Hamburgled: How the Windows 10 UI Goes Mainstream

Posted on March 24, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in Windows 10 with 0 Comments

It’s the digital equivalent of the Hatfields vs. the McCoys: the so-called hamburger button—a UI widget that collapses and expands the app menu used by Windows 10 universal apps—has created a rift between proponents and haters. What is this little widget? And why do some people seem to hate it so much?

The hamburger button has become quite common in digital platforms like Android and iOS, and also on the web. Basically, it’s a button with an icon that consists of three horizontal lines. It in no way resembles a hamburger, of course, since this isn’t 1980 and we could accurately create such a depiction now. But if you can accept that the top and bottom lines are the “bread” and the middle line is the “burger,” we can move on.

button

The point behind the hamburger button is a good one: It’s a way for an app designer to hide commands that users don’t need regularly. So if these commands were just out in the UI all the time, they’d just be taking up space, which is quite valuable on small screens especially.

Consider the Gmail app, which is a typical example of this UI. The little hamburger button up in the corner doesn’t take up any extra space.

gmail

But when you tap it to expand the menu, you see a ton of stuff. This would be unwieldy if it were onscreen all the time.

gmail2

Up front, I will just note that I don’t care one way or the other about the hamburger button: it’s a common UI convention that I see in mobile apps, especially, every single day. So I suspect that is why Microsoft adopted its use for Windows 10. After years of trying to get users to embrace new UI paradigms—pivots, panoramas and hubs—to no avail, the firm has simply given up and will give the people what they want. Or at least expect.

This was a pragmatic decision, but it’s rankled a subset of the user base terribly. And by “subset,” I mean just that: A part of the user. It could be a lot of people, I’m not sure, and I’m certainly not trying to explain this away by suggesting that only a tiny minority of users don’t like the button.

So here’s what’s happening in Windows.

In Windows 8 (and Windows Phone), Microsoft supported app bars which contained buttons for commands. Depending on the app, screen orientation, or screen size, these app bars could be visible or hidden, and some command buttons would trigger menus. These UIs worked inconsistently between big Windows and Phone, so that supposedly identical apps (Calendar, Photos, and so on) looked and worked inconsistently between the platforms.

In Windows 10, Microsoft has consolidated these UIs into a single universal app platform that discards the app bars of the past and is more consistent across devices like phones, phablets, tablets of all sizes, and PCs of all kinds. And part of that universal app platform is a new method for invoking commands that will not be displayed on screen all the time. (There is a toolbar for more frequently-used commands.) This method involves a hamburger button—called the SplitView button—and then a behavior of some kind, which is typically a menu or slide-out UI—called the SplitView pane—that appears, or toggles, when the SplitView button is pressed.

If you’re a Windows Phone user, you can think of the SplitView button as the logical successor to the More (“…”) app bar button: when you tap it, a menu appears with more commands. What it really translates to, regardless of your background, is “menu.” As in, “press here to see the app menu.”

While developers are free to customize how the SplitView works, it is typically handled very consistently and supports a compact, or collapsed, view by default.

maps-collapsed

Or you can toggle this view—by tapping that button—to display an expanded or inline view like so:

maps-expanded

Virtually all of the universal apps we see in Windows 10 Technical Preview 2 today—Maps, Photos, and so on—work this way. And my expectation is that all of the built-in apps in Windows 10 will work this way. (Microsoft’s Xbox Music and Xbox Video apps already work this way, too, on Windows 8.1 today.)

So, consistency is good, right?

Maybe not. As it turns out, many people just don’t like the hamburger button and its menu. Some can’t explain why—it’s just ugly or whatever, they miss the elegant navigation functionality from Windows Phone, perhaps—while others have more valid complaints. Those seem to break down to a few key areas.

Non-discoverable. If you’ve been reading along for some time, I know I decry non-discoverable UIs—and it’s worth remembering that Charms, Switcher and the app bars in Windows 8 all fell very much into this category—but given how common this UI is, and how users from other platforms will expect and understand it, I’m not sure this one is 100 percent valid anymore. Familiarity trumps raw discoverability.

Accessibility. The hamburger menu is always in the upper-left corner of the screen, making it hard or impossible to access when using a phone normally with the right hand only. This is a topic I discussed briefly in Windows Phone: To Folder or Not to Folder, That is the Question when I noted that “my thumb’s ‘wing span’ lets me easily tap anything in an arc from the top right of the screen to the middle left … that dead area in the top left is where I put tiles I don’t need to reach often.” But then, that’s the point: you don’t need to access that button very often, and thanks to its placement you won’t hit it by mistake on a small touch device like a phone.

If you hate the hamburger button—sorry, the SplitView—for some reason I’m missing, let me know. But I think the key point here is that this UI convention is going to be a common part of Windows 10. And Microsoft really seems to have invested in making it core to the universal app platform, not just on PCs but on various device types.