Android’s ‘hamburger’ menus are making a comeback, but I hope it’s a short one
Last month, Google Messages users noticed a new UI element cropping up, though one that’s decidedly old-school. An icon comprising three horizontal lines in the upper left-hand corner — a menu button — has appeared. I see it on my own phone now. Tapping it slides out a familiar panel of options from somewhere beyond the left edge of the screen. More recently, a similar — though non-functional — button popped up in Google Photos, marking two Google apps to revive the so-called hamburger menu just this year. It might seem like a minor thing, but I hate to see it. And I’ll tell you why.
For years now, Google’s been pushing gesture-based navigation as the default on its own phones, and on Android in general. One of the key features of Android’s gesture navigation, and one that differentiates Google’s implementation from Apple’s, is its back gesture. Generally speaking, if you want to navigate back on an iPhone, you’ll need to either tap a button somewhere within the UI or swipe in from the left edge of the screen. Android, on the other hand, lets you swipe in from either the left or the right edge of your screen to go back.
Like iOS’s legacy back buttons, these hamburger menu buttons appear in the top left corners of their apps, but considering you don’t need to use them very often, I’m not so worried about how easy they are to reach. (After using the Pixel 6 Pro for months and having recently settled into a Galaxy S22 Ultra, I’ve pretty much given up on my one-handed use dreams anyway.) No, I’m more bothered by the fact that slide-out menus like the one in Messages are fundamentally incompatible with what I think is the best version of what’s become the industry standard for smartphone navigation.
These menus were ubiquitous on Android in the pre-gesture old days. Phones were smaller then, so reachability was less of an issue — but more to my point, before swiping in from the edge of the screen meant go back, it was a natural way to uncover a menu that was designed to look like it was ready and waiting off-screen. Mimicking physical space and proximity is a great way to make complex user interfaces more intuitive; your notification shade isn’t really above your phone’s screen, and it isn’t actually a shade, but couching the concept in terms (and make-believe physics) that are familiar makes it easier to understand.
Over the past few years, though, as swiping in horizontally has come to have a different connotation on Android, app UI design has largely shifted away from menus that are accessed this way. Some apps, even some of Google’s own like Drive and Gmail, haven’t been able to shake the hamburger menu — but interfaces in places like the Play Store and Google Weather have moved on.
Hamburger menus make sense with button navigation.
So what’s the alternative? At the bare minimum, if we’re going to go back to menu buttons in the upper left corner of all our apps, the slide-out animation that reveals the menu needs to go. The animation implies — intentionally, and by design — that the menu exists in space to the left of the screen, and can be accessed with a swipe from left to right. Gesture navigation makes this expected inference on the user’s part wrong; not only does swiping in from the edge of the screen go back when you’re using gesture nav, but in Messages, swiping from left to right away from the edge of the screen archives conversations. If you’re using traditional three-button navigation, swiping in from the edge does open the menu as expected — but designing apps around an outdated navigation paradigm is awfully regressive.
The animations are unintuitive with gesture navigation.
Google, for its part, has typically been tucking the functions that used to live in these side menus into a floating overlay that appears when you tap your profile photo. (Frustratingly, Messages’ features are currently split between its “new” hamburger menu and the menu that appears when you touch your profile picture.) Some apps, like Slack and Discord, still employ menus that can be accessed by swiping from left to right (away from the edge of the screen), but the menu that’s revealed is presented as having been under the previous view. It may seem like a distinction without a difference, but intuitively, grabbing the content on your screen and moving it over to see what’s underneath makes more sense than a KitKat-era menu gliding in over top of what you’re doing when you tap a hamburger button.
Icons like the one Google uses to denote these menus have been popular since the 1980s, so there’s a longstanding precedent for keeping them around — but the way Google uses them now hasn’t kept pace with the way it’s designed Android to work in the present day. If gesture navigation is the way forward for mobile UI (and it seems like it is), Google’s gotta revamp the burger — as it stands, it feels like a throwback in the worst way.