A hamburger menu and a hamburger icon side by side

Your Guide to Hamburger Menus

by Mads Soegaard | | 42 min read
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The hamburger menu, recognizable by its three horizontal lines, simplifies website navigation. Not every interface benefits from its use, but it helps in certain scenarios. Understand when it shines and when alternatives might serve better. Learn the pros and cons of using this small yet effective icon and implement the best practices for effective application.  

Have you ever clicked on a symbol that resembles a hamburger to open a menu? That's the hamburger menu for you. This icon, composed of three horizontal lines, is a passage to a site or app's various sections. It's a compact, efficient way to stash away navigation links. It keeps the user interface clean and user-friendly. 

The hamburger menu holds immense potential to simplify user journeys and enhance interface cleanliness. Despite its approachable name and simple design, this icon sparks much discussion among designers. Critics believe the icon lacks intuitiveness and may confuse unfamiliar users. 

If you want to know the ins and outs of the hamburger menu, you're in the right place. We’ll talk about the essence of using this navigation tool effectively. We cover design essentials, offer practical usability advice and discuss how to strike the perfect balance between look and function. 

The Brief History of the Hamburger Menu 

Norm Cox crafted the hamburger menu icon in 1981 as a container for contextual menu choices, but it originally didn’t have a name. It was just a menu icon, with the lines resembling the contents of the menu that would appear when clicked The icon later got its name when it was popularized in mobile apps from around 2009.  

Its graphic design was meant to be very “road sign” simple, functionally memorable, and mimic the look of the resulting displayed menu list. With so few pixels to work with, it had to be very distinct, yet simple. I think we only had 16×16 pixels to render the image. (or possibly 13×13… can’t remember exactly)  

- Norm Cox, Creator of the Hamburger Menu 

Cursor hovering over Xerox's early hamburger menu in the top right corner

The early use of hamburger menu in Xerox Corporation Star.

© cultofmac, Fair Use

After its debut on the Xerox Star, Windows 1.0, released in 1985, featured the hamburger icon in its control menu. This design choice was brief; Windows 2.0 replaced it with a single horizontal line for the control menu. The icon saw a return in a different form in Windows 95, which used the program's icon instead. After several years, the hamburger icon returned to Windows 10's Start menu. 

The icon's progression shows it didn't gain much popularity and remained nearly forgotten for years. The introduction of smartphones and their apps marked its resurgence. 

The Pros and Cons of Using a Hamburger Menu 

The hamburger menu simplifies the user interface. It enhances the mobile experience and accommodates numerous links. However, it may reduce discoverability, slow down navigation and overwhelm users with choices.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

The hamburger menu, now a common icon, stirs much debate among designers. Feelings toward it range from love to hate. This controversy shows how important it is to understand the pros and cons of the hamburger menu. 

You can make informed decisions in design based on the pros and cons. Choose when, how and if you want to incorporate this three-lined icon into your projects. 

Pros of Hamburger Menu

Let’s look at the benefits of the hamburger menu:  

Simplifies the Interface 

The hamburger menu hides navigation options to create more visual space. This simplification makes the user interface more appealing and less cluttered.  

Users find a clean interface easier to navigate. They can focus on content without any interruption that numerous links may pose. This approach works especially well for platforms that prioritize a minimalist design. It ensures users enjoy a seamless experience as they focus on what matters most. 

Better utilization of visual space can help you grab the visitor’s attention. Visual skills play a big role in that. Watch Michal Malewicz, Creative Director and CEO at Hype4, explain the importance of visual skills for grabbing attention. He highlights how design influences attention and decisions in a fast-paced world. 

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Enhances User Experience on Mobile Devices 

Smaller screens mean you have less space to work with. The hamburger menu maximizes this limited space as it consolidates navigation links into one spot. This design choice improves usability on mobile devices.  

Users access the menu with a simple tap. It results in a smoother online experience. Users appreciate the easy access to what they need without navigating through a crowded interface. This advantage is crucial for mobile-friendly websites and apps, where user satisfaction depends on efficient use of space. 

Accommodates Numerous Links and Categories 

You can use the hamburger menu to handle many links and categories. It keeps everything tidy so users don't get overwhelmed. This feature is especially beneficial for complex websites or applications. It allows users to access a broad range of content from a single point.  

Users can easily explore different sections. It improves their ability to find specific information or products. This way, even with many options, users have a smooth experience. 

Facilitates Secondary Access 

The hamburger menu is perfect for extra features that users don't always need. It keeps the main navigation clean and focuses on the important stuff. But, when users want more, they just click the menu. This setup is nice because it doesn't crowd the screen. It keeps things simple while secondary options stay a tap away. It's a smart way to offer more without making things messy. It’s a useful example of progressive disclosure.  

