Mention Flash technology—those often hideous, animated, time-wasting intro pages that make Web site visitors wait before accessing real content—and you’ll see many techies and Web aficionados cringe. While there are rare cases where Flash can be a user-friendly and worthwhile feature, it’s more often just useless animation offering little value.
But there are some needs that Flash fulfills very well. “Flash can communicate content that is best displayed visually,” explained Jared Spool, founding principal of User Interface Engineering (UIE), a research company specializing in Web site usability based in Bradford, MA.
The big problem today is that developers go wild with Flash—and what could be a good marketing and content tool ends up turning away site traffic. While the use of this technology may not be the most compelling e-commerce or intranet issue facing tech leaders, it’s worthy of attention, as Flash founder Macromedia is positioning its tools as an alternative to today’s traditional HTML development tools.
That’s why CIOs must reign in developers and set guidelines for the use of Flash on corporate sites. Using Flash not only affects site visitors, as it takes longer to download information, but it also requires extra development time.
Do you really need Flash on your site?
The first step in setting policy is to make site developers realize that Flash has a specific purpose, and that not all Flash implementations are appropriate. In a recent UIE study of Flash implementations, summarized in a report titled "Making the Best with Flash, Five Best Practices for Creating Engaging Content with Macromedia Flash," researchers Christine Perfetti and Mathew Klee examined the use of Flash in several functional areas of two dozen sites.
The research revealed many bad Flash implementations, and virtually no good ones. For example, one Flash-based site displayed a navigation wheel—complete with "spokes" providing links to site sections—which proved useless because users were given no guidance on how to use the graphic. Flash can vividly demonstrate a process or present a company image that could not be conveyed using HTML, but only if the implementation is executed properly.
Spool pointed out that there are some things HTML does well, making it unnecessary to invest time and energy developing a Flash version. For example, displaying large amounts of text, such as a multipage product description, is easy to do in HTML. A Flash version of the same information doesn’t enhance the effort.
Know your site's design goals
Where Flash does excel over HTML, however, is when the content is best displayed visually. “The site’s design has to have a purpose in mind,” said Perfetti, who is also a consultant at UIE. A key element is understanding the underlying goal of the site’s design before bringing Flash into the design work.
A good example of a company whose goals for its site were fleshed out by Flash is furniture maker Ikea. Like many catalog sites, visitors to Ikea's site can view different types of products by a specific model and color.
“Ikea’s design has a purpose,” said Perfetti, noting that it’s using the technology to enhance customer service. Ikea cuts costs by selling its furniture unassembled, so buyers must put it together. One common concern purchasers have is whether they can actually do this themselves, so Ikea used Flash-based animation to show buyers the assembly steps for each product. [Editor's note: At press time, this online feature was unavailable.] In this case, Flash provides a much more illustrative approach than static images. The site does, however, present typical product information in a non-Flash manner—a good mix of both HTML and Flash, according to Perfetti.
In contrast, Perfetti pointed out another furniture sales site, Oggi, that hasn’t put Flash to its best use.
Oggi dedicates about half the browser screen to a Flash-based border that offers a menu link, company information link, and then icons along the bottom representing the different store departments. A different piano note sounds when a user mouses over the menu listings, which can be unsettling and annoying. When moving over the Flash icons along the bottom third of the screen, there’s a "droplet" sound that’s also pretty useless. The indiscriminate, and obviously flippant, use of Flash clearly illustrates why the purpose behind the technology needs to be thought out before it’s implemented. Using Flash for the sake of adding animation without regard for the affect it will have on the site visitor is not a good plan.