Creating Mobile-First Experiences With Hamburger Menus

Posted on August 21, 2023 | Updated on August 21, 2023

More people are reaching for their smartphones to surf the web. With mobile phones being the favorable device for internet browsing, web designers have had to shift their focus to a mobile-first strategy. One of the key elements of a mobile-first design is the hamburger menu.

What Is the Hamburger Menu? ☰

The hamburger menu is an icon that represents navigation. Imagine when you’re on your phone, and the website is compressed to fit on your screen. The navigation bar would look different on a PC. 

However, the hamburger menu lets users know there is still a menu to access without using a long string of words. It appears as a stack of three bold, horizontal lines. Clicking on this makes a menu appear. Users can keep clicking on words to get deeper within the website’s menus.

The original designer, Norm Cox, wanted to create a website resembling a road sign, a distillation that allowed menus to remain useful but less visually distracting. Everyone can derive complex meanings from icons, so how could this translate to simplify typically cumbersome website navigation? Now, mobile apps embrace the hamburger button and its many variants.

What Are the Other Foods Inspiring Navigation?

The hamburger menu started a trend. Now, every type of navigation icon resembles food. There are some strange ones, like the cheese and veggie burger icons or the infrequently used Oreo. You can probably guess what they are by looking at them. Still, as designers became inspired by the simplicity and effectiveness of the hamburger menu, they started crafting alternatives to spice things up.


It’s not just the shapes of the hamburger designers that designers rethought — animations can transform the hamburger into different forms, like an X, for a more modern experience. The possibilities are endless.

Kebab 

The icon is a series of three dots stacked on each other. Imagine a skewer going through them, and you have yourself the kebab.

Candy Box 

This is a three-by-three square of dots. It resembles an aerial shot of a glorious box of assorted candies in fancy wrappers.

Chocolate

Much like the candy box, it is also a three-by-three square, but instead of circles, there are squares. It whimsically represents delectable chunks you break off a chocolate bar.

Hot Dog

The hot dog is precisely like the hamburger — a series of three stacked horizontal lines. However, the top and bottom lines are shorter. They are still center-justified, but the middle line looks like a hotdog spilling out of the bun.

Strawberry

Here is another series of three stacked horizontal lines; however, the top line is the longest in width, the middle line shortens a little, and the final line is the shortest. It resembles a strawberry’s top-heavy look without the protruding leaf.

Fries

This icon looks exactly like the right-align icon in word processing. Three horizontal lines are stacked on each other, and the middle line is shorter than the rest. They are right-justified to resemble the different lengths of fries in a box.

Cake

The cake icon is the hamburger menu, except it also has a single dot hovering above the top line in the center. You can imagine it as a single candle or a cherry on top — wherever your imagination takes you.

Condensing navigation into these visually clean and recognizable ideas is an intelligent strategy for designers. What are the other pros of implementing it, and are there any drawbacks?

The Hamburger Menu Design Controversy

The hamburger menu has sparked a fair share of debate among web designers, despite its many iterations.

Yet, it continues to hold its ground in mobile web design. Should you use the hamburger menu, despite what other web designers have to say?

In mobile-first design, few elements have ignited as much debate as the hamburger menu. Therefore, its use remains a hot topic among web designers.

For one, critics argue the hamburger menu “hides” navigation, making it less discoverable for users. Keeping features out in the open is especially crucial for new users. When opening an app, they look for cues to see available features. As such, hiding those features with the hamburger menu may make it challenging for users to discover more. 

Some may argue the hamburger menu diminishes the hard work designers put in to make expertly crafted breadcrumbs or aesthetically pleasing dropdowns. It hides the menu from users, even though they may know where it is.

Some also point out users have to take an extra step to tap and open the menu before accessing the site’s content. Forcing users to access the navigation with additional taps can lead to a poor experience. Your website might be complex, full of pages and resources. Unfortunately, lengthy navigation menus that work well on a computer monitor don’t translate well to mobile or app, even if it’s behind a hamburger icon.

Another reason some web designers avoid the hamburger menu is because it’s hard to reach. Nowadays, many phones are too large to be held without a phone grip, making one-handed navigation nearly impossible. When using your phone with one hand, reaching the icon at the top corner can be challenging. Users must stretch their thumb across the screen to tap it. This makes the feature less user-friendly because people want the easiest path set before them. Therefore, they may avoid clicking on the hamburger menu unless it’s within reach. 

Are Hamburger Menus Still Relevant?

