Menu-Design Checklist: 17 UX Guidelines

People rely on menus to find content and use features. Use this checklist to make sure your menus do their job.

Too often, we observe users struggling with menus that are confusing, difficult to manipulate, or hard to find. Avoid common mistakes by following these guidelines for usable navigation menus.

Make Navigation Visible

1. Show Navigation on Larger Screens

This means that the hamburger menu (or any form of hiding the navigation categories under a single menu) is not appropriate for desktop websites and apps. Out of sight means out of mind. The hamburger menu is a necessary evil on smaller screens, where we must balance content and navigation with limited screen real estate. Menus shouldn’t be hidden when you have plenty of space to display them.

Navigation serves roles beyond wayfinding; it helps users to understand the scope of your resources or content. If your navigation is hidden, users lose out on those context cues that tell them who you are and what you do.

Met opera desktop website with a hamburger menu
The Metropolitan Opera’s desktop site: Despite ample available space, the navigation is hidden under a hard-to-notice hamburger menu placed in a white bar at the top. Many users will likely ignore this menu.

2. Put Menus in Expected Locations

Users expect to find specific menus in specific areas of the screen. Make these expectations work in your favor.

Wireframe of a website with utility navigation, global navigation, local navigation, and footer navigation

Menu Type

Expected Location

Primary navigation menu

Websites: Header

Applications: Left side of the screen

Utility (or secondary) navigation

Above the primary navigation and search, towards the top of the screen

Local navigation

Along the left-hand side on desktop websites

Footer menu

Bottom of the screen

The footer should include additional categories for nonprimary personas (such as investor information, job lists, and so forth).  

3. Use Link-Text Colors that Contrast with the Background

Menu links need to be immediately distinguishable from their backgrounds to be findable.

It’s amazing how many designers ignore contrast guidelines; navigating through digital space is disorienting enough without having to squint at the screen just to read the menu.

Gus furniture website with a large hero image and a transparent menu bar that reduces contrast between text and background
Gus Modern’s navigation is nearly invisible over the rotating background carousel.

4. Don’t Cover the Screen with the Menu on Larger Screens

On large screens, don’t cover the entire screen when megamenus (or submenus) are open. While visibility and readability of the menu is important, the open menu should not take over the whole screen. An open menu is a dynamic, ephemeral UI element that sits on top of content, rather than a separate page, with its own URL.

Some users will experience temporary disorientation and mistakenly believe that they have accidentally navigated to a new page, rather than opened a menu. Others might have a harder time recognizing where they currently are in the site’s structure.

(Note that this guideline will probably need to be broken on mobile devices out of necessity.)

IDEO's hamburger menu covers the entire screen
Ideo’s hamburger menu covers the entire screen when open, causing brief disorientation and obscuring the underlying page. This design goes against one of navigation’s main purposes —  to help users localize their current location relative to the rest of the site.

Communicate the Current Location

5. Indicate the User’s Current Location in the Menu

Where am I?” is one of the fundamental questions users need to answer to navigate successfully. Users rely on visual cues from menus (and other navigation elements such a breadcrumbs) to answer this critical question.

One of the top jobs that navigation menus have is to orient users, since visitors often don’t enter from the homepage. Failing to indicate the current location is probably the single most common mistake we see on website menus.

Anthropic website not clearly showing the user's current location
Anthropic does not clearly distinguish where the user is in the information architecture of the site. Users arriving directly to this page (rather than via the homepage) can have difficulty orienting themselves.
Whirlpool mobile site shows breadcrumbs of the user's current location
Whirlpool: Breadcrumbs indicate the current location and help orient incoming visitors. Contextualizing the visible information is especially important if the user has landed on a page that is almost, but not quite what they were looking for, as they can easily jump up a single level in the navigation hierarchy and try another option.

6. Provide Local Navigation Menus for Closely Related Content

If people frequently want to compare related products or complete several tasks within a single section, make those nearby pages visible with a local navigation menu, rather than forcing users to ‘pogo stick’ up and down your hierarchy.

NYC Department of City Planning desktop website with local navigation on the left side
NYC’s Department of City Planning: The local navigation along the left side allows users to explore a section of the site laterally, as though it were a neighborhood of related elements. This design facilitates exploratory browsing and also helps users who arrive to an internal page that is close to but not exactly matching their information need.

Communicate the Available Options

7. Use Clear, Specific, and Familiar Wording for Link Labels

Figure out what users are looking for and use category labels that are familiar and relevant. Menus are not the place to get cute with made-up words, internal jargon, or abstract high-level categorization. Stick to terminology that clearly describes your content, features, or resources.

8. Make Link Labels Easy to Scan

You can reduce the amount of time users need to spend reading menus by left-justifying vertical menus and by front-loading key terms.

