A usable future for Flash?

User Vision discusses the usability issues involved in using flash and its future in web development.

These are opinions that are expressed in ‘The Great Flash Debate’ that is currently raging on web design and usability discussion groups. With a nearly religious fervour, people enter into this battle with the two camps clearly marked. The first is manned by those in usability and other related professions who are concerned with the user experience on the web, especially in e-commerce. The other side is composed largely of web designers who see themselves as interface design pioneers, ‘pushing the envelope’ with the new exciting web interactions made possible by Macromedia Flash technology. With such strongly held convictions, who is right?

As is often the case, the truth lies somewhere between these polar extremes, and exactly where in between depends on several factors such as the purpose of the web site, the intended audience, and the technology they can use. To determine what is the right middle ground for you and your site, it is worth understanding the two opposing arguments.

Flash is 99% bad

Statements such as this by usability guru Jakob Nielsen and others sum up their proposition that compared to HTML, Flash leaves much to be desired for the following reasons:

  • It breaks several conventions traditional web users expect – Most importantly the back button often does not work, visited links don’t change colour, site searches often fail, and on screen text can’t be copied. Furthermore, there is often a tendency in Flash sites to introduce unique controls such as invisible scroll bars that activate when the user moves their mouse over certain areas of their screen. To users used to Windows or web HTML interactions, this sudden movement causes feelings of not being in control, and worries that there may be other surprises hidden in the site.
  • It is inaccessible for disabled web users – Unlike HTML, Flash in its current form is unreadable by users with screen readers (however, Macromedia is addressing this issue, hopefully for the next release).
  • Not everyone has Flash – Currently Flash requires the user to download a browser plug in, something not all users want or know how to do. Although Macromedia estimate 96% of web users have installed the plug in, that still leaves 4% who can’t see the Flash design.
  • It encourages style over substance – Though not the fault of the Flash application per se, Flash is often applied to create animations that, for users performing a specific task, are often distracting or meaningless.
  • Successful e-commerce sites do not use Flash – Most successful e-commerce sites such as Amazon rely on well designed, simply presented pages that feature clear content and easy navigation. If Flash was so great surely they would have adopted it.
  • Flash intros – Although the trend seems to be receding, the splash / Flash website introduction is seen by many goal oriented users as a gratuitous waste of their time, especially if a ‘Skip Intro’ button is not provided. Sites that repeat the Flash intro each time the same user visits the home page raise the ire of most web users.

Flash is the Future!

Its hard to deny that Flash will be used more on the web, and some even predict that it will replace HTML. They consider the static web pages of today as the web equivalent of silent movies – there’s a whole new dimension that can be added to change the viewers’ perspective and improve their interaction with information. Pro-Flash web designers often provide the following arguments to counter the anti-Flash arguments:

  • Flash can do things that boring old HTML can’t – Visually driven Flash designers claim that more powerful, emotional, compelling content available through Flash improves the user experience through greater interaction and immersion in the site. Many excellent Flash sites are used for web-based learning, demonstrations, games and entertainment with interactions that simply could not be done with HTML.
  • Users will adjust to the new technologies – There is inertia as humans come to terms with their new technologies. Groundbreaking devices such as television were dismissed initially by some as something people had no use for and would not like. Over time, people took to these devices because they adjusted their expectations and found value or entertainment in the new medium. So too will they with Flash.
  • It can download as quick or quicker than HTML – If a Flash movie is designed correctly with streaming and using a small part of the file initially, it can actually appear on the users screen very quickly, assuming they have the plug in and an adequate connection speed.
  • It works well across platforms – HTML has a problem in that a site can look completely different on a PC than a Mac, or Netscape instead of Internet Explorer, let alone other types or older browsers. An advantage of vector imaging technology used by Flash is that it displays the same across a wide range platforms and browsers without the detailed coding required for a similar level of control required by HTML.
  • Unusable web sites can also be created in HTML – Although Flash has gained a bad reputation for usability, its advocates will argue that it can be just as difficult to find information or purchase goods on many traditional web pages.
  • Flash itself is not the problem, it is the way it is applied – In an effort to reach a middle ground in this debate, many from both sides admit that blaming Flash for unusable web design is akin to blaming the paintbrush, not the artist, for an ugly painting. By agreeing that Flash is only a tool which can be used to create sites of varying degrees of usability, members of both camps have been helping Macromedia, creators of the Flash application, to develop some rules for good use of Flash.

Guidelines for Flash usability

Macromedia has created a Flash usability initiative to help Flash designers understand some basic principles of usability which they should include in their designs. The principles are not radical, and adhere to generally accepted best practice for any web site, but they may be a radical departure for some Flash designers who are guilty of focussing on the medium rather than the message they are trying to convey. Full details can be found on Macromedia’s Flash usability pages but some of the main points are summarised below.

  • Remember the goals of the site and the user – Any successful e-commerce site design should consider the users goals and provide an interface that reflects this.
  • Avoid unnecessary Flash introductions – It seems even the people at Macromedia have seen more of these than they would like, and they advise to at least make it possible to avoid repeated introductions on the Home page.
  • Provide logical and consistent navigation – Navigation is the user’s handrails while browsing through the site, and as much as possible the buttons and links should be clearly labelled and identifiable. Because users rely heavily on the Back button, Flash designers should support Back button navigation either through the one built into the browser or a Flash-based button.
  • Avoid over-using animation and sound – Animations should help, not distract users who are trying to achieve goals such as finding items on a web site. Too much motion is usually unwelcome, especially on e-commerce sites where supporting the users goals is critical for commercial success.
  • Usability test your site – It is sound advice for any site to have fresh users review your site and perform some tasks you want them to. Very often this reveals problems that designers, too familiar with their own product, simply will not predict.

Flash in the Future

The world of web design is changing rapidly, and the integration of Flash technology is one of the areas of greatest change. It remains to be seen whether the introduction of Flash usability guidelines will lead to more designs which appeal to both sides of the current debate.

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This article was written by Chris Rourke. Chris is the Managing Director of User Vision, a usability and accessibility consultancy that helps clients gain a competitive advantage through improved ease of use.

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