Once someone starts using your app, they need to know where to go and how to get there at any point. Good navigation is a vehicle that takes users where they want to go. But establishing good navigation is a challenge on mobile due to the limitations of the small screen and the need to prioritize content over decorative elements.

Creating good navigation is an essential part of mobile app design. Various navigation patterns have been devised to solve this challenge in different ways, but they all suffer from a variety of usability problems. In this article, we’ll examine a few basic mobile navigation patterns and describe the strengths and weaknesses of each of them.

Hamburger menu

Screen space is a precious commodity on mobile, and the hamburger menu (or side drawer) is one of the most popular mobile navigation design patterns for helping you save it. The hamburger menu allows you to hide the navigation beyond the edge of the screen and reveal it only upon a user’s action.

Hamburger menus keep the look of a navigation menu hidden to avoid clutter.
In its default state, the hamburger menu and all of its contents remain hidden.

When to use

The main downside of the hamburger menu is its low discoverability, and it’s not recommended as the primary navigation menu. However, this pattern might be an appropriate solution for secondary navigation options. Secondary navigation options are destinations or features that are important for users only in certain circumstances. Being secondary, they can be relegated to less prominent visual placement, as long as users can quickly find a utility when they need it. By hiding these options behind the hamburger icon, designers avoid overwhelming users with too many options.

Uber uses a hamburger icon for this purpose. Because everything about the main screen of the Uber app is focused on requesting a car, there’s no need to display secondary options such as “Payment,” “History” or “Settings.” The normal user flow doesn’t include these actions, and so they can be hidden behind the hamburger icon.

A properly used hamburger menu on a ride-sharing app
Properly used hamburger menu. Image credit Uber.


  • A large number of navigation options. The main advantage of the navigation menu is that it can accommodate a fairly large number of navigation options in a tiny space.
  • Clean design. The hamburger menu allows the designer to free up screen real estate by shifting options off-screen into a side menu. This pattern can be particularly useful if you want the user to focus on the main content.


  • Less discoverable. What’s out of sight is out of mind. When navigation is hidden, users are less likely to use it. While this type of navigation is becoming standard and many mobile users are familiar with it, many people still simply don’t think to open it.
  • Clashes with platform navigation rules. The hamburger menu has become almost a standard on Android (the pattern has the name “navigation drawer” in material design), but in iOS, it simply cannot be implemented without clashing with basic navigation elements, and this could overload the navigation bar.
An iOS navigation bar with a properly used hamburger menu.
Hamburger menu overload the iOS navbar. Image credit lmjabreu.
  • The hamburger icon hides context. The hamburger menu doesn’t communicate the current location at a glance: surfacing information about the current location is harder because it’s only visible when the person clicks on the hamburger icon.
Hamburger menus can hide a users current location from others
Out of sight, out of mind. The hamburger menu hides the user’s current location in the app. Image credit lmjabreu.
  • Extra action is required to move to the target destination. Reaching a particular page usually takes at least two taps (one tap on the menu icon and another on the target option).


  • Prioritize the navigation options. If the navigation is complex, hiding it won’t make it user-friendly. A lot of practical examples clearly show that exposing menu options more visibly increases engagement and user satisfaction. Ask yourself, “What’s important enough to be visible on mobile?” Answering that question will require an understanding of what matters to your users.
Having a hamburger menu located in various places on a web page can result in more user sessions.
Redbooth’s move from a hamburger menu to a bottom tab bar resulted in increased user sessions. Image credit Luke Wroblewski.
  • Consider using tabs. A tab bar works well if you have a limited number of high-priority navigation options.
Youtube created a navigation menu that is tab-focused for rapid switching.
YouTube makes the main pieces of core functionality available with one tap, allowing rapid switching between features. Image credit Luke Wroblewski.
  • Review your information architecture. Good apps are highly focused. So, if you have one complex app, you could split its functionality into two (or more) simple apps. Facebook released its Messenger app to solve the problem of complexity. The reduced functionality results in a reduced set of menu options, and less need for a hamburger menu.
Facebook has created multiple apps to signal a shift in navigation.
Facebook decided to spit the apps to simplify navigation. Image credit Techcrunch.

Tab bar

The tab bar is a mobile navigation design pattern that was inherited from desktop design. It usually contains relatively few destinations, and those destinations are of similar importance and require direct access from anywhere in the app.

A tab bar at the bottom of mobile phones give you access to important pages across the entire site.
The tab bar doesn’t hide navigation, it allows direct access and presents feedback on the icon it’s related to.

