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The hamburger menu – just remember what it did to Elvis

The hamburger menu – just remember what it did to Elvis

The hamburger menu is always on my mind.  I just can’t help believing that it is far too cutesy to be of any actual value and it has left me all shook up, and customers with suspicious minds.  “Don’t be cruel” they scream at the web designer, who wants a little less conversation with users as it’s simply too inconvenient to listen, preferring to be once again on his lonesome, tonight.

Little wonder users need to check in to Heartbreak Hotel, perhaps using a special rate secured through

OK OK I’ll stop now before you have a blue Christmas.

For those unfamiliar with a hamburger menu, it is the menu hidden behind the icon of three horizontal lines which looks like a hamburger.  Typically used to save screen space in a mobile environment they are overused, over–hyped and over many users heads.

And therein lies the danger – its space–saving convenience – hints at the truth that the hamburger menu solves more problems for the designer than it does for the design target – the beleaguered user.

A range of perception tests are available to experience designers, and perhaps most powerful among them is the five–second test which is exactly what it sounds like.  A user observes a website / app / product for five seconds and is then asked what it’s about, what they might be able to do next, why they might hang around and what their initial perceptions are.

A hidden menu, tucked neatly behind an icon, gives your digital product the least possible chance of passing the five–second test.  It is less discoverable and less efficient than other menu systems, meaning that it is out of sight and mind in the first place and when a user selects it, needs to wait for a further menu to load, either off screen, or in a dropdown environment.

In 2012, writer, blogger and semi–celebrity UI designer John Gruber observed 1,500 people in Times Square using their smart–phones and 80%+ were using their thumbs as the primary means of navigating.  With the exception of this author’s overly–dexterous teenager who can multi–task a series of fingers, thumbs and social networks, most of us use our thumbs as the primary means of working our phones.  This merely adds to the argument against a menu device at the furthest reach from the thumb (typically the top of the screen) as the primary means of working an app.

Perhaps because of this, in the past two years many of the world’s most popular apps have ditched the burger from their diet, with Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, Uber, Skype and Wordpress all moving back to a tab bar.  And others like Google Maps, Gmail and Pocket have integrated the hamburger much more subtly into a more readily reachable menu system.

So use a hamburger menu only if there is no other better solution available.  If you do need to use one, label MENU beside it.  And never, ever, ever use it on desktop. 

When the history of the web is written, poorly conceived hamburger menus will feature in the same chapter as Shoshkeles (millennials please ask your mum), bad parallax, the carousel, the HTML <blink> tag, beveled backgrounds and hit counters.

And their current overuse will derive an entirely predictable pronouncement – Users have left the building.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

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