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We’ve Got Flash - The Ominous Wow Factor and Its Adverse Affect on Usability

July 07th 2002 | Stephanie Reindel

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We’ve Got Flash - The Ominous Wow Factor and Its Adverse Affect on Usability

By Stephanie Reindel, co-author of Flash 99% Good: A Guide to Macromedia Flash Usability http://www.flash99good.com/

JULY 2002, by Stephanie Reindel Usability. It's become a buzzword in the web design community. And with all of the information that's already been published on the subject, I continue to be amazed at the number of sites that still just don't seem to "get" the concept of usable design. It's estimated that failure to provide useful content and functionality on a site results in a loss of roughly 40 percent of repeat visitors and 50 percent of lost online sales.

The latest culprit contributing to the problem -- Macromedia Flash. Now before you go getting all angry and start accusing me of horribly misrepresenting Flash, let me clarify. Flash in and of itself is not the problem. After all, Flash is merely a tool, and a very powerful tool at that. When used wisely, Flash can be an effective tool for engaging and retaining users. With it, designers can highlight products and key concepts, reinforce navigation, and create helpful interactive tutorials. However, when used incorrectly, Flash becomes a nuisance, forcing users to decipher confusing navigation and sit through lengthy loading sequences and splash intros, and in the end, they come away from the experience with a negative feeling.

So how can a designer be sure that they're using Flash wisely to enhance usability? It begins with an understanding of what the term "usability" means. I think many designers fear that in order to be usable, a site must be comprised of nothing more than a standard navigation bar, text links, and a few images. Yet, in actuality, usability is not achieved through standardization or minimalization. Usability is instead achieved by understanding the people who will be using your site, identifying the goals they're trying to accomplish, and addressing them within an engaging design. Design and usability can go hand-in-hand. Creating an interface that focuses solely on design or usability detracts from the overall user experience.

One reason why Flash may be associated with unusable design is that until recently, the program has been used primarily to facilitate the "wow factor" that some designers hope to accomplish. All too often, Flash has been incorporated within a web site solely for the sake of being able to say "Look, we've got Flash!" This presents a problem. Flash has now become the focus, distracting visitors from the web site's content, when in reality, Flash should be used to accentuate the content. In order to determine whether Flash is the right tool for the job, you'll need to ask yourself a few questions. Will the extended use of animation and interactivity add value to the site, enhancing the experience? Or, will Flash hinder the goals users are trying to accomplish and get in the way of the web site's central message?

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview well-known information architect Lou Rosenfeld, to get his opinions regarding the usability problems with much of the Flash design work currently on the Web. He summed it up nicely with, "When a designer first gets his hands on a hammer (like Flash), every problem looks like a nail."

If you are interested in using Flash, there are a few important usability guidelines that you should keep in mind. Remember, when used incorrectly, the right tool can lead to the wrong results. In general:

  • Make sure Flash content adds value -- don't use Flash just for the sake of using Flash
  • Don't disable the user's Back button (or any of the other browser toolbar functions). Users have come to rely on these to perform key tasks such as bookmarking, printing, and going back
  • Provide printable versions of content. Lists of information, company and/or product information, educational and instructional material, articles, presentations, and receipts (from an online purchase) are good candidates for printing.
  • Provide an HTML version of the web site for people who are unable to (or just don't like to) view Flash content.
  • Be careful with colors -- avoid combining colors that may cause trouble for color-blind users.
  • Avoid including sound that users may find intrusive or that is necessary to fully understand the use or meaning of content on the site. Many users don't make use of sound on the Web, either because their computers don't have the capability, or because they choose to turn off the sound completely.
  • Provide a "skip" option to allow users to skip over a Flash introduction animation (commonly known as a splash page). Better yet -- skip the splash page most users (approximately 94 percent) do so when given the option.
  • Users are more likely to wait for a Flash site or animation to download when they are provided with a status indicator that shows how long the loading sequence will take to complete.
  • When using icons to represent navigation elements, use images that are easily identifiable to all users. It's also a good idea to augment icons with a text label to clarify the meaning.
  • TEST, TEST, TEST. Unbiased users will discover problems you never dreamed existed. You cannot be too careful when it comes to making sure your site is usable.



Flash is a powerful design tool that, when used properly, can enhance both the graphic appeal and the usability of a site. By taking the time to incorporate these guidelines into your design, you can further ensure a positive experience that will keep users coming back to your site.

To learn more about using Flash to create "usable" web sites, check out Flash 99% Good: A Guide to Macromedia Flash Usability ISBN: 0072222875, McGraw-Hill/Osborne Media

Book Site: http://www.flash99good.com/

 

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