When to use

Tabbed navigation is a great solution for apps with relatively few top-level navigation options (up to five). The tab bar makes the main pieces of core functionality available with one tap, allowing rapid switching between features.

Twitter's tab bar lets users move directly to the desired page instantly.
The tab bar on Twitter lets the user navigate directly to the screen associated with the item.


  • The tab bar fairly easily communicates the current location. Properly used visual cues (icons, labels, and colors) enable the user to understand their current location at a glance.
Tab bars have become the most glanceable of navigation design patterns.
Tab bar is one of the most glanceable navigation design patterns. Image credit Ramotion.
  • Tab bars are persistent. The navigation remains in sight no matter what page the user is viewing. The user has clear visibility of all the main app views and has single-click access to them.
  • Within thumb zone. The bottom navigation is easier to reach with the thumb when the device is held in one hand.
Navigation tabs need to be within the thumb zone for ease of use.
Ideal placement of navigation for the thumb zone, according to UXmag. Image credit UXmag.


  • The navigation options are limited. If your app has more than five options, then fitting them in a tab or navigation bar and still keeping an optimum touch-target size would be hard.
Make sure to refrain from including more than 5 options in the tab bar.
Don’t use more than five options in a tab bar.
  • The location and logic of the tab bar options on iOS and Android are different. Platforms have different rules and guidelines for UI and usability, and you have to consider them when designing a tab bar for a particular platform. Tabs appear at the top of the screen on Android and the bottom of the screen on iOS. This happens presumably because Android’s control bar at the bottom is hardware. Please note that this rule doesn’t apply to mobile websites, because the experience with them should be consistent regardless of the device used to browse them (Android or iOS).
The iOS and Android UI house tab bars in different locations.
Proper location and logic will help to maintain a consistent experience with other apps on the platform and prevent confusion between actions and view-switching. Image credit Google.


  • Make touch targets big enough to be easily tapped or clicked. To calculate the width of each bottom navigation action, divide the width of the view by the number of actions. Alternatively, make all bottom navigation actions the width of the largest action.
Most users hit a 10x10mm touch target with mobile applications.
Most users can comfortably and reliably hit a 10 × 10-millimeter touch target. Image credit UXmag.
  • Order the navigation options. Users expect to see a certain order in the tab bar. The first tab item has to be the home screen of the app, and the order of tabs should reflect their priority or the logical order in the user flow. One of the tabs should always be active and visually highlighted.
  • Test your icons for usability. As you can see in the example below, app designers sometimes hide functionality behind icons that are pretty hard to recognize. To prevent this from happening, test your icons with the five-second rule: If it takes you more than five seconds to think of an appropriate icon for something, then it is unlikely that an icon can effectively communicate that meaning.
When creating a navigation tab bar, ensure the symbols you use are clear and easy to understand.
Clarity is an essential property of navigation design patterns. Bloom.fm app has a tab bar full of abstract icons.
  • If an icon fails the five-second rule (i.e. isn’t self-evident), it needs a text label. It’s pretty rare in the offline world that we rely on iconography alone to represent ideas — and for good reason. Due to the absence of a standard usage for most icons, text labels are necessary to communicate meaning and reduce ambiguity. Users should understand what exactly will happen before they tap on an element.
Placing text labels under the tab bar icons can help provide additional clarity.
Use text labels to provide short, meaningful definitions to bottom navigation icons. Image credit Material Design.

Priority+ pattern

The “Priority+” mobile navigation design pattern was coined by Michael Scharnagl to describe navigation that works well for responsive design. It exposes what’s deemed to be the most important navigation elements and hides away less important items behind a “more” button.

When to use

This pattern might be a good solution for content-heavy apps and websites with a lot of different sections and pages (such as a news website or a large retailer’s store). The Guardian makes use of the priority+ pattern for its section navigation. Less important items are revealed when the user hits the “All” button.

The Guardian uses the Priority+ pattern for it's primary navigation.
The Guardian employs the Priority+ pattern for its section navigation. Image credit BradFrost.


  • This pattern prioritizes navigation options. It surfaces the most frequently accessed navigation options.
  • It makes use of available screen space. As space increases, the number of exposed navigation options increases as well, which can result in better visibility and more engagement.
  • This menu is very adaptive. You can scale it quite nicely across screen sizes without having to transform the pattern.


  • It might hide some important navigation options. The priority+ pattern requires designers to assume the relative importance of navigation items. Be aware that the items you prioritize to be visible might not be the same ones users are looking for most.

Floating action button

Shaped like a circle icon floating above the UI, the floating action button changes color upon focus and lifts upon selection. It’s well known by all Android users and is a distinct element of material design. Floating above the interface of an app, it promotes user action, says Google.

