The Case against the Hamburger Menu

For some time there have been low-lying but persistent objections to the hamburger icon and “side drawers” as navigation conventions in mobile apps. This post by Luis Abreu makes a compelling argument for “Why and How to Avoid Hamburger Menus.” Reasons include lower discoverability (what’s out of sight is out of mind), lower efficiency (more taps and travel effort for users to access items), conflicts with platform navigation patterns (the hamburger icon is not fully native to either of the two mobile operating systems), and lack of visibility into content (it’s difficult to indicate specific kinds of activity for items hidden in a side drawer).

The hamburger icon is an imperfect user interface element, to be sure, but then there are few perfect ones out there. For many apps, it has served as a convenient place to stash unresolved software features, much like preferences used to be in desktop software. That widespread usefulness is probably at the root of this backlash; there has clearly been a lot of hamburger/side drawer abuse in the convention’s short but prolific life.

Still, I’m fond of this pattern if only because it has become widely recognized as representing the place where you can go to find an app’s miscellaneous bits. In my opinion, it’s a benefit to users to have a more or less universally recognized icon that signals profile settings, account management, push notifications and other assorted housekeeping items. These things are not always easily grouped together in a single iconic concept, nor are they the central focus of most software, so having a single target for users to hit when they go looking for those items can be a boon. It’s when primary navigation gets stashed in side drawers and obscured by the abstraction of a hamburger icon that confusion really sets in. If you ask me, it would be a shame to do away with this useful, identifiable UI convention entirely. In theory it could be salvaged by more disciplined implementation, though the reality may be that its susceptibility to abuse is so ripe that it will always be used “wrongly” more than we’d like.