Project Management

Is Flash more usable than it was in 2000?

Macromedia's Flash is an amazing technology, but does it discourage usability? Find out if it's usable for your Web site.

This article originally appeared as a Design and Usability Tactics e-newsletter.

By Jim Kukral

Macromedia's Flash is an amazing technology. It can bring a boring Web surfing experience to life through sound and animation, all in a short download. Though Flash is deservedly considered a killer application, is it usable?

In October 2000, usability guru Jakob Nielsen published an article on his Web site entitled, "Flash: 99% Bad." He stated that, "Although multimedia has its role on the Web, current Flash technology tends to discourage usability for three reasons: It makes bad design more likely; it breaks with the Web's fundamental interaction style; and it consumes resources that would be better spent enhancing a site's core value."

Let's assess whether the reasons he gives still hold true three years later.

Does Flash encourage bad design?

Nielsen's report detailed three distinct abuses of Flash design: overuse of animation, decrease in user control, and nonstandard GUI controls. Many Web designers are still guilty of these three charges. More and more Web sites are overly animated with less obvious controls.

Many designers used to use Flash to add a neat effect to a page; now these designers are using Flash as a tool to create the page entirely. This shift has created a series of nonreadable and hyperactive Web sites that act more like music videos than places to receive information.

Does Flash break Web fundamentals?

Flash is still not completely standard. Despite being pre-installed on some operating systems, you have to download the Flash plug-in to use it. Regardless of how small it is to download, as long as the plug-in is around, this is a strike against Flash's usability record.

Though you can still find fundamental faults with Flash, here are several areas that have shown improvement:

  • The ability to create dynamic controls that allow for the instantaneous manipulation of text size, animation speed, and sound controls, which enables users to adjust settings to their liking.
  • Flash MX (the latest version of Flash) supports controls for a Back button.
  • Macromedia completely revamped the capability to search within a Flash document, and now you can get excellent search results.

Does Flash distract from a site's core values?

The prevalence of Flash designers and the introduction of Flash MX has enabled Flash to become more useful to the core values of a typical Web site construction.

One reason for this is that Flash is now more technologically able to provide updated content without the need for a Flash programmer. Also, Flash is now powerful enough to actually be the main application that delivers the content instead of just the unique messenger.

The verdict

It's obvious that Flash technology has changed a lot since 2000. Flash MX actually helps solve the problems once associated with Flash and usability with its new features and range of uses.

However, I believe there's still validity to Nielsen's three points. He just might want to update his article title from "Flash: 99% Bad" to read "Flash: 50% Bad."

Jim Kukral has spent the last seven years working in the trenches of Web design, development, and usability for Fortune 500 clients as well as mom-and-pop companies.

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