hide and seek
Hamburger navigation menus have earned a bad reputation and for good reason PHOTO: Eric Fredericks

Hide navigation when it is disruptive to the journey the customer is on. Show navigation when it is supportive to the journey the customer is on.

The hamburger menu has become notorious as an ill-advised and poorly implemented form of navigation. But hiding navigation in and of itself is not a bad thing. It depends why the navigation is being hidden.

So, why has the hamburger menu got such a bad reputation? Because it was nearly always implemented from an organization-centric point of view. You’d be surprised how many decisions are made based on trying to be cool or ‘innovative.’ Another reason the hamburger menu is often chosen for mobile sites or apps is because of design convenience. Instead of prioritizing the top three to four navigation paths, everything gets stuck in a hamburger. It’s a nice, quick, easy fix that rarely works out well.

Sometimes the hamburger is used in an attempt by the organization to control the customer journey. Some organizations still think that if you limit all options on a page to marketing messages then the customer will have no choice but to click and follow one of these marketing journeys. It’s all about controlling the customer journey. This, of course, doesn’t work, but certain organizations like the illusion that they are in control of their customers.

“Discoverability is cut almost in half by hiding a website’s main navigation,” Nielsen Norman found in 2016. “Also, task time is longer and perceived task difficulty increases.” 

Luke Wroblewski has written extensively on the impact of hamburger menus on a range of mobile apps. In one job search app, changing from hamburger to visible menu resulted in double digit growth in monthly users and visits. For other apps, engagement “plummeted” or “fell drastically” when they implemented the hamburger approach.

According to Wroblewski, “Facebook found that not only did engagement go up when they moved from a 'hamburger' menu to a bottom tab bar in their iOS app, but several other important metrics went up as well.”

Sometimes, it makes sense to hide navigation. In the early years, Amazon had a visible navigation for its product categories. But as the range of categories grew, it went to a single “Shop by department” link. However, it compensated for this by having a large, prominent, extremely well-designed search. So, if you have a huge range of stuff to offer, it may be better to lead with search rather than navigation.

Another example of where hiding navigation makes sense is where your customers have a “super task.” This is a task that is way more important than all the other tasks, like booking a flight or a room. Then it may make sense to lead with the actual task itself, and hide the other navigation options.

On a related point, when a customer has chosen a particular journey, it is usually a good idea to hide all the navigation that is not directly relevant to that journey. So, if you visit the Kindle Books section on Amazon, practically every link and piece of navigation on that page relates to Kindle books. The navigation for all the other products Amazon offers have been stripped away so as to allow you to focus on Kindle books.

The core purpose of navigation is to help you progress on the journey you have decided to go on.