Despite what many critics say about hamburger menus, they continue to be popular in mobile web design for several reasons.

Firstly, the hamburger menu is an excellent space-saver. With screen real estate limited on mobile devices, designers can maintain a clean user interface while offering many navigation options. 

Some apps don’t need complex navigation menus to get customers to get what they need from them. For example, consider an app that relies on maps, such as a rideshare service or food delivery. They would want most of the screen to display the map to entice customers to keep searching for options. 

A hamburger menu removes unnecessary visual clutter while offering customers secondary navigation options that may not be related to their immediate needs but supplements their experience. This could include past orders or account settings.

A bunch of words on a website can hinder people from seeing beautiful graphics. It’s easier for visitors to process brand colors and moods without being bombarded with “About Me” and “Contact” words floating around. The hamburger menu allows the visuals to speak for themselves while comforting visitors that they know where to find more tangible information.

Additionally, the hamburger menu’s widespread adoption has increased user familiarity. Many users now recognize the hamburger icon and associate it with the concept of a menu or more options. This allows users to reduce cognitive load and interact with the site better.

Creating a User-Friendly Hamburger Menu

Creating an effective hamburger menu is all about balancing aesthetics with functionality. Here are some best practices to consider when designing a user-friendly hamburger menu:

  • Visibility: The hamburger menu should be clearly visible and located in a familiar place. Typically, designers place it in the top corner of the screen. Using the word “Menu” or another icon beside the hamburger is common to let users know they have more clickable options. 

  • Accessibility: Ensure your hamburger menu is easily accessible. One way to do this is to make the touch area large enough for users with different thumb sizes. Consider the reachability on larger screens and position it accordingly. 

  • Usability: Once users open the menu, it should be easy to navigate. Group related options together, use clear and concise labels and highlight the active page or section. Add a “close” or “back” button to the menu for easy closure.

  • Customize: While you still want the hamburger menu to be easily recognizable, your website or app must be unique. Slightly change the design using other universally-recognized symbols, such as the “Hot Dog.” These are three lines, with the middle one being the longest. 

  • Test: Perform usability testing with users. Doing so helps you understand how your audience interacts with the hamburger menu. Once you make note of the issues, you can make necessary changes to improve the user experience. 

The Right Time to Switch From the Hamburger Menu

The hamburger menu has inevitably changed website design forever. Some fell in love and used it as a staple. Others have already moved past the trend to work with other navigation hacks to see how they can circumvent the potential woes behind the hamburger.

While the hamburger menu can be invaluable, there are instances where there may be better choices. For example, websites with complex or deep navigation structures might find this icon too limiting. It can become challenging for users to keep opening the menu to navigate between different levels. 

Also, if your website relies heavily on users exploring different sections — like an e-commerce site — hidden navigation might discourage exploration. In this case, other types of menus may be more suitable for easy access to different sections.

Yet, how can you tell if you must switch from this popular icon? User feedback and website metrics offer indicators informing these decisions. If users report difficulty — or if your analytics show features with less user interaction — it may be time to rethink your design. 

Exploring Alternatives to the Hamburger Icon

These alternatives offer similar compactness and functionality.

Tab Bar

A tab bar presents the main navigation options at the bottom of the screen. This design is instantly visible, offering a great user experience. However, it can be limited by the number of options available. This makes it more suitable for applications or websites with fewer navigation points.

Priority+ Navigation

This model displays the most important options first, and the remaining ones stay collapsed under a “More” button. This ensures key navigation options are always visible and accessible while less important ones remain within reach. 

This model works well for sites with a medium number of sections, where not all need to be immediately visible.

Mega Menu

Mega menus are dropdown menus where all options are visible at once. They work well on sites with many options and levels of hierarchy. Although mega menus potentially occupy lots of space, a well-structured one can provide a complete picture of the site’s content at first glance.

Slide Out Navigation

With the rise of touch-screen devices, slide-out navigation has become increasingly popular. Swiping left or right to reveal menu options can be a fluid, intuitive way to navigate a site. However, users must be familiar with these gestures, making slide-out menus more suitable for tech-savvy audiences. 

Making Great User Experiences With the Hamburger Menu

Hamburger menus can be an effective way to simplify navigation, depending on how you design them. Therefore, this icon may not be useful for all cases. When considering which navigation design to use, get a deeper understanding of your audience. Doing so allows you to choose a style that complements them and create an efficient and intuitive mobile experience.


About The Author

Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her re-reading the Harry Potter series, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or hanging out with her dogs, Bear and Lucy.

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