One Web Designer’s Thoughts on Flash: Approach With Caution

These days, the web is full of talk about how to provide the best user experience and functionality in a project. And, inevitably, the question always arises whether or not to utilize Flash in web design. And in all the madness, I couldn’t let another week go by without pitching in my two cents, both for the benefits of my clients and fellow web designers alike.

My thoughts here are in no way meant to reflect the feelings of the majority of web designers today, though I’m sure many share them. And, I have not always held the same feelings about Flash that I do now. But, in the wake of current web standards, mobile optimization and wide-reaching searchability, I think that the use of Flash as the all-inclusive solution for a web site is on the way out, and fast.

OK. Disclaimer time. No, not the kind that protects me from saying what it is I really believe. The kind where I mention that I have seen some pretty incredible Flash sites, and visit them often. The kind where I openly admit to having many Flash sites in my favorites lists, and even promote some of them around the web. Yes, I’ve seen Flash done really well by some top-notch developers. But, mostly, I’m just disappointed by the majority of Flash sites, whose developers just couldn’t keep up with the spectacular demand that their projects warranted. So, no… I’m not ‘Flash-bashing’ here. Just opinionating. ::end of rant::

Enough dodging the issue here… let’s get straight to the point. We’ll be taking a look at 5 reasons why Flash isn’t such a great idea for general web development. I certainly have a few more to throw in here, but these address my biggest issues (and often, the elephants in the room) when it comes to Flash.

Problem 1: Inconsistent User Experience

I’ll admit, this really isn’t such a big deal for some folks. But, it makes a tiny bit of my soul turn black every time I see it. If we take a look over a the Flash version of converse.com, I’d have to say it looks and functions really well. In fact, it seems to look and function just as any XHTML site would. Eye-catching banners, fancy rollover effects and an easy to navigate interface make it look and function like its not really Flash at all.

But, switch over to that XHTML version, and something just seems to be lacking, and its painfully obvious. The entire experience that Converse has worked so hard to create gets replaced by a drab, common looking shop that lacks any memorable features and almost begs the user not to come back. Yep, I’m just gonna come right out and say it here. It just looks to me like a standard, unthemed WordPress plugin got thrown in there and forgotten about. And it begs the question… “What happened?”

As far as I’m concerned, there is no excuse for this. It shouldn’t have been too hard for the developer to create a XHTML layout that looks even similar to the Flash site. I mean, why go to all that trouble to create a XHTML-like Flash site without creating a XHTML site to match? I see this happen way too often. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Converse was losing some sales because of it. After all, a product site without any fancy graphics or self-promotion can’t be expected to compete in such a competitive market as designer clothing.

Problem 2: No Alternative Options

The way I see it, this one is entirely unforgivable. Case Mate, an incredibly popular brand for iPhone cases and accessories, has failed to provide any content whatsoever for folks without Flash capability. And, it just seems a bit ironic that it means you can’t buy a custom case for your iPhone while… you guessed it… using your iPhone. Don’t get me wrong, the grungy-clean look and elegant playful animations of this Flash site make me salivate the nectar of geeks. But turn that Flash off and you’re left with a white page with some text telling you to download Flash.

Think about it. The worst possible scenario that can happen when you’re selling something online is when your site goes down. Well, this is essentially what’s happening every time someone without Flash goes to the Case Mate site. And, that it doesn’t support its niche market makes it ever worse. In this case, I must quote the NBA hall-of-famer Charles Barkley on this one: “That’s turrible… just turrible.”

Problem 3: Severely Limited Market

Besides breaching problem 2 right off the bat (and so it goes), the site for DG Estilistas salon poses another easily-avoidable problem; It can’t be automatically translated. How many times have you visited a site and found that it was published in a language other than English? And, what do you normally do when that happens? If you’re anything like me, you’ll just hit that friendly “translate this page” bar at the top of Chrome, or whatever browser you use. Flash doesn’t give you that option (unless, of course, the developer includes that functionality right within the code). I’ve yet to find a standards XHTML site that I couldn’t translate in a matter of seconds.

And, the language barrier goes even deeper when programming with Flash. That’s right. I’m talking about accessibility for the visually impaired. Blind people use screen-reading software that reads aloud content on the web. Problem is, Flash doesn’t support screen-readers. And that leaves any potential blind visitors in the dark (please forgive me for that one). We also shouldn’t forget about those with vision problems who aren’t blind. They usually like to make text appear larger on the page. And while Flash does include the option to resize the frame, it doesn’t really resize in a friendly way.

