Andy’s been playing Devil’s Advocate again, defending the much-maligned hamburger button. Weirdly though, I think I’ve seen more blog posts, tweets, and presentations defending this supposed underdog than I’ve seen knocking it.
Take this presentation from Smashing Conference. It begins with a stirring call to arms. Designers of the web—cast off your old ways, dismiss your clichés, try new things, and discard lazy solutions! “Yes!”, I thought to myself, “this is a fantastic message.” But then the second half of the talk switches into a defence of the laziest, most clichéd, least thought-through old tropes of interface designs: carousels, parallax scrolling and inevitably, the hamburger icon.
But let’s not get into a binary argument of “good” vs. “bad” when it comes to using the hamburger icon. I think the question is more subtle than that. There are three issues that need to be addressed if we’re going to evaluate the effectiveness of using the hamburger icon:
- usage, and
An icon is a gateway to either some content or a specific action. The icon should provide a clear representation of the content or action that it leads to. Sometimes “clear” doesn’t have to literally mean that it’s representative: we use icons all the time that don’t actually represent the associated content or action (a 3.5 inch diskette for “save”, a house for the home page of a website, etc.). Cultural factors play a large part here. Unless the icon is a very literal pictorial representation, it’s unlikely that any icon can be considered truly universal.
If a hamburger icon is used as the gateway to a list of items, then it’s fairly representative. It’s a bit more abstract than an actual list of menu items stacked one on top of the other, but if you squint just right, you can see how “three stacked horizontal lines” could represent “a number of stacked menu items.”
If, on the other hand, a hamburger icon is used as the gateway to, say, a grid of options, then it isn’t representative at all. A miniaturised grid—looking like a window—would be a more representative option.
So in trying to answer the question “Does the hamburger icon succeed at being representative?”, the answer—as ever—is “it depends.” If it’s used as a scaled-down version of the thing its representing, it works. If it’s used as a catch-all icon to represent “a bunch of stuff” (as is all too common these days), then it works less well.
Which brings us to…
Much of the criticism of the hamburger icon isn’t actually about the icon itself, it’s about how it’s used. Too many designers are using it as an opportunity to de-clutter their interface by putting everything behind the icon. This succeeds in de-cluttering the interface in the same way that a child putting all their messy crap in the cupboard succeeds in cleaning their room.
It’s a tricky situation though. On small screens especially, there just isn’t room to display all possible actions. But the solution is not to display none instead. The solution is to prioritise. Which actions need to be visible? Which actions can afford to be squirrelled away behind an icon? A designer is supposed to answer those questions (using research, testing, good taste, experience, or whatever other tools are at their disposal).
All too often, the hamburger icon is used as an excuse to shirk that work. It’s treated as a “get out of jail free” card for designing small-screen interfaces.
To be clear: this usage—or misusage—has nothing to do with the actual icon itself. The fact that the icon is three stacked lines is fairly irrelevant on this point. The reason why the three stacked lines are so often used is that there’s a belief that this icon will be commonly understood.
That brings us to last and most important point:
By far the most important factor in whether an icon—any icon—will be understood is whether or not it is labelled. A hamburger icon labelled with a word like “menu” or “more” or “options” is going to be far more effective than an unlabelled icon.
Don’t believe me? Good! Do some testing.
In my experience, 80-90% of the benefit of usability testing is in the area of labelling. And one of the lowest hanging fruit is the realisation that “Oh yeah, we should probably label that icon that we assumed would be universally understood.”
Andy mentions the “play” and “pause” symbols as an example of icons that are so well understood that they can stand by themselves. That’s not necessarily true.
I think there are two good rules of thumb when it comes to using icons:
- If in doubt, label it.
- If not in doubt, you probably should be—test your assumptions.
Now that we’ve established the three criteria for evaluating an icon’s effectiveness, let’s see how the hamburger icon stacks up (if you’ll pardon the pun):
- Representation: It depends. Is it representing a stacked list of menu items? If so, good. If not, reconsider.
- Usage: it depends. Is it being used as an excuse to throw literally all your navigation behind it? If so, reconsider. Prioritise. Decide what needs to be visible, and what can be tucked away.
- Clarity: it depends. Is the icon labelled? If so, good. If not, less good.
So there you go. The answer to the question “Is the hamburger icon good or bad?” is a resounding and clear “It depends.”