The Duplicitous Hamburger


The hamburger menu seems ubiquitous. I think it’s symptomatic of a kind of thinking that we need to exercise from design. It gets used by designers to disempower users, and confusing or frustrating people is not the same thing as increasing engagement. Intentionally confusing those two things in a client’s mind in order to misrepresent them is violent.

Developers and companies typically want to increase engagement with whatever they make. It means people have either their application, their brand, or ideas the designing organization wants to perpetuate in the front of their mind, paying them in attention. This arose both from a desire for influence—the more someone uses a well-designed product with good interactions, the more they’ll use it in the future, leading to more money or engagement or user data—and a desire to present ads to a somewhat captive audience. One of the ways this manifests for users is in an effort to isolate them in their task: they’d like to navigate away or leave their screen or task but find themselves without the means to do so. (Apple notoriously solved this problem with a physical and ever-present home button so users always had a way out at their literal fingertips. This is now relegated to a non-intuitive swipe interaction in the iPhone X.)

The purpose of the hamburger menu is to isolate. Ostensibly this nearly ubiquitous icon came about in an effort to hide user interface elements on smaller screens with less usable visual real estate. It has since become a way, even with all the screen area of a 27” iMac, to lower the probability that someone changes screens or moves away from what they are currently doing, what the designer wants them to do. This is usually described as a way to “reduce clutter” or “simplify the design.” It is chickenshit minimalism.

I want to drive a wedge between making it more difficult for a user to change screens and making content more engaging to keep people engaged. The hamburger menu gets used by designers to remove navigational elements of an interface, which drives up metrics like the time on task, and management celebrates. Yes, smaller screens and finger input limit the number of functional touch targets, which lowers the maximum interaction density of a screen. But this is not the same thing as making content more engaging. It’s just making navigation more difficult. It makes it harder for the user to leave.

Constraining navigation is not the same thing as increasing engagement, except in as much as the engagement is frustration, and that frustration gets increased. Many designers do not want to admit that many of their design patterns are hostile to their users or serve to limit them to serve the values of the commissioning company.

Design is a series of tradeoffs between creating and constraining affordances. The hamburger menu is a poor and unjustified constraint, and using it to isolate a user is a kind of violence against that user, and not drawing a distinction between these things for a client or manager is hostile and violent. The alternative is to present the user with the first level of navigational elements, the first level of a nested menu, the main verbs or nouns of the application. Touch targets don’t have to be big, and they don’t have to be foregrounded. But don’t confuse locking a user in a room as increasing that user’s engagement and infer that increase of engagement is indicative of pleasure, or happiness, or usefulness. (This is the same reason most learning analytics are bad.)

The Duplicitous Hamburger - March 14, 2018 - Jordan T. Thevenow-Harrison