13 January 2016
Design Practice

In defence of the hamburger menu

It’s interesting seeing how quickly hamburger menus have turned from handy UI element to social pariah. Rarely a day goes by without some young designer pronouncing hamburger menus the biggest UI crime since Clippy.

Critics of the hamberger menu cite a raft of arguments why they are bad, from the theoretical (it’s mystery meat navigation that users don’t recognise) to the anecdotal (three of my five usability subjects didn’t know what it was when I asked), to the statistical (60 percent of the users on my site don’t interact with the hamburger menu).

All these arguments hold water and in normal circumstances I’d agree. After all, it’s not the most immediately obvious icon, and the last thing any designers wants to do is cause undue stress or confusion. However I think there’s an innate Britishness about me that feels the need to stick-up for the underdog and protect something that feels like it’s been getting an unnecessary kicking.

Ignoring its longer history for a second, the Hamburger menu is part of an emergent design language that resulted from the rise of responsive design. It solves a difficult problem (how to represent a potentially large number of menu items on a small screen) in a relatively neat and tidy way.

Agreed that the icon doesn’t clearly explain what it does, but then neither does the pause button on a typical media player. One of the main reasons we’re able to use this symbol unlabeled is the fact that it worked its way into our cultural repertoire thanks to continued repetition on tape decks and VCRs.

Had Twitter existed in the 80s, I’m sure a group of well meaning designers would have tried to shoot down the humble pause button—and it’s cousins “stop” and “record”—with similar arguments. However I think they would have done so from an oversimplified understanding of what usability is.

If you go back to the early definitions of usability, they state that a usable interface is one that is learnable, efficient, memorable, produces low errors, and is satisfying.

I’d argue that the pause button on a VCR is learnable (once you’ve pressed in once you know what it does), memorable (the icon is simple and easy to recall) and produced low error rates (if you accidentally press it you can easily recover with little negative effect). It’s also relatively efficient (it’s one press after all) and the action on an old style mechanical VCR was a tiny bit satisfying. So as a result of these qualities, the pause button became part of the global iconographic lexicon.

I believe the hamburger menu shares many of these characteristics, and has the same opportunity to become a globally recognised icon through consistent exposure. However this will only be possible if we stop showing off to our friends by “hamburger shaming”, and embrace the plucky icon for what it is, warts and all.