I’ve noticed a worrying trend in web navigation lately. More and more websites are hiding their navigation – at desktop resolutions – under a single button, often the 3-bar “hamburger” icon.
They are doing this because it makes the website look “clean” – simple and uncluttered. Who wouldn’t want that? Or perhaps they are following the lead of some powerful role models, such as Google, or Medium. Or they are influenced by design for mobile devices, where small screens often require navigation to be hidden initially, and the hamburger icon has become ubiquitous. But they are usually wrong.
Just a quick recap of the purposes1 of navigation menus on websites:
- It tells you what’s here and what you can do
- It gets you to where you want to go
- It tells you where you are
Hiding the navigation under an icon does a slightly worse job at no.2 (one extra click), but a terrible job at nos.1 and 3. And a clean-looking design does not compensate for this loss, for most websites at least.
So when is it OK to hide the navigation under an icon?
Well, I’ve already mentioned devices with small screens, where there simply is no room to spare for a menu. Responsive web design (RWD) is often used to transform the navigation menu into an icon at small screen sizes, like the popular Bootstrap framework. This is an ergonomic, not aesthetic decision.
The other case where hiding the navigation is understandable is on sites where random browsing is the dominant navigation pattern. This can describe journalism sites such as Medium, Upworthy, blogs in general, or social networks like Google+, Pinterest, Instagram, etc. These are sites where you typically don’t start at the homepage, and you typically navigate via related content. They may have navigation behind the scenes (such as content categories or account tools) but these are not needed in the vast majority of user journeys.
For most other websites and web applications, where users need to be guided to the information or tool they need with as little fuss as possible, visible navigation menus or toolbars are necessary2.
Yes, it’s easier for a designer to make a site without navigation menus look attractive, at first glance. But as any UX expert knows, visual simplicity does not necessarily equal ease of use. The best website designs are those that look beautiful while also providing the information and tools most users need. You do not solve a design problem by sweeping it under the carpet.
Hold the mystery meat, too
Which brings me to another form of the same problem – sweeping “surplus” navigation underneath a cryptic icon like the hamburger or “…” Software developers have known for decades that menu labels like “Other”, “Misc” or “More” are design failures – yet somehow giving them a trendy icon has given this form of mystery meat navigation new respectability. Google is a prime offender. Submenus are OK when the label clearly suggests what’s inside, such as the now-ubiquitous Account menu (or just avatar) at the top right. If not, it may as well be labeled “Stuff”.
[Update 10 Feb: Killing Off the Global Navigation: One Trend to Avoid by the Nielsen Norman Group makes much the same argument, but provides more background, examples and suggestions. Their article correctly targets any single menu item hiding the global navigation inside a drop-down menu, rather than hiding it under an icon as I focused on. They point to online retailers starting the trend, possibly copying Amazon. They suggest using click tracking, observation and analytics to decide whether it makes sense to hide your global navigation, and what impact it's having.]
(1) Those who’ve read Steve Krug’s 2001 classic Don’t Make Me Think may recall his slightly different list of the purposes of navigation:
- It gives us something to hold on to.
- It tells us what’s here.
- It tells us how to use the site.
- It gives us confidence in the people who build it.
(2) Search can help, but most usability studies show that Search is typically only used after navigation has already failed and should not be considered a replacement for navigation. Search on the vast majority of websites falls far, far short of Google’s magic.
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