Cons of Hamburger Menu 

Despite the widespread use of hamburger menus in websites and mobile apps, they have certain limitations. 

Reduces Discoverability 

Hamburger menus hide navigation options. It can lower the visibility of important sections. As a result, users might miss out on valuable content or features. New visitors may find discovering what a site or app offers difficult. They must click the menu to see the available options. This extra step can negatively affect the overall user experience

Slows Down Navigation 

It requires an extra tap or click to access the hamburger menu. This additional action slows down the navigation between sections. On platforms where users need quick access, this delay can frustrate users. It makes getting to specific content or features less efficient. It can be a significant drawback for tasks that require frequent navigation.  

Can Overwhelm Users 

When users open the hamburger menu, it sometimes presents too many options. This overload can overwhelm users. They face a long list of choices without clear guidance on what to select. This complexity is especially important to manage for sites and apps with extensive content. You must simplify the menu or organize options better to alleviate this issue. 

Might Not Suit All User Groups 

Not all users recognize the hamburger menu icon. This lack of familiarity can hinder navigation for less tech-savvy individuals. Older users or those less accustomed to modern user interface (UI) design patterns may get confused. You must provide intuitive access to navigation for all user demographics. Alternate cues or labels might improve usability for these groups. 

When to Use the Hamburger Menu (and When You Shouldn’t)  

It makes more sense to use the hamburger menu in the scenarios given below:  

Situations where you should use a hamburger menu.

The use of a hamburger menu makes more sense in minimalist design projects, mobile apps, content-rich platforms and for secondary navigation needs.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

  • Minimalist Design Projects: If you want a clean, uncluttered look for your websites or apps, hamburger menus keep navigation tidy and the content hidden to give a minimalistic look. 

  • Mobile Applications: Given the limited screen space on mobile devices, a hamburger menu can efficiently organize navigation without compromising usability. 

  • Content-Heavy Platforms: For platforms with extensive content, such as news sites or e-commerce platforms, hamburger menus can help manage and categorize many sections or products. 

  • Secondary Navigation Needs: When you have straightforward primary navigation but need additional, less critical navigation options, the hamburger menu can house these without cluttering the main interface. 

Look at the scenarios when you can avoid the hamburger menu because it might affect the user experience. 

Situations where you should not use a hamburger menu.

It may not be a good idea to use a hamburger menu in high-engagement areas, when users are unfamiliar with the icon, in situations that require immediate action or if there are fewer navigation points.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

  • High-Engagement Areas: You must prefer direct navigation options for parts of a website or app that require quick, frequent access, such as a checkout process in e-commerce. They don’t slow down the user journey. 

  • User Groups Unfamiliar with the Icon: Your target audience may include demographics less familiar with modern UI conventions, such as older users. Then, you may require alternative navigation solutions that are more intuitive. 

  • Situations That Require Immediate Action or Notice: You may need certain features or sections to stand out immediately to a user—for example, urgent notifications or calls to action. In that case, embedding these within a hamburger menu won't make sense. It might reduce their visibility and impact. 

  • Simple Websites with Few Navigation Points: A hamburger menu on a website or app with limited navigation options might overcomplicate the user interface. Direct navigation links in the header or footer might serve better. They ensure users have immediate access to all sections. 

Four Alternatives to the Hamburger Menu 

While the hamburger menu suits many design needs, it's not a one-size-fits-all solution. You can use the alternatives to enhance usability, improve visibility and cater to user preferences. Look at some effective options: 

Tab Bar

A tab bar displays all the options at once.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

A tab bar displays key sections at the bottom or top of the screen. It's great for mobile apps. Users see important links at a glance for better navigation. This choice works well for apps with three to five main areas. 

Design choices for the tab bar, like using color to show your current location or clear icons to convey features and enhance navigation and usability. A simple click or tap lets users easily switch between pages or features. This design choice requires you to give up some screen space to make navigation options visible. 

Floating Menu 

A floating menu displays options at the click of a button.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

A floating menu appears over content, usually anchored to a screen corner. It stays visible as users scroll and offers constant access to key functions. This design suits mobile interfaces for a quick way to navigate or perform actions without the need to search for hidden menus. It makes essential features readily available to enhance user experience. Floating menus adapt well to various screen sizes so that vital navigation options remain within easy reach.

Mega Menu

A mega menu displays each category or group at once.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

You will find mega menus useful particularly for sites with extensive content or complex navigation paths. Unlike the hamburger menu, which consolidates navigation options into a hidden menu, mega menus display all available choices at once. You organize the menu into categories or groups for clarity. This direct visibility can make it easier for visitors to understand the site's structure and find what they want without additional clicks. 

