To Flash or not to Flash

Before you start piling on the Flash animated content in your Web site, make sure you don't toss usability out the window. Find out when you should use Flash and when you shouldn't.
Written by Shawn Morton, Contributor
Let me begin by saying that I think the technology behind Flash can be an effective content delivery tool. It allows sites to present rich, interactive content that combines text, graphics, and rich media while requiring very little bandwidth to deliver all these features. Over the past 5½ years, it has become the standard format for Web animation. More than 439 million Web users can view Flash content, and in October 2001, eight of the 10 most frequently viewed Web sites used Flash content. Despite the number of users, a debate rages in the Web design and usability community on the merits of Flash.

Flash: 99 percent bad?
Jakob Nielsen’s October 2000 column, ”Flash: 99% Bad,” really opened the floodgates for the recent wave of Flash-bashing. While the article is most memorable for its sensational title and the claim that (then) current Flash usage represented a “usability disease,” the underlying points about usability are valid. So what exactly is so bad about Flash?

Flash’s bad rep has grown largely out of the rampant use of “splash pages.” We’ve all encountered them. A Muzak-meets-techno soundtrack throbs monotonously. A “Loading…Please wait” message blinks while a status bar sits on 10. Clichés like “cutting edge” and “new paradigm” fade in and out, accompanied by stock photos of young professionals gazing thoughtfully at a computer monitor. If you’re lucky, there’s a “Skip Intro” link; otherwise, you’re forced to sit through the entire thing.

Because the majority of Web activity is task-based—users want to get something done, such as completing an order form or finding information—these splash pages place a barrier between users and the successful completion of their tasks. From a usability standpoint, that’s bad.

However, it’s not just splash pages that have raised usability concerns with Flash. The way the browser handles Flash files means that designers and developers need to take extra care to ensure usability when creating a Flash-based interface. Here are a few areas where Flash can cause problems.

Nonstandard navigation
Because a Web browser treats a Flash file as an embedded object, the browser’s navigation tools won’t work within a Flash file. This is most problematic when a user tries to use the browser’s Back button. Instead of moving to the previous state within the Flash file, the Back button takes the user to the previous HTML page. Not only is this unexpected, but it also requires users to learn a new navigation system for each Flash site they visit while forgetting all of the standard browser-based navigation they’ve learned to depend on.

Link standards
Many Flash interfaces use graphics, icons, or cascading menus to represent or display links. These can cause usability problems because users must determine where to navigate before moving the mouse. Predictability is a huge part of navigating any interface, so it’s a problem if links and buttons aren’t clearly visible and their use apparent. In addition, links in Flash interfaces don’t change color when the user clicks them, making it difficult for users to determine what areas of the site they’ve already viewed.

Accessibility is an issue with Flash due to the way the browser treats the file. Because a Flash file is treated as an embedded object, the browser’s accessibility tools aren’t available to the user. For example, the browser’s font sizing capabilities don’t work for Flash interfaces. This makes many Flash sites less accessible to users with visual impairments or those users relying on higher resolution settings.

Accessibility became a much more pressing issue with the 1998 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act. The amendment, commonly referred to as Section 508, requires federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. It states that information available to disabled users must be comparable to the information available to all other users.

Macromedia’s response
In light of the criticism surrounding Flash, Macromedia decided to educate Flash developers on some basic usability issues. The “Designer & Developer” area of their Web site includes a Flash Usability section that offers 10 tips. While the list includes Flash-specific tips, such as avoiding unnecessary intros and overuse of animation and sound, the majority of the tips are applicable to anyone designing or building Web interfaces.

A more significant move may be Macromedia’s addition of accessibility enhancements to Flash Player 6 and Flash MX. The player makes Flash content available to screen readers, while Flash MX provides a new Accessibility panel that allows developers to provide text equivalents for elements in a Flash movie. Macromedia also provides a "="" class="c-regularLink" target="_blank" rel="noopener nofollow">list of accessibility tips for creators of Flash content. While this is helpful moving forward, it doesn’t address the legacy Flash content currently on the Web. And it still doesn’t address the much more common issue of font sizing.

Think “tool,” not “cool”
So when is the best time to use Flash? It depends. I think too many designers and developers have used Flash just for the sake of using it. The thing to remember is that Flash is just a tool. You still need to consider your user goals and site goals first. If it turns out that Flash is the most appropriate tool for the particular job, then by all means use it—but use it well.

I find Flash content most compelling when it does things that static HTML and graphics can’t. Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Spanish news site El Mundo ran several Flash-based timelines that demonstrate the day’s sequence of events. Flash was a great choice because static HTML and graphics could not have communicated the same information as effectively or allowed it to be served so efficiently.

Another example of good Flash usage is the Experience Music Project (EMP). EMP was started by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen to foster appreciation of American popular music. While the majority of the site is ASP, Flash is used to add multimedia elements to more complex information like chronologies and timelines. The Hip-Hop Timeline is a Flash-based interface that presents a year-by-year history of the genre, complete with images and sound. In addition, the ASP page that launches the timeline includes a brief list of “Navigation Notes” that instructs the user on how to interact with it.

However you decide to implement Flash, just remember this: Users' measure of cool depends more on how well a site helps them complete their tasks than on whether or not the site uses Flash.

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