To those saying an unlabeled icon is known, understood, and widely accepted; all testing I’ve seen…
Mark Sloan

I guess your comment is a response to what I wrote: “Any icon can become known and accepted if it is used widely, consistently, and over time.” Besides being a total misquote, your comment above turns my premise around; as you can see, I am not saying that “ an unlabeled icon is known, understood, and widely accepted” but the opposite, that if enough designers get behind any design pattern, be it an interaction or an icon, it can become understood and accepted. A paper airplane for email, the arrow pointing out of the box for Send to a Friend, the chevron to indicate that a panel can be opened, etc; all are intrinsically meaningless, but have become defined and understood though consistent, widespread use. As new problems arise (e.g. there is no room for tab-like menus on mobile) and solutions are developed (e.g. put the menu behind an icon that represents it), new visual representations for those concepts are adopted (the hamburger menu). In short, meaning comes from the experience of seeing and using, rather than intuition, which is what you imply I meant.

You said want some data, so let’s take a look for the use of the hamburger menu on 10 widely-used apps on my iPhone: BBC (yes), Skype (sort of — a variation using three dots in a row), CNN (yes), Facebook (yes, with a person icon on it), Nook Reader (yes), Eventbrite (no), Google Drive (yes), YouTube (yes), Amazon Music (yes), LinkedIn (sort of, three vertically stacked dots next to the logo to represent main nav). Anacdotal data perhaps, but clearly a lot of people manage to understand and use that icon every day. However, it’s not because everyone intuitively understands some random icon, but because after seeing it and engaging with it a few times and getting a consistent response, its meaning becomes understood — and isn’t that how we learn anything?

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