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Hamburger Menus: What They Are and How to Use Them

The hamburger menu – that iconic three-line icon that hides navigation options behind it – is one of the most hotly debated user interface elements today. Some experts love its space-saving minimalism, while others argue that it hides important navigation and decreases usability.

In this detailed guide, we'll explore the pros and cons of hamburger menus and best practices for using them effectively. You'll learn what they are, where they came from, and when to use a hamburger menu versus other navigation patterns.

Key Takeaways

  • Hamburger menus are toggle menus that hide navigation links behind a button, usually with three horizontal lines.
  • They save space on small screens but reduce discoverability of features.
  • Use them sparingly and combine with clear labels, feedback, and testing.
  • Consider alternatives like bottom nav or tabs for some contexts.
  • Follow best practices like clear icons, priority plus, and optimization.

What Are Hamburger Menus and Where Did They Come From?

A hamburger menu icon is a button or toggle that looks like three horizontal lines stacked on top of each other. It is used in and responsive web design to hide navigation options behind a compact menu that only shows when activated.

The hamburger icon was popularized in the early 2000s with the rise of smartphones and responsive web design. The icon was meant to be a familiar metaphor for a menu that users could tap to see navigation options on smaller screens.

The name “hamburger” comes from the fact that the icon resembles a hamburger sandwich with three layers – the top and bottom buns and the meat patty in the middle. While there are conflicting origins of who exactly created the hamburger menu icon, most design experts attribute it to Norm Cox at Xerox PARC in the 1980s.

Since those early days, hamburger menus have become one of the most ubiquitous – and controversial – parts of mobile and responsive web design. They save space on smaller screens but also hide navigation options. Let's explore the key pros and cons designers now debate.

Pros of Hamburger Menus: Saving Space and Adding Flexibility

The hamburger icon has some clear advantages that explain its popularity and longevity:

They Save Space on Small Screens

The main benefit of hamburger menus is that they conserve space. On smaller smartphone screens and responsive sites, the menu toggles into view only when needed. This reduces clutter and allows more space for other .

They Allow Room for More Navigation Options

With space at a premium on mobile, hamburger menus provide flexibility. They allow designers to include more navigation items than would fit in a static horizontal nav bar. The expanded menu can also group related links.

Familiar and Intuitive Icon for Most Users

After years of usage across millions of sites and apps, most users understand that the hamburger icon represents a hidden menu. It serves as a compact yet visually intuitive toggle button to access more options.

Cons of Hamburger Menus: Discoverability and User Frustration

However, hamburger menus also come with significant drawbacks around findability and engagement.

They Hide Features and Reduce Discoverability

The main disadvantage of hamburger menus is that they conceal navigation links and features behind a generic icon. This means reduced discoverability compared to static, always-visible navigation bars.

Lower Engagement and Conversion Rates

Various studies have found that hamburger menus result in lower engagement and conversion rates. Users are less likely to tap the icon and explore hidden parts of the site or app.

Harder to Reach and Cause User Frustration

Being hidden behind a tap or click, hamburger menus require more effort for users to access. This can cause frustration, especially on sites or apps they visit infrequently.

Best Practices for Using Hamburger Menus Effectively

Follow these best practices to maximize the pros and minimize the cons of using a hamburger menu:

Use Clear and Consistent Icons + Labels

Make sure your hamburger icon clearly conveys that it will open a menu with navigation options. Consider combining it with a label like “Menu” for clarity. Be consistent across device sizes.

Provide Visual Feedback and Animation

When users tap the hamburger, make sure the expanded menu appears with smooth animation. Visual cues confirm the action and provide feedback.

Test and Optimize Across Devices and Contexts

Check that your hamburger menu works well on different mobile screens and platforms. Gather feedback to optimize and reduce user frustration. Consider how new vs returning users will interact with it.

Prioritize Key Links in Static Navigation

Consider a “priority plus” approach that supplements a visible static nav bar with less-used links in the hamburger menu. This increases discoverability for your most important navigation options.

Alternatives to Hamburger Menus Based on Context

For some types of sites and apps, hamburger menus may not be the best choice. Consider these alternate navigation patterns instead:

Bottom navigation – For apps with a limited set of sections, bottom nav provides easy access without hiding options.

Tabs – For sites or apps with a few distinct modes or areas, tabs allow clear segmentation.

Hybrid menus – Static nav bars with a “More” drop down menu can augment visible links.

Contextual menus – Popup menus tied to specific UI elements keep options visible in context.

Conclusion: Use Hamburger Menus Sparingly and Thoughtfully

The hamburger menu is a familiar but controversial navigation convention. It saves space on small screens and provides flexibility for additional menu options. But hidden navigation also means reduced discoverability and accessibility.

Consider alternatives like persistent bottom navigation or tabs for some cases. When you do need the compactness of a hamburger menu, follow best practices like clear labels, animation, and rigorous testing to optimize the user experience.

What are your thoughts on hamburger menus? Do you love them or loathe them? When have you found them effective or frustrating? Share your opinions and experiences – the pros and cons of hamburger menus are still hotly debated!

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