It’s time to return the hamburger menu to sender

27 Dec 2016

Image: Lukas Gojda/Shutterstock

As we are currently entrenched in the season of gluttony, Gareth Dunlop asks us to reconsider the hamburger – 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, overhyped 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. When a user selects it, they to wait for a further menu to load, either off-screen, or in a dropdown environment.

‘The hamburger menu solves more problems for the designer than it does for the design target – the beleaguered user’

In 2012, writer, blogger and semi-celebrity UI designer, John Gruber, observed 1,500 people in Times Square using their smartphones and more than 80pc were using their thumbs as the primary means of navigating. With the exception of this author’s overly dexterous teenager – who can multitask with 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 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 Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy which helps ambitious organisations get the most from their website and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include UX strategy, usability testing and customer journey planning, web accessibility, and integrated online marketing. Clients include Three, Ordnance Survey Ireland, PSNI, Permanent TSB and Tesco Mobile.  

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.