I can't tell for sure, but it sounds like your dealing with one of the classic issues of Enterprise level software, growth.
As your solution adds features, new screens are added and existing screens are augmented with additional data entry fields and buttons. Your navigation needs grow and so does the size of many of your entry screens. Eventually, your site navigation is begging for more screen space which your entry screens can't provide and it is time to rethink the navigation metaphor.
Welcome to the answer to the question, "why is mature Enterprise Software always so ugly?"
Here is how I've handled it in the past...
Stop trying to mix the full navigation functions into every screen. It's not really necessary that a single click can take a user from any screen in the system to any other screen. Click optimization in this situation, comes at too high a price.
Steps to Follow...
- Remove the drop down menu, the navigation and sub-navigation toolbars and anything else which is present on every page in the system. Utilize the recovered screen space for more white space, better input field organization and well placed help text.
- Add a single small hamburger button in the same location on every screen. Put it in one of the corners, out of the way so that the rest of each screen can be dedicated to its unique functionality.
- Add one additional screen to your application to function as a navigation page or site-map. Using the full space of this screen, graphically depict all of the functionality of the application and then make each element on this page into a navigational link to the appropriate screen. Make all of the hamburger buttons throughout the application link to this new page.
In doing this, you will require your user to perform two clicks to get from any screen to any other. Exiting from their current screen by clicking its hamburger button, then clicking on one of the links on the resulting navigation page to proceed to the next desired screen. This may sound like you are moving backwards in terms of usability, but for this minor back-step, we are providing much greater site organization. It is a very fair trade. ...and as a bonus, by eliminating all of your existing navigation from every screen, you are freeing up screen space on every functional screen in your system. Space which can be used in many wonderful UX friendly ways.
-- edits in response to comments --
Apparently I was unclear above. Enterprise Software tends to become ugly because of a number of factors including lack of white space, poor clustering of related controls and poorly organized navigation. All of these factors emerge from the ever-expanding scope of functionality which most enterprise software has to contend with. Dedicating large horizontal swaths of screen space, to provide three tool-bars on every screen, unnecessarily contributes to these factors.
Replacing the tool-bars with a drop down menu would recover much of this lost screen space. Replacing both the tool-bars and the drop down menu with a hamburger button would recover event more.
The hamburger button, like any UX technique has supporters and detractors. I tend to ignore the fanatical extremists at both ends. Articles which start with the words "That little three-lined button is the devil", fall into the fanatical zone for me. I believe that every UX technique has specific use cases which justify their use and other opposing use cases where their use is inappropriate. I believe that consideration of these use cases trumps the all-or-nothing mandates of the extremists.
The OP's situation appears to be an appropriate use-case for a web-site hamburger button because of the following factors. ( OP, please correct me if any of the assumptions below are incorrect ).
- The site is a line of business application, facilitating skilled users to perform specific, repetitive tasks.
- The vast majority of its traffic will come from users who have used the site before. New users, who might have issues with hamburger button discover-ability, are greatly outnumbers by users who access the site every day.
- Screen space is becoming precious, especially on the most used screens where the UI elements for recently added features have added complexity and crowding to the design.
- The site's current navigation is becoming inadequate as none of the unused spots on the second and third tool-bars are really appropriate for each newly added options. Menu organization is becoming a challenge.
A hamburger button leading to a dedicated navigation page, although suffering from some new user issues due to its low discover-ability, is an appropriate choice for an already large, growing enterprise solution with an existing, dedicated user-base.
-- edit in response to question in comments --
The hamburger button would just be an image with a link to the dedicated navigation page. The value of my answer is not the hamburger. That is just the mechanism for getting to the dedicated page. Its only a hamburger because that is an established symbol for a menu. The dedicated page is the heart of my idea, a full page of screen space dedicated to navigation with all the options grouped and organized in a way that is meaningful to the users.
Example : The QuickBooks Main Screen with all of the program's features arranged graphically with symbols for data entry screens and lines to depict transaction flow.
Example : A subway map with all of the terminals and associated bus routes clearly labelled.
The idea is to break the navigation away from the limits of text-based popup menus. Give it some screen space and some design attention and you can turn that one-additional button click (on the hamburger to get to the dedicated page) into a major enhancement in the obviousness of the application's scope and domain.