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Flash: Easy target for gaudy graphics

Flash has been described as 99 percent bad because of its tendency to discourage Web site use
Written by Stefanie Olsen, Contributor

Visitors to DistantCorners.com's home page are greeted by a grinning lunatic sprouting mechanical arms from an open cranium, framed by a brain in a vat and a disembodied green hand; animations leap to life, while howls and other sound effects play in the background.

Impressive visuals, but is the site any good? Just the opposite, according to Venice Beach, California, Web designer Matt Byrne, who says it's one of the worst he's ever seen.

"It's all zippy and neat," he said, "with no usability." Web designers have long dinged sites that offer bells and whistles to no purpose, but lately they've begun to target the technology behind those perceived atrocities as well: Flash.

The easy-to-use animation tool made by Macromedia has slowly taken over the Internet, aided and abetted by bored designers and advertisers eager to hit consumers with bigger, more eye-catching messages. But Flash now faces a backlash as some Web surfers complain about how it's been used and designers reassess its value.

"About 90 percent of the work is terrible, and 5 (percent) to 10 percent is good," said Alex Pineda, a Web designer at The Retina, who recently developed the NCAA's Final Four Web site using Flash.

Beyond bad design, the Flash debate highlights questions about the benefits of making the Internet more TV-like--a development that is slowly taking shape alongside parallel moves to make television more like the Net. Advertisers and some Internet analysts say such an evolution is necessary to tap the medium's full commercial potential, but others believe otherwise.

Macromedia acknowledges there have been problems with how Flash has been applied. But the company staunchly defends its product, saying any faults with Flash lie with bad Web design rather than bad technology.

Since criticism of Flash began heating up about six months ago, the company has begun an education campaign aimed at guiding designers to better practices, including publishing a white paper on Flash usability on its own Web site.

"There has certainly been some criticism in the industry," said Peter Goldie, general manager for the rich-media business unit at Macromedia. "Because the tool gives designers an incredible amount of flexibility...some people go too far from a design standpoint. We've tried to be proactive to help designers create usable Web sites."

In response to criticism about the company's site, DistantCorners' executive producer said the site is "in transition."

DistantCorners is not alone in drawing barbs for the way it uses Flash, however.

Chris MacGregor, a Flash designer and usability consultant who wrote Macromedia's white paper, said Web site design in recent years has centered on "a kind of bandwidth drunkenness," not taking into consideration that most people connect to the Web via low-speed phone lines. Because of this, many businesses are backing up and creating more simplistic sites.

MacGregor has spoken out against Macromedia for blaming designers for poor design when the company consistently awards its "Shocked site of the day" to "clunky sites with poor usability." This sends a message to designers, he said.

"There's a lot of really good sites that are definitely entertaining but not bastions of usability," he said.

Flash can be used to improve a site's performance, thanks to its relatively small file sizes, according to MacGregor. The Flash-designed site for the National Football League is "a shining example of how big sites can put a lot of design elements on the page without the user suffering through large files," he said.

After its introduction by San Francisco-based Macromedia in 1997, Flash slowly mushroomed in visibility and is now the predominant program used to deliver rich-media advertising, according to Adzone Media Research, a New York-based research company. In addition, nine of the top 10 sites from Media Metrix's report in February use Flash; and more than half of the top 50 design pages with the technology.

An inchoate form of Flash originated with a company called Futurewave, with an eponymous product. The first to use Futurewave was Microsoft, which in 1996 held a contest for designers to create a site for entertainment content. At the end of the competition, Microsoft launched a site with a Flash-style intro page, called a splash page. It was dropped shortly after that.

Macromedia bought Futurewave in 1996 and introduced Flash in 1997.

Since then, Flash has come to rule the Web over other programs because it uses vector graphics, instead of bit maps, or photo images, which can be much larger to design with.

The Flash plug-in is also ubiquitous, so most Web surfers can view the design: An estimated 96 percent of the Web population has Flash installed on their computers, according to independent research firm NPD. And the latest version works on a full scripting language that allows collaboration with databases. For example, in a game, Flash can detect when a ball hits a wall.