Mega menus can streamline navigation for online stores or websites with various topics. This approach reduces the cognitive load on users, who might struggle to remember the options in a collapsed hamburger menu. Additionally, mega menus can incorporate visual cues like icons or images to further help navigation. 

Progressively Collapsing Menu 

A progressively collapsing menu hides a few options under the ‘more’ button.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

A progressively collapsing menu adapts to the screen size. It shows as many navigation items as possible. As the screen gets smaller, less critical items collapse under a "More" option. This approach balances visibility and accessibility so that the most important links remain upfront.  

This collapsing menu helps users find key sections without digging through hidden menus. It stands as a user-friendly alternative to the hamburger menu. This menu type improves site navigation on large and small screens. It offers a seamless experience that keeps essential navigation in plain view. 

Expert Tips and Best Practices   

Expert tips to ensure your hamburger menu improves user experience.

Focus on the visibility and placement of the hamburger menu. Place it at an obvious place. You can use animation and responsive design to make the hamburger menu better. It’s better to use it for secondary navigation.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

When you want to craft a user-friendly navigation menu, the hamburger icon has become a staple for mobile and desktop applications. Let's delve into some expert tips to ensure your hamburger menu fits your site's aesthetic and enhances user experience. 

Focus on Placement and Visibility 

You must place the hamburger menu well for intuitive navigation. A consistent, prominent location ensures users find it easily. You have two options: to place the hamburger menu on the left or right.  

Support for the left side comes from the reading habits of those who read left to right. They typically scan web pages in an F shape. This habit may have compelled many designers to place the menu on the left. Users have grown accustomed to this placement. Material design guidelines call this a “navigation drawer” and recommend placing it on the left. 

Conversely, you may position it on the right to cater to ease of access, especially on larger smartphones where users find it cumbersome to reach the top left. Although the right side might suit secondary navigation options better, user habits and physical comfort play significant roles in this decision.  

Make it Obvious

You must make the hamburger menu obvious for easy navigation. Users need to spot and use this feature quickly. This ensures a smooth experience on your site or app. Follow these practices to make the hamburger menu visible:  

  • Improve Contrast: The icon should stand out. Use contrasting colors for better visibility. 

  • Make the Icon Bigger: A larger icon is easier to see and click. 

  • Use Labels: A label like "Menu" helps users understand the icon's purpose. 

The aim is to make it effortless for the user to find the menu. An obvious hamburger menu makes it simpler to navigate your site or app. It improves the overall user experience. 

Use Animation 

A touch of animation can bring your menu to life. When the menu stays active, you can transform the icon into an 'X.' This visual cue shows the menu is open and interactive. It guides users through their navigation journey.  

A menu toggle-close animation makes it more dynamic. Even in apps or websites with minimal animations, UX micro-interactions elevate the user experience. They make menus and buttons more interesting. Such animations should be smooth and quick to avoid user frustration

Opt for a Responsive Design   

A responsive menu adjusts its size, layout and functionality. It aims to provide seamless navigation regardless of the device. Users expect an intuitive interface that works well on any screen. A well-designed, responsive menu meets these expectations. It contributes to a positive impression of your website or app.  

You should prioritize responsiveness and test the menu on various devices for optimal performance. This approach ensures all users enjoy easy and efficient access to your content. 

It’s important to make the design adaptive and responsive for multiple devices. While both aim to enhance the user experience, they require a different approach. Watch Frank Spillers, CEO at Experience Dynamics, talk about adaptive design in more detail. 

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Use for Secondary Navigation 

If you store only secondary features in the hamburger menu, it keeps the app's UI clean and maximizes screen space. Users don’t feel overwhelmed by too many options at once. Initially, users engage with the primary features on the home screen. This design choice simplifies their introduction to the app.  

Over time, users become comfortable with the main functions. This makes it easier to discover and use secondary features. This method effectively balances accessibility with a clutter-free environment. It guides users from basic to more complex functionalities. Additionally, this strategy makes navigation straightforward. It allows for a gradual exploration of the app's full capabilities. 

Test your Design 

Every design seems perfect until it faces the ultimate judge — the user. User responses to a design can vary widely. Factors like familiarity with UI trends, preferred apps and age can influence their interaction with your interface. Testing with real users is essential for a user-centered design process

You can use the safest strategy - create and test multiple design versions (A/B testing) with your target audience. This approach reveals which version aligns best with your brand. Leverage heatmaps to understand how users navigate your interface.  

The Best Hamburger Menu Examples

Now, let's look at top hamburger menu designs. These designs mix good looks with ease of use. They show smart ways to put menus on apps and websites. Take inspiration from these examples to simplify navigation and fit it well into different layouts. 

Amazon 

Amazon mobile user interface uses a hamburger menu in the bottom tab bar.