9. For Large Websites, Show Several Navigation Tiers in Submenus

If typical user journeys involve drilling down through several levels, mega menus can save users time by letting them skip a level (or two). On mobile devices, sequential navigation can enable users to peruse a deep structure.

Animated gif of a sequential menu with several "pages" on Toyota's mobile site
Toyota uses a sequential menu on mobile to enable users to drill down into a deep structure relatively quickly, while offering additional information scent through images. This would not be easily possible in an accordion menu.

10. Use Visual Cues for Long Menus

Increase the information scent of long menus with visual communication (as an optional, additional signal). Images, icons, and limited use of color may help with comprehension (or differentiation) of unfamiliar options and aid scannability. But it’s important that these should be additional supportive elements, rather than replacing clear text labels. Both accessibility and usability demands that we provide clear text options.  

Control Voltage's mobile website menu offers images to help increase the information scent of various categories.
Control Voltage uses small images to increase information scent and differentiation of the multiple menu categories. However, as these images are quite small with a lot of detail and somewhat similar, they only offer a modest improvement. Simplified icons would offer an even bigger benefit. In either case, preserving clear text labels is necessary.

Make It Easy to Manipulate

11. Make Menu Links Big Enough to Be Easily Tapped or Clicked

Links that are too small or too close together are a huge source of frustration for mobile users,and also make large-screen designs unnecessarily difficult to use.

Teenage Engineering's desktop site has extremely small text link sizes that are too close together to easily click
Teenage Engineering: The navigation menus contain small-font links that are much too close to each other. They are hard to click, even on a desktop site. Additionally, the text contrast is much too low for readability and accessibility.

12. Clearly Signify Submenus with a Caret or Arrow Icon

This signifier helps to distinguish between main navigation items that lead directly to a new page and. ones that expand into a submenu. Users may not even realize that there is a submenu if the category name doesn’t look clickable (or tappable).

Stanford's desktop website navigation has a caret icon to differentiate between menu items that have a submenu compared to ones that don't have a submenu
Stanford University shows a simple caret icon next to menu items that can be expanded with a submenu, easily differentiating between the menu items that are directly linked to a page (such as Research) and those that open a submenu (such as Programs).

Note that the image-based background behind the menu decreases contrast (and thus readability).

13. Use Click-Activated (Rather Than Hover-Activated) Submenus

Hover is not universally available: users on touchscreens or those who interact primarily through a keyboard do not have access to content hidden under hover. If your menu is exposed on hover,  you’ll need to provide these users with a backup way of accessing it.

It’s better to have a consistent, reliable interaction pattern across devices and input modalities. In addition, accidental triggering (and dismissal) of hover-activated menus is frustrating to all users.

14. Avoid Multilevel Cascading Menus; Use Mega Menus or Landing Pages Instead

A simple dropdown menu works well for one-tier navigation but becomes frustrating with two tiers. It is highly inadvisable for more than two tiers, as it increases the risk of accidentally selecting the wrong subcategory or of closing the menu altogether.

If your submenus have multiple levels of submenus, use either a mega menu (that can support 2–3 tiers of information reasonably well), or send users to routing pages with additional options.

RStudio's desktop application uses multi-level hierarchical menus, which are difficult to physically manipulate
R Studio uses multiple levels in cascading dropdown menus. These are difficult to physically manipulate and often result in errors where users “fall out” of the menu, closing it entirely, or accidentally selecting the wrong item.

15. Consider Sticky (or Partially Sticky) Menus for Long Pages

Users who have reached the bottom of a long page may face a lot of tedious scrolling before they can get back to the menus at the top. Menus that remain visible at the top of the viewport even after scrolling can solve that problem and are especially welcome on smaller screens.

16. Optimize for Easy Physical Access to Frequently Used Commands  

For dropdown menus, this means putting the most common items close to the link target that launches the dropdown (so the user’s mouse or finger won’t have to travel as far — since, according to Fitts’s law, the travel time to the target depends on the distance to it).  

17. Avoid Innovative or Gimmicky Patterns for Navigation

Attempting to impress your users with cool effects should not be one of your priorities when creating menus. While clients or stakeholders may be temporarily impressed by novel menu designs, users tend to be far more impressed by great content that is attractively presented and easily accessed with familiar menus.

Adobe's CXM mini site has a small dot-style navigation, which is difficult to physically control and hard to understand its purpose
Adobe’s CXM website lacks conventional navigation altogether, favoring instead carousel controls that skip the user to an arbitrary spot down the page. Without knowing where it leads, there’s little incentive for users to click.

Of course, sometimes new types of menus improve the user experience. (Hamburger menus are a great example of this phenomenon.) Or, sometimes new technologies are so different that some of these guidelines won’t apply. But these cases are few and far between, and most interfaces will be easier to use if they adhere to these principles.

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