Better Flash websites
Summary: although Flash has some intrinsic usability problems, designers can respect user expectations about consistency, accessibility, and common sense, and therefore make better Flash websites.
I was perusing the results of the recent Macromedia-sponsored Design a [Flash] Site for Usability Contest, and quickly noticed the biggest flaw of both the contest and the entries: if you don't have Flash, you can't use the sites at all.
So much for usable Flash websites, right? Well, not entirely. There are a couple of important points that, if considered, will help designers make better Flash websites. First, lots of users don't have Flash, and second, most websites don't use Flash.
There are lots of arguments that could be made against each point, but they're all moot. The only certainty is that some people don't have Flash, and in fact, no matter how much designers want users to download and install particular versions of software, a lot of users don't know how or won't for one reason or another. For orindary users, a parity website that wants them to break their flow and do a bunch of technical or annoying things is nothing but trouble. They'll leave such websites behind in a flash (no pun intended).
The obvious question, "how does one make a better Flash website, then?" has an answer, or rather, a bunch of answers, which won't solve the intrinsic usability problems of Flash (which are numerous), but will make Flash websites just a bit less painful for both Flashed and Flashless users alike.
For some reason, Flash website designers seem to think that simply because they're using Flash instead of HTML, their sites must be totally different from all non-Flash websites (let alone different from other Flash websites). I think that the problem stems from the creative freedom designers have when using Flash. It's a lot easier to do fancy interactive widgets and complicated layouts in Flash than it is in HTML, so Flash website designers tend to go overboard.
When designers use traditional authoring tools like HTML, they tend to be forced into some standards by the restrictive nature of the technology. But Flash designers don't have to be confined to the traditional boundaries of HTML, and can easily design without remembering a very important rule: Nielsen's Law of the Internet User Experience: users spend most of their time on other sites.
The moral of the story? Be consistent. Software design guru Alan Cooper says the following about consistency: "consistency is not necessarily a virtue". I believe that Cooper is saying that if a design trait will make users more effective, use that instead of being consistent with less effective design traits. So there are two factors to balance in consistency: user effectiveness and standards-compliance. Be consistent (comply with standards) unless a new design would make users more effective.
Since most web users know, or will learn, about underlined links, standard buttons that don't slide all over the place when the mouse is moved, and visible navigational elements (as opposed to those that are hidden and must be otherwise activated before they can be used), it's best to respect those users and be consistent with what they'll see elsewhere in their web browsing.
Flash has terrible accessibility. Macromedia posts some Flash accessibility guidelines on its website, but they don't really tell the whole story. A List Apart published an article by Joe Clark called "Flash Access: Unclear on the Concept" that criticizes Macromedia's approach to Flash acecessibility. Clark exposes some major loopholes in what Macromedia would have its customers perceive as "accessible Flash", including the following: "Even if a Flash developer assiduously made use of all the fledgling, half-hearted access provisions of the new Flash plug-ins, you still would not end up with an accessible file."
The basic solution to Flash accessibility problems is to restrict use of Flash. There are several ways of doing this:
- make a non-Flash version of any all-Flash page
- use Flash sparingly as a content or navigation support element, just as how images tend to be used
- always use ALT tags
- always use good link descriptions
- make each page a small Flash movie so that the browser's Back button can still work, instead of making a giant all-Flash website
It's possible to make better navigation widgets in Flash, which have excellent feedback mechanisms and clearly indicate useful information to the user. Such widgets may load much more quickly than a bunch of graphics arranged in a complex table, and may work significantly more smoothly. Why not build a Flash navigational widget, and keep content in HTML? Don't forget to ensure that there are useful text links that closely correspond to the navigational widget so that users without Flash can still use the page.
A lot of Flash websites seem to have been designed by people without enough common sense to be designing websites that will be used by the masses. One of the easiest ways to make Flash websites better is to endow them with common sense. Just as in any other website, Flash websites shouldn't annoy users:
- make files as small as possible
- provide useful content
- don't use long or repetitive animations, especially if they can't be skipped or turned off
- don't make the user wait for things to load
- don't make users listen to low quality electronic music in an infinite loop
Flash will be more useful when it is more widely used, and more tightly integrated with browsers. It will seriously reduce page loads and overall use of bandwidth. It will improve feedback mechanisms. It will be used to give users more control through familiar direct manipulation methods (imagine letting people drag and drop on the web, finally). However, these things will have to wait until the web as a whole is ready for Flash only.
For the time being, designers should be conscious of the many users who will experience some sort of difficulty with Flash websites. The problems that could arise from ill-conceived Flash sites are far more numerous than those that might arise from traditional HTML websites, and so every effort should be made to ensure that the Flash is used in an unobtrusive manner. Flash (or superior but similar technologies) will have its day in the near future.
Adam Baker is a user experience designer who's worked at Google, Apple, BlackBerry, and Marketcircle, and mentored startups in Vancouver.