In short, never limit your audience by something as basic as the language barrier. After all, we live in a global world, and the web makes that world so much smaller.

Problem 4: Loading… Loading… Loading…

This is another of my big pet peeves as I surf the web. With modern cloud servers, lightning-fast connections and super light-weight code, there’s no reason to have to wait while Flash serves up its content. The Vitamin Water site seems to load ok, but that large rotating Flash banner just isn’t cutting it with me. Go ahead and click on the forward or back arrow. At first count, it took 12 seconds from the time I clicked the arrow to the time I could actively click on any other content in that banner. And what makes it even more frustrating, I can see the content a good 4 to 5 seconds before I can click on it. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pushing it when I’ve seen (and coded) pure CSS banners that load and function almost instantly. I know 12 seconds isn’t the end of the world, but I can imagine a 20-25 second wait would turn off a ton of visitors. And that’s what this site is looking at during peak hours.

Sure, that banner has its cool looks and some pretty nifty special effects thrown in. But it also keeps visitors waiting entirely too long for content that, well, really isn’t all that worth it. This is where most Flash developers fall short of their audience’s expectations and ultimately create enormous problems for themselves. So, always ask yourself, “Is the payoff worth the anticipation?”

Problem 5: Where Has All the Searchability Gone

Now, I realize that some companies claim to thrive on word-of-mouth referrals or other forms of advertising. But, I’ve always stuck to my guns that being found on search engines should be a top priority on the web. I’m not talking about SEO or even ad marketing, but about widening the reach of your site by providing indexable, searchable content. V5 Design has done just the opposite with their site. Again, the subtle transitions and flawless interactivity make me envious of the design-warriors over at V5. But I’ve searched for many variations of their brand name with absolutely no results in Google. Most of my clients have expressed a strong interest in searchable content and I would never dream of sacrificing that for a Flash interface.

Some Final Words

Well, there you have it. My top 5 reasons why Flash just isn’t a good idea for general web development. Like I said before, I have many more that will remain unlisted. And I’ve also seen some magnificent Flash work that can’t be ignored. But, most often, Flash design just isn’t done right because it tends to forget the most important part of design for the web: its all connected. That must be why they call it the web.

Feel free to drop a comment and let me know your feelings or insights about Flash design. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Dave Winter focuses in WordPress UI Design and WordPress Plugin Development (some have labelled him a fanatic) but has hands in many other projects, including photography and music. He's never far from a computer... or an iPad (for testing purposes, of course). If you've been to a WordCamp in Southern California, he probably already knows who you are (or maybe not - he's terrible with names). Dave currently teaches courses at California State University, Long Beach alongside his small business at dauid.us (and his students think he's pretty boss).

Comments

  1. I say evil, but that’s mostly because it is over used for photography websites, and although pretty, the slideshows it makes load far to slowly. I have fast equipment, if it takes me a full minute to view the show, most people are waiting longer.

    Outside of that, it has it’s purposes, but they’re dwindling. I was excited when Adobe incorporate some of Flashes niftier art tools into illustrator though. It was lightyears ahead in some aspects.

    • Dave Winter says:

      Jacque,

      I agree fully about the slow load times being real trouble for flash site viewers (and consequently, owners too). But I still hold that the root of the evil in flash rests in the fact that most flash sites don’t provide alternate content for folks who can’t see flash content. For me, that’s even worse than not having a site at all. It makes the owner appear unprofessional and uneducated about the technology they use.

      Thanks for the input!
      -Dave

  2. Alambar says:

    I think this is a great article and I was wondering if its ok with you if I use this on my website? thanks.

    • Dave Winter says:

      Alambar,

      I offer free use of all my articles on DauidusDesign.com. Just be sure to include a link back to this page.

      Thanks for the hit!
      -Dave

  3. Truman Divens says:

    Good post and great examples… but I kinda like Flash. Got a good laugh about the iPhone cases. You’d think they would do a better job than that! Thanks.

    • Dave Winter says:

      Truman,

      I sort of like Flash too, but only when its done really well and presented in the right way. Like I said, too often this isn’t the case. It takes some of the most talented folks I know to get it just right. Everyone else should just stick to XHTML… it can be pretty amazing in itself.

      Glad you got a chuckle,
      -Dave

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