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Now Trending: Hamburgers

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Now Trending: Hamburgers

Liam Spradlin

There's been a lot of discussion in the Android community about hamburger menus recently. With possible designs leaking from Google that may show a different future for Android's established embedded hamburger menu, many users are wondering if the exposed version (where all three horizontal lines are fully exposed) is better functionally, or if hamburger menus even have a meaningful role in modern interface design.

This discussion goes far beyond Android, though, as the hamburger has been a surprising source of disagreement with many designers.

Those in favor of the hamburger point to its simplicity, its tacit nature, and its ability to conceal an entire navigation paradigm under one simple icon.

In many ways, there IS value in having a navigation paradigm by which a navigation menu is easily accessible through one swipe or tap. But I don't think a hamburger is the way to achieve this.

The reason for this is essentially that the hamburger menu is sort of an all-or-nothing navigation catch-all. Some apps, like Google Play Music, do a fantastic job of keeping a small number of views easily accessible through the side menu. There are five sections listed, all accessible without scrolling.

But then there's Gmail. The Gmail app for Android crams accounts, inboxes, and labels all into the side menu. It attempts to reconcile this by floating "frequent labels" to the top of the list, but for users that actually make use of labels in any extensive way, scrolling will inevitably be required. Still other apps cram more specialized entries in.

The other primary issue with hamburger menus is discoverability. To many users, the hamburger icon means nothing. Its function is only understood by bravely tapping it to see what happens. In that way, it's only understood by discovery, and there's nothing inherently pointing to the idea that you can tap it. 

Ironically, some websites like TIME have chosen to remedy this by adding "MENU" under the icon.

This essentially admits defeat for the discoverability of the hamburger menu's true function. After all, a joke isn't funny if you have to explain it. And in the same way, an interface element isn't intuitive if you have to explicitly label it.

According to an article at Digiday, TIME's head of product embraces the hamburger menu.

While readers are still adjusting to its hamburger menu design, they’ll catch on soon enough. “One of the things we were trying to accomplish with this redesign was to think about the future and where people are going,” he said. “We felt confident that they would get there and that we could be one of the sites that helped them.”
— Digiday

This thinking, in my mind, is why we are where we are with the hamburger. There are two streams of thought on issues like these.

The first is the thought that new interface elements, no matter who they're borrowed from, should be self-explanatory, easy to understand, and helpful automatically, without users having to put in any learning time or effort.

The other stream of thought believes that interface elements are something born from those who know better - users won't understand this at first, but eventually they will, so the extra effort of finding a better solution isn't worth it.

So what is the ultimate answer?

Ultimately, users are getting used to the hamburger. Apps like Google+ that don't use it actually arrange navigation access in a simple, context-specific way that make sense, but the fact remains that the hamburger probably isn't going away.

The approach of taking the easy way out because users will "adjust" to something is definitely not the ideal design process, but in this case - like it or not - it's kind of working.