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The Trouble With Flash
Flash website design is extremely popular, and Flash certainly has a rightful place in site design for certain functions. However, whilst the explosion of all-Flash or Flash-"enhanced" sites is waning, there is still a worrying lack of understanding among designers and their clients of the potential risks and problems with using Flash.
Search Engine Invisibility
Generally speaking, search engines can't see text embedded in a Flash design (although work is being done to improve this situation). This means that if you build your entire site in Flash, you will usually find that search engines completely pass you by. Since for most web users, search engines are the gateway to finding the information that they are looking for, this can leave you with a serious lack of visitors. Also, if you have html content but insist on Flash navigation for your site, you are effectively hiding your website's internal links – a factor which plays a major part in the indexing and ranking of your site.
If you build your site in Flash, or just use Flash navigation, the "Back" button becomes completely useless; clicking it will just result in navigating back from the Flash application, rather than the previous page within the app. This means that your visitors will frequently accidentally navigate away from your app and have to start what they were doing or find what they were looking at all over again. Another by-product of Flash sites is that it is impossible to bookmark internal pages. If you have twenty pages of Flash, and your visitor wants to revisit a particular one of them, there will be nothing more frustrating to them than having to re-navigate there from your opening page every time they want to return.
Additionally, visited links do not usually change colour unless the designer thinks to put that feature in. The changed colour of visited links is a very useful feature for visitors to avoid pages they've already tried which have proved to be unfruitful, and return to links from which they know they gained useful information. If you take this feature away from them, they may find themselves ending up in the wrong place or visiting the same page several times unintentionally, especially if your Flash site includes a list of products with separate pages for each one.
Searching within a page is impossible with Flash, unless the developer generously integrates a search function into their design (and they rarely do). Copying and pasting text is also impossible, which is extremely frustrating. Printing is usually messy, as the background colours and all the images will print, and everything will be at the width the designer fixed, meaning that often in Europe, where narrower paper sizes are used from in the US, the edge often disappears onto another page. This also means that visitors using small monitors or browser windows will have to scroll horizontally to see all of your site. Users are also unable to increase text size as they see fit, which generally means that the text is too small for older or visually impaired visitors. (Designers apparently have excellent eyesight.) Keyboard shortcuts of any kind usually don't work, and some users try to avoid using a mouse as much as possible (myself included), sometimes because of disability. Visually impaired users will not be able to use the screen read function.
There also seems to be an uncanny enthusiasm for designing new scroll bars, cursors and other GUI features which work perfectly well they way they are. Flash designers also like to come up with counter-intuitive navigation systems which users have to learn when they arrive. In general, there is huge potential for design usability errors; web users like to feel in control of their environment, and taking away all the standard browser functions that they are used to will frustrate and disorientate them. Flash sites violate basic web usability standards in a whole plethora of ways.
Additionally, whilst most internet users have Flash installed in their browser, they may not have the right version for the site you've developed. In fact, the version they need might not even exist yet, if they're using an operating system other than Windows. Sometimes it takes months for the newest versions of Flash Player to be released for Linux or Mac platforms.
Most of the time, when people visit a website, they do so for the purposes of finding information. This means that if you slow down the process by making them wait for sixty seconds for your site to load, before presenting them with a thirty second splash screen animation, they will quickly become frustrated with your site. They want to get to the content.
Unless your site is an art, design or animation portfolio, please remember that stunningly creative design is not your visitors' primary reason for looking at your site. Design-heavy sites, especially those which feature gratuitous animation, will usually work against you. Many internet users are so bombarded with Flash advertisements and pop-ups that they've developed the ability to completely ignore anything on a web page that moves. If you put important content in an animated format, chances are it will be completely overlooked by a considerable proportion of your visitors. The browser "Stop" button doesn't stop Flash animations, either, so annoyed visitors will probably just leave your site if they don't want to watch your animation. If you use sound, that's even worse, especially if there's no mute button. People may be visiting your site in a library or a working environment, or just not like your taste in music.
Form designs in Flash are also often extremely irritating. Invariably, nasty anti-aliasing makes the text difficult to read. Sometimes the user is forced to click in each field rather than tabbing from one to the next, and the cursor is often mysteriously invisible. The user can't bookmark the form page or refresh it to start again, and if the browser crashes, their details won't be cached and they will have to retype them. Generally speaking, people aren't as comfortable filling in a Flash form with their personal details than they are an html form.
Some users just turn off Flash in their browser options, or download software that blocks all Flash content.
One of the main features that will keep customers returning to your site is frequently updated content. Unfortunately, if your site is in Flash, say goodbye to updating your site regularly; adding content is not an easy job, and you will need someone qualified to do it for you. Also, RSS feeds won't work, so this fabulously efficient way of visitors keeping up with the latest updates from their favourite websites is completely worthless as far as your site is concerned.
Also, with Flash, there is a strong tendency for there to be heaps of design and very little content, often because lots of text doesn’t look good in the opinion of artistically-minded Flash designers. This means that your visitors will frequently find their questions unanswered, and even if you do have lots of interesting and useful content on your Flash site, they can't bookmark the pages they like or post links anywhere for others to follow. A Flash design will kill all your opportunities for links into your site, and frustrate your returning visitors.
1. Don't build your site entirely in Flash, and don't use Flash navigation.
2. If you must have a Flash site, give your visitors the choice of visiting an html version instead. (You will find that the majority opt for the html version.)
3. Don't use splash screens, gratuitous animations, or tiny text. Don't reinvent the wheel when it comes to scroll bars and other GUI interface features.
4. Use Flash for the purpose it was designed: as a programming environment. It can be genuinely useful for offering some sort of functionality that html doesn't have, such as movable diagrams or virtual tours. If your site is primarily a design portfolio, using Flash in some way may well be useful. Flash is also great for games and animations created purely for the sake of entertainment.
5. Always put usability and search engines before design. If a Flash feature of your site will lower your search engine rankings or take away from your visitors some important usability feature, scrap it. However pretty your site looks, if no one can find it and no one wants to use it, you'll have wasted your money.
By Natalie Catchpole