Chris Rourke answers a reader’s question in Scottish Computer Headline.
Our site (a B2C e-commerce site) is being designed by an external web design agency and their proposed design makes heavy use of Flash. I have heard varying opinions on Flash, many saying that it is generally poor in terms of usability. Would you agree with this?.
A Kirk, Glasgow
Chris Rourke’s response: Macromedia Flash is a powerful and increasingly popular medium for creating web pages. It is powerful because it can be used to produce many effects, animations and interactions that are difficult or impossible with HTML. Used well, this can make your site more engaging and interesting, but when misused it can make it difficult, usually because dynamic elements distract the user from performing tasks they normally perform with traditional, static websites. Users often feel uncomfortable, especially if they must learn new ways to navigate or interact, and this may cause them to leave.
It is not true to say that a Flash-based sites necessarily has poor usability. In fact some content is conveyed more clearly through animation than a written explanation, especially for parts of a site aimed at entertainment, tutorials, demonstrations and some marketing.
However, caution should be exercised simply because it is easy to lose the substance of your message in the impressive style with which it is presented. Many web users are unfamiliar with the unique web interactions possible with Flash, and goal driven users may not bother learning these. This could be important if your users simply want to learn about, find and purchase your products, then leave. Also certain parts of their web experience may not be available at all, such as using the ‘Back’ button. Many users are put off by Flash introductions to web sites, and if used these should be short and definitely include a ‘skip intro’ button. You should also consider streaming the Flash content to decrease the download time of large files, and informative content presented with Flash should also be available in traditional ways such as HTML for disabled user access.
You have already heard some opinions on the use of Flash and indeed it is one of the most hotly contested debates in web design. Fortunately, in addition to opinions, good advice on making Flash usable is also becoming available. Macromedia is promoting best practices for creating usable Flash sites and you should investigate their site (www.macromedia.com) to see how well the site being designed for you meets these guidelines. I recommend you look at their recently produced White Paper on usable Flash and the finalists in a contest for creating a highly usable site e-commerce site in Flash.
Finally, the best way to see how usable your Flash site is, is to perform some usability tests. A well-run test with potential users performing realistic tasks will quickly reveal whether the Flash content and interactions helps or hinders your customers, and appropriate changes can be made.