+N Consulting, Inc.

The Flash Myth

Frustrated with square looking web pages, many web designers look to Flash. In addition to freedom of graphic expression, Flash brings interaction and transition effects which are difficult or impossible to duplicate. Why then shouldn’t all websites be Flash laden? Several reasons pop to mind:

  1. Loading speed: Way too often, flash movies load complex graphics, forcing the viewer to stare at some progress bar. For people who want to quickly access information this is a huge turn off. A “skip intro” sometimes viewed as lame.

  2. SEO: Flash based sites rarely are digestible or well ranked by search engines. You use flash - you lose top slots in natural search results. It’s that simple

  3. Form over content: Flash designs - as beautiful and engaging as they may be - all too often sacrifice text and information quantity in order to not disturb the layout or fit within the containing graphics. Again, ranking will suffer (low authority), viewers seeking comprehensive data will navigate away or become frustrated attempting to dig up more details by clicking every button and link in the movie.

  4. Cost: Although many good web designers can produce Flash movies, the good ones are fewer and more expensive. The problem compounds with natural workplace attrition. The ability to modify the original design, extend the site or give the site a “facelift” becomes constrained or expensive. All too often the original design does not lend itself well to rearrangement or extension.

  5. QA: Automated testing of Flash UI sites is difficult or impossible because the results may not be capture-able by testing tools - and that’s in the good case where the inputs are automatable. Unit testing for ActionScript is available by supporting frameworks these days, but finding implementations which include continuous integration is still rare.

  6. Ease of use: Often, the design focus reflects the author’s perspective. As long as the viewer wants to view information the way the designer does, everything flows well. Once the viewer wants to navigate in a different way, all bets are off.

  7. Stickiness: By far, one of the more compelling reasons for having used a Flash based site was to engage the viewer and strengthen the brand. The delivery on the promise is a bit mixed. Although some interaction does increase the stickiness of the site, other designs may suffer from slow load and skimpy content actually detracting from the overall perceived quality.

If while reading the points mentioned above you think to yourself “It seems that many of the points indicate poor design - not a technology limitation” you are right, and I couldn’t agree with you more.

Yet a good amount of sites out there suffer from these issues. Most of these sites would have been better served producing an HTML / DHTML / CSS + Ajax etc. In fact, my motivation for writing this came from a restaurant website I visited today. While scanning through listings and attempting to learn more, I was forced to watch tab after tab of progress bar latency in order to see the menu, the location, the about us etc. That site would have been cheaper to upgrade by anybody, rank higher on search engines, load faster and create less frustrated visitors. The KISS principle does apply. The pictures were beautiful; the layout was very appealing, the information organized - but the experience utterly annoying. Is that the best impression the business owner could impart on a potential customers?

In another instance, I was searching for a specialty product, and found it about 40 miles away. After having spent the time driving there and making a purchase, I discovered a location much closer to my house. What made the different? The far store had a website with full online catalog in HTML. The close by store had a flash only site. Snazzy - but missed a sale.

I have been to some sites that make great use of Flash though, and it would be foolish to discount the technology for its potential pitfalls. On the contrary - its adoption and application should be studied and considered when new design projects com up. There are many sites containing laundry lists of good vs. bad design. This article is no such list. But when is Flash well suited?

  1. Where a custom tool is created for order processing. Photo order sites, custom printing, fashion model virtualization etc. In these cases Flash serves an interactive function and is typically not the whole site.

  2. Where little textual information is required. Walkthroughs, product 360 views, design concept sites targeting highly interested viewers who don’t mind waiting for content and where alternative information sources are not available.

  3. For isolated rich interaction: Games, presentations and doodads that keep the visitor happy watching and engaged - as a single section of the site.

  4. Offline (DVD, CD) or downloadable media presentations, manuals etc.

  5. Anywhere that you can do a better job at winning the mind of the visitor without losing another 3 along the way.

Bottom line - use it wisely. If you suspect that any of the problems mentioned above might harm your online business, consider alternatives. And yes, by all means - do use a flash player to play video clips on the net. It is very well suited for that.


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