Floating action buttons can stand out among copy for ease of use when a user wants to add additional pieces.
Floating action button. Image credit Google.

When to use

The design of the floating action button hinges on the premise that users will perform a certain action most of the time. You can make this “hero” action even more heroic by reinforcing the sense that it is a core use case of your app. For example, a music app might have a floating action button that represents “play.”

Floating action buttons can be used as a strong characteristic of your app, such as a play/pause button.
Use the floating action button for actions that are strongly characteristic of your app. Playback tells users that this is a music app.

The button is a natural cue to users for what to do next. In user research, Google found that users understand it as a wayfinding tool. When faced with an unfamiliar screen, as many users are regularly (like when running an app for the first time), they will use the floating action buttons to navigate. Thus, it is a way to prioritize the most important action you want users to take.


  • It’s a signpost of what’s important. It’s a good way to prioritize the most important action you want users to take.
  • It takes up little screen space. Compared to the tab bar, it doesn’t take up an entire row.
  • A visually pleasing UI element such as this might not improve usability. However, emotion is a factor in user experience. If a user is pleased to use an app because they find it visually attractive, then that would create positive UX effects.
  • It also improves effectiveness. A study by Steve Jones demonstrates that a floating action button slightly impairs usability when users first interact with the button. However, once users have successfully completed a task using the element, they are able to use it more efficiently than a traditional action button.


  • A floating action button can distract users from the content. It is designed to stand out — it is colorful, raised and grid-breaking. Its design is meant to draw the user’s attention. But sometimes its presence can distract the user from the main content.
Using strong colors such as red can help stand out from the background.
A red button stands out from the background and focuses user attention. Image credit Paul van Oijen.
  • It can block content. Take Google’s Gmail app for instance. In the example below, you can see that it blocks the “favorite” star, as well as the time stamp for the last row. Additional scrolling is needed whenever the user wants to see this information.
Screenshot of a floating red button commonly seen on Android devices.
Floating action button in Android app. Image credit Material Design.
  • It is also icon-only navigation. By design, the floating action button is a circle containing an icon. It’s an icon-only button, with no room for text labels. The problem is that icons are incredibly hard to understand because they’re so open to interpretation. Even a simple action icon like the pencil in the example below can mean different things in different apps.
The same floating button can have various meanings depending on the web page or application you are interacting with.
Same icon, different meanings: “Compose” in the Gmail and Inbox apps, but “Edit” in the Snapseed app. Here, context helps to explain the action.


  • Less is more. Because it is so prominent and intrusive, use only one per screen.
An application should refrain from having multiple action buttons to avoid visual hierarchy and confusion.
Multiple floating action buttons should never appear on screen at one time because that would confuse the visual hierarchy.

  • Prioritize usage. Not every screen should have one, simply because not every screen has an action of such importance.
  • The floating action button is strongly associated with positive actions. Because it is full of character, it’s generally taken to be a positive action, like create, favorite, navigate, search and so on. Don’t use it for destructive actions, like delete.
Grid showing the do's and don'ts for action buttons.
Dos and don’ts for floating action button design.
  • The floating action button could be replaced with a sequence of more specific actions. This would help to surface a set that doesn’t really belong at the top but is still important. Apps such as Evernote simplify the controls by using a floating action button for the most important user actions.
Floating action button that is found on the Evernote application.
Floating action button in Evernote. Image credit Evernote.
  • It can improve transitions between screens, too. The floating action button is not just a round button; it has some transformative properties that you can use to ease users from screen to screen. It can expand, morph and react.
The various transitions that can happen with a navigation menu.
Navigation transitions. Image credit Anish Chandran.

Full-screen navigation

While with other mobile navigation patterns mentioned in this article, you’d be struggling to minimize the space that the navigation systems take up, the full-screen pattern takes the exact opposite approach. This navigation approach usually devotes the home page exclusively to navigation. Users incrementally tap or swipe to reveal additional menu options as they scroll up and down.

The various stages of a full-screen navigation menu in a mobile application.
Full-screen navigation in mobile app. Image credit Smashing Magazine.

When to use

This pattern works well in task-based and direction-based websites and apps, especially when users tend to limit themselves to only one branch of the navigation hierarchy during a single session. Funneling users from broad overview pages to detail pages helps them to home in on what they’re looking for and to focus on content within an individual section.

Yelp's mobile application utilizes a full-screen navigation menu for its users.
Full-screen navigation options in Yelp.


