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Global header

Users rely on the global header to navigate and orient themselves in your UI. This pattern outlines some of the qualities that make a global header consistent, familiar, and usable.


The global header is essential to a product’s UI. It is a consistently available user interface element that contains functionality for the current product as well as for the entire system. Like the macOS Menu Bar and the Windows Start Bar, the global header provides consistent locations to invoke your product’s local navigation as well as pervasive access to system-wide functions like system settings, notifications, and navigating between products.

This pattern covers the foundation of using UI Shell components for within and between product navigation, and introduces techniques for achieving consistency in products.

Anatomy of a global header

Example diagram of the global header.
  1. Main menu: The main menu icon is used to open product navigation such as the left panel.
  2. Header name: For IBM products, the header name is always preceded by “IBM”. This should always and only link the user to the domain’s home page.
  3. Header links: Links in the header are supported as product navigation, if required. These links should not open a new tab or link to another domain. These links drop down to the side menu in narrow screen widths.
  4. Sub-menu: Sub-menus are supported as product navigation, if required. Dropdowns open on click and are closed by either selecting an item in the menu, clicking outside the menu area, or clicking on the menu label. When open, the chevron should point up. Dropdown menu labels serve only to open the dropdown; they cannot be a link to another page in the product.
  5. Utilities: The header provides a home for global system-level utilities from anywhere in the site. Utility icons should not be used to directly navigate to an area. Instead, they should open a panel that provides access to other places in the product.
  6. Switcher: The switcher provides a way for the user to navigate easily between products and systems. Recommended uses for this component include recently used apps, frequently used apps, or all apps attached to the user’s account. If the list is a manageable size, include all apps or products available on the system.

Header and panel persistence

Global and local refer to the location and persistence of header elements in your UI.

GlobalA global UI element is present everywhere in your UI. It contains system and product items your user may need at any time: navigation, authentication, notifications, and more. Global elements remain consistent from one context to another.
LocalA local navigation exists within a product’s context and provides the means to accomplish product level tasks. Local elements will therefore differ from one product to another.

Task hierarchy

The task hierarchy describes the breadth of effect for various tasks. For this guidance we use the term “product” to encompass the broad category of products, applications, offerings, or web properties.

SystemSystem-level tasks include navigating to the main sections of a platform and accessing system utilities like notifications or settings. At this level a user can manage the attributes that apply to the whole system.
ProductProduct-level tasks include navigating within a product and accessing the product’s core functions. At this level the user directly interacts with the product’s main function.


This matrix shows common system and product level tasks that appear globally and locally.

System tasksProduct tasks
Global persistenceLog in, notifications, profile access, dashboard link, setting time, billing information, user permissions, switching from one product to another.Hamburger menu to toggle local navigation. Show/hide application navigation, document thumbnails. Consistent placement of local actions in common between products for example: new file, save, cancel.
Local persistenceDetailed system-wide settings, such as user rights management, notification preferences.Commenting in a text document, navigating from one peer resource to another (for example from one container, database, or document to another), selecting modalities within your product.


The UI shell is configurable to let a product or platform choose which shell components and configurations match their user and information requirements. Simple products have the flexibility of using a header or side panel and more complex products require a combination of UI shell components to accommodate the depth of their navigation.

Example the header and left nav being used for the same IA.

Example showing how a simple architecture can be configured with only a header or only a left panel

Header only

The UI Shell header can be used as standalone navigation for your UI when a small number of main sections do not require a secondary navigation. The header provides a place for a site title, navigation links and dropdowns, and header icons. The header is globally persistent and will always be in view as the user navigates around the site.

This configuration gives more horizontal space for the page’s content, but has limited room for navigation items in the header. This configuration also does not lend itself to sub-menus that need to remain open as they will overlay and interfere with the page content. Use a left panel in combination with the header if your navigation requires a sub-menu to remain open.

Example of a header as the global navigation

Example of header-only navigation

Header with left panel

The left panel allows for more navigational items to stack vertically and an additional level of hierarchy when paired with header navigation. Compared to a header-only site navigation, this arrangement means sub-menus can remain open without overlaying or interfering with the page content.

Example of a left panel.

An example of a left-panel-only navigation.


A global navigation is always present in the UI. In this example, the UI shell header is used as a global navigation with two system level links (A) in the header and five system level links in the switcher.

Diagram and image of the header nav being used as a global navigation.

The global header in this example contains only system navigation elements.

In the example below, the UI shell header contains both system (A) and product (B) links in the global region. System level links should be right justified in the header and product level links should be left justified. On narrow screens when there is no room for header links, the system (A) links will move to the right UI shell panel and the product (B) links will move to the left UI shell panel.

Diagram and image of the header nav being used as a global navigation.

The global header in this example contains both product (B) and system navigation (A) elements.


The local navigation takes users between areas of a product. Generally, these areas are collections of pages that should be grouped together so a user can undertake an end-to-end workflow without changing areas.

Example of left nav navigating within an offering.

The UI shell left panel being used as the product navigation.

Related products should share navigation structures. Following similar structures across a platform minimizes transitional volatility—your users will spend less time orienting themselves. This will help increase the user’s productivity and perception of the platform’s responsiveness as they move between screens and states.

Best practices

Persistent data and UI state