Although Flash's applications for games and cartoons can be mesmerizing, however, some Flash-enhanced pages can easily get under the skin of Web surfers.

Like streaming media, Flash design can be used to replicate the passive TV environment--for example, by forcing people to sit through a Web site introduction before making available the information they want. While that's attracted companies that want to push a brand identity, it can be a frustrating experience for Web surfers who are used to controlling their online experience down to the mouse click.

Jakob Nielsen, an early Internet design guru, wrote a report late last year that lambasted Flash as "99 percent bad" because of its tendency to discourage Web site use. Specifically, he wrote that Flash makes bad design more likely and breaks with the Web's fundamental interaction style.

"People don't want to sit and be entertained on the Web--that's what television is for," Nielsen said. "Flash is mainly viewed as being an annoyance that gets in the way of what you really want to do on the Web, which is get information."

As a result, some Web publishers now want to build sites on the cheap, using template designs from several years ago.

"You're going to go back to more standard look-and-feel Web designs, and to some degree that could hurt the use of Flash," The Retina's Pineda said.

For example, one of the main uses of Flash used to be for an "intro movie" to a Web page, but "those are definitely dinosaurs now," Macromedia's Goldie said, largely because of changes in thinking about design and conservative leanings in the industry.

Others, however, said the pullback may be less a reaction to Flash than a further sign of a conservative bent in an industry badly beaten from overspending and under-performing. Daily reports of staff cutbacks, earnings warnings and company closures have executives rethinking their approach to just about everything, including Web site design that employs Flash.

"It's just a typical reaction to getting too far over your skis; now we're going to lean back too far," said Michael Gough, former chief creative officer for Quokka Sports and an early architect of VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language). He pointed to recent, conservative site redesigns such as those of The Standard and racing site Nascar.

While Web designers are split on the merits of Flash, there is not ambiguity among advertisers.

Web pages with flying logos and sliding slogans have been transforming the Web into a hyper TV commercial--and placing Flash on a pedestal with traditional advertisers. Flash regularly pushes the likes of Nike, Intel, Microsoft, Dell Computer and others into the forefront of Web design. What's alluring to these companies is Flash's rich animations and seamless presentation, which can lend a mood to a particular product, brand or Web page.

This approach is seen as the cure-all for the ills of online advertising. What's known as "rich media"--which Flash helps create--is touted as the next big thing driving consumers to the Net.

"It's richer; it interrupts; it's relatively intrusive; it's animated; there's sound," said Marissa Gluck, advertising analyst at Jupiter Research, a division of Jupiter Media Metrix.

In an executive survey from Jupiter, Flash was cited as the program used most in advertising and the one that held the highest promise for the future of online advertising.

Such advertising has come a long way from the early days of online marketing. When ad banners were first introduced in 1995, they were mostly static and plain, yet managed to draw interest because they were new and appealed to consumers' ability to follow instructions through the text "click here."

But as the newness wore off, and the clicking dropped, designers looked to animations to entice capricious Web surfers to click. However, banner file sizes allowed only so much, limiting what designers could create.

Flash, with its relatively small file sizes, lets designers develop fancier animations within a small space. And with expanding ad unit sizes, including the "skyscraper" and "superstitial" (an ad that pops up), the possibilities are greater.

Even better, Flash-enhanced ads can attract up to 20 times more "clicks" from viewers than banners. One reason for the increased interaction is that Flash ads can be built so viewers can obtain additional information without leaving the current site.

A popular application for the technology for traditional advertisers is what's known as integrated sponsorships within content sites. For example, Pineda created a mini-movie for Computer Associates in its sponsorship of FinalFour.net based on similar "winning attitudes" at the company and of basketball coaches. "That's really only possible in the kind of animated, rich and immersive environment that Flash creates," he said.

Designers are drawn to the technology for advertising because of the freedom it affords, said Josh Ulm, an early proponent of Flash and director of interactive design studio IoResearch in San Francisco, whose clients include Nike. "We see Flash as a way to tell a compelling story inside an advertisement, which is the best way for someone to understand something."

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