  • The full-screen navigation pattern is best for achieving simplicity and coherence. You can organize large chunks of information in a coherent manner and reveal information without overwhelming the user; once the user makes their decision about where to go, then you can dedicate the entire screen space to content.


  • Prime real estate will be used for the purpose of navigation. You won’t be able to display any content except the navigation options.


  • Use a hamburger menu to hide secondary functionality and keep the focus on the main experience.
Certain applications like Cookly can benefit from two navigation design patterns together.
Using two navigation design patterns together. Image credit Dribbble.

Gesture-based navigation

June 29th, 2007 was a game-changer. From the moment Apple launched the first fully touchscreen smartphone on the market, mobile devices have been dominated by touchscreen interaction.

The various types of gestures that can take place in an application.
All possible types of gestures in mobile apps. Image credit Aaron Wade.

Gestures immediately became popular among designers, and many apps were designed around experimenting with gesture controls.

Mobile applications can use creative navigation design patterns.
Creative navigation design patterns: gesture driven to-do app Clear.

In today’s world, the success of a mobile app can largely depend on how well gestures are implemented in the user experience.

When to use

This mobile navigation pattern is good when users want to explore the details of particular content easily and intuitively. Users will spend more time with content than they will with navigation menus. So, one of the reasons to use in-context gestures instead of a standard menu is that it’s more engaging. For example, as users view page content, they can tap on a card to learn more.

Different types of navigation can be used to help tell a story or enhance the brand.
This type of navigation takes users on a journey of what they’re interested in. Image credit Ramotion.


  • It removes UI clutter. Building gestures into the heart of your design allows you to make your interfaces more minimal and to save screen space for valuable content.
  • The UI is more natural. Luke Wroblewski talks about a study in which 40 people in 9 different countries were asked to create gestures for 28 different tasks, such as deleting, scrolling and zooming. He found that gestures tend to be similar across culture and experience. For example, when prompted to “delete,” most people — regardless of nationality — tried dragging the object off-screen.
  • Gestures can be a distinctive feature of a product. Tinder has massively popularized the concept of gesture-based navigation and basically made those swipes a product-defining gesture.
Applications like Tinder will have gestures that create words or motions when used.
Gestures in Tinder. Image credit Tinder.


  • The navigation is invisible. One important rule in designing a UI is visibility: through the menus, all possible actions should be made visible and, therefore, easily discoverable. An invisible UI can be seductively beautiful, but because it’s invisible, it will likely have many usability issues.
  • User effort increases. Most gestures are neither natural nor easy to learn or remember. When designing gesture-based navigation, be aware that every time you remove UI clutter, the application’s learning curve goes up; and without proper visual hints and cues, users could get confused about how to interact with the app.


  • Make sure you don’t have to teach people a whole new way to interact with an interface. Design a familiar experience. In order to design good gesture-based navigation, start by looking at the current state of gestures in the mobile world. For example, if you’re designing an email app, you could use a swipe instead of an email gesture, because there’s a strong possibility that the gesture would be familiar to many users:
Mobile navigation design patterns should be easy for users to learn for a better user experience.
Mobile navigation design patterns should be easy to learn.
  • Educate in context to teach people how to interact with your interface. Avoid long static up-front tutorials. Instead, show only the information that is relevant to the user’s current activity.
Applications can use animated objects to signal a gesture or action has taken place.
Pudding Monsters uses an animated hand to present a new scenario to users. Image credit Pudding Monsters.

Innovative mobile navigation design patterns

People are shifting to larger-screen phones. But the bigger the display is, the less easily accessible most of the screen is, and the more necessary it is to adapt the design (and navigation, in particular) to improve the user experience.

With more advancements, there are now more options for innovative navigation patterns.
Innovative navigation patterns. Image credit Luke Wroblewski.

To solve this problem, designers are forced to look for new solutions to mobile navigation. A couple of interesting innovative solutions can be found in the recently published article “Bottom Navigation Interface.” One solution can be found in a health app named Ada. This app’s interface layout is a mirror image of a basic interface with a hamburger menu: everything that’s usually at the top is conveniently at the bottom, in the easy-to-access zone.

Applications will have their own navigation menus, an example is for ada with iOS.
The start screen in Ada for iOS.

The second solution is a concept for a calling app that applies one-handed navigation principles. The method feels good for calling and messaging apps because users tend to use one hand for dialing and texting.

Certain apps will have their own style of innovative navigation design patterns.
Innovative navigation design patterns. GIF credit Cuberto.


Helping users navigate should be a high priority for every app designer. Both new and returning users should be able to figure out how to move through your app with ease. The easier your product is for them to use, the more likely they’ll use it.