after the links. As I am a strong believer that they do not belong in the markup
  • You can chose to either hide the label off screen using css (which I have) or leave it if it fits your design and acts as a strong visual clue to everyuser
    Although a more accessible pattern it still brings some issues along with it. The elephant in the corner and its lack of support for HTML5 elements and CSS2-3 attributes (IE 6-8). Unfortunately the only way around this is to use some of the very clever javascript “polyfills” that are popping up all over the web at the moment. Two of our favorites here at UVd , perfect for this pattern are: Modernizr and Selectivizr
  • Modernizr allows you to use advanced feature detection on the clients user agent for progressive enchancement, and also uses a great HTML5 element polyfill which will allow us to style our <nav> element
  • Selectivizr combined with your framework of choice (jQuery in our case) allows you to use some of the more recent CSS2-3 selectors in your stylesheets and parses them for the older browsers. Thus allowing us to use the :after pseudo selector for our navigation items

I would love to hear your feedback regarding this pattern and if you have any other techniques to improve the solution, and of course would like to credit Chris and Dan who gave me the inspiration. Below is a list of some further reading around the ARIA spec and accessible forms of navigation.