© Amazon, Fair Use

Amazon's Android app takes a unique approach with its hamburger menu. Unlike the traditional top-left placement, Amazon positions it at the bottom right. It becomes the fifth icon in their toolbar. The icon is familiar—three horizontal lines—yet adding the label 'Menu' clarifies its purpose. This makes it accessible to both seasoned and new users. (Contrary to popular trends, labelling icons with text has always been the most effective way of using them, display considerations permitting.) 

Upon selection, the menu leads to a screen that shows various departments and utility sections like Amazon Pay, Deals & Savings, Amazon Prime, etc. It allows users to see all the offerings concisely (which they can also see on the home page). This design treats the hamburger icon as an integral part of the navigation, on par with the other icons. 

Gmail

Gmail places its hamburger menu at the corner. When you hover over it, you see the ‘Main menu’.

© Gmail, Fair Use

The hamburger menu sits in the top left corner of Gmail. Hover over it and "Main Menu" appears. This prompt signals more options await beneath this simple icon. Click on it and a full range of features unfolds. You see your Inbox, Sent Mail, Drafts and more options. Everything tucks away neatly and allows for a clean, distraction-free main screen. 

This design choice prioritizes efficiency and ease. Users can navigate to different parts of their email with ease. The term "Main Menu" adds clarity, especially helpful for those new to the interface.  

Gmail's layout demonstrates how a well-placed hamburger menu simplifies complexity. It stores a wealth of functionality behind a single icon. This approach keeps user interaction straightforward. It allows for more screen space devoted to content, like emails and conversations.  

Starbucks

Starbucks uses a hamburger menu on mobile devices while the desktop website reveals everything in the top bar.

© Starbucks, Fair Use

Starbucks adapts its website for mobile devices well. On the desktop version, menu items like "Rewards," "Gift Cards," "Find a Store," and "Sign In" are directly visible. On mobile, Starbucks cleverly hides these options in a hamburger menu. This design choice streamlines the mobile experience. It reduces clutter and prioritizes space.  

Users can easily navigate the site while still having access to all necessary functions with a tap on the hamburger icon. The transition from desktop to mobile retains functionality without sacrificing user-friendly design. 

Samsung

Samsung’s mobile website uses a hamburger menu to keep the mobile interface clutter free. Since it’s desktop website includes enough white space, the brand opted for a tab bar.

© Samsung, Fair Use

Samsung's website demonstrates a smart use of the hamburger menu on mobile devices. Users can see search and cart options on the desktop alongside the menu. Yet, on mobile, Samsung streamlines the interface.  

The hamburger menu icon neatly conceals various sections like 'Shop,' 'Mobile,' 'Home Appliances' and more. This allows for a clean, focused presentation of products on the home page. When you tap the hamburger menu, it expands to show all options. It keeps the user experience tidy and efficient.  

Samsung's approach makes features accessible without overwhelming the main content. This design balances simplicity with depth so users can easily navigate while maintaining a sleek look. 

Dribbble

Dribbble’s user interface on mobile shows a good use of the hamburger menu. When you click it, the animation changes the hamburger menu to X.

© Dribbble, Fair Use

The menu icon at the top of Dribbble's mobile site animates into an 'X' when users click upon it. This visual transition signals users can close the expanded menu. Dribbble's animation adds a layer of interaction that makes navigation more engaging.  

The menu neatly categorizes different options to keep the interface uncluttered. This design choice showcases a blend of function and aesthetics. It prioritizes content while providing easy access to resources.  

The Take Away 

Many apps and websites use the hamburger menu due to its simple three-line design. It neatly tucks away various sections to provide a clean, minimalist look. However, its use can sometimes obscure important content and slow user interaction. The key to effective design is to know when to use it and explore alternatives for specific user needs. Consider these four things while you design the hamburger menu:  

  • The hamburger menu is a compact navigation tool that can simplify user interfaces, particularly for mobile and minimalist designs. 

  • It may reduce discoverability and slow navigation. So, you must test with real users to ensure it suits your audience’s needs. 

  • You can consider alternatives like tab bars, floating menus or mega menus to improve visibility and user engagement. 

  • The decision to use a hamburger menu should consider the specific context and user group. It's essential to consider user familiarity and the nature of the task at hand.

Ultimately, design is about making informed choices. The hamburger menu is a tool, not a rule. Test and understand your audience to get the best navigation solution. 

Where to Learn More 

Take our course Visual Design: The Ultimate Guide to understand how to effectively use visual design elements and principles in your work. 

Read CXL’s study on Testing the Hamburger Icon for More Revenue.  

Take inspiration for designing your hamburger menu from Dribbble’s top hamburger menu designs.  

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