Hey Flasher, Stop Abusing your Visitors (editorial)
You are probably reading this editorial on your personal or office computer. It may be a Mac or a Wintel, a laptop or a desktop. You may have a 21-inch monitor, or you may have a 14-inch monitor. It is your computer, not mine. You control many of the user interface aspects of your computer, and you control what you want loaded on it. All that I get to do, by formatting content for your computer, is deliver my message to you. Even then, you control the environment that you read it in.
Our computers are a part of our lives. They reflect our work habits, our entertainment choices and to some extent, our personality. When a web site takes control of our computer away from us, we resent it. "Who does this designer think he is that he can open a new window on my screen?" we may ask our selves. Worse are sites that remove parts of the interface of the browser such as the back and next buttons, the URL bar or the Status bar. Then there are sites that open windows that cover your entire screen. Do these designers not recognize that they are messing with my computer?
One of the keys to trust on a web site, be it monetary trust with a credit card or trust of the information, is allowing the user as much control over the system as possible. If users want to resize a window, they should be able to do so. If they want to copy text off the screen to include on a corporate report, again they should be able to. This is the basis of good usability design, and when developing pages for the web we should keep our users in mind. They are your clients; they are the ones who will be making decisions on your design every day.
So how does all this relate to Flash? How can we put user control into Flash apps on the web? Well, in many ways, Flash is not designed to give the users a lot of control over their environment. Flash is a tool for designers to take more control from the users (that is not to say that some Flash sites have not made significant inroads into user control of Flash). This does not gel well with the needs of users on the Internet.
It is not all Flash's fault that Flash has poor usability rap. It is the way that Flash has been used on the web. Take a look at the way that most designers are putting Flash files on their web sites. Over ninety percent of the time the Flash file is the only content on the page (center - top), possibly with a link to the Flash plug-in download page or a link to a non-Flash version of the content. The majority of sites on the web also only use Flash as a way to present text content over time (text animations). These 'intro movies' typically frustrate readers by either being too fast or too slow.
Another use of Flash that crops up often is using Flash to deliver the entire experience. By doing so the site takes away common navigation tools such as the back button (which, studies show, is the most important navigation tool by web surfers). Like frames, putting all the content in Flash also takes away the ability to bookmark content. This forces users to have to navigate through the Flash site to get back to the information that they wanted to find again. On community sites like Shockfusion.com (Which has more in common with AOL than the web) a visitor is unable to bookmark a specific thread they want to track on the message boards.
There are good examples of Flash on the web. In the case of animated storytelling, there is no format that can provide a better download to content ratio. Web sites like Spumco.com and Comedycentral.com have been delivering Flash cartoons for a few years now. Flash is also an exceptional tool for viewing detail in vector graphics such as maps and type samples. In both of these cases, Flash provides an extension to the abilities of HTML and images that could not be accomplished easier (or with less file size) by other methods.
Other than the content specific validations for using Flash, there are other user-friendly uses that have largely not been explored by web designers. While web designers are very adept at creating a good blend of text and images on a web page, they seem unable, or unwilling to integrate Flash content the same way. It is rare that you see any Flash content that is used within an HTML page. When you do actually find a site that does it most users would not even recognize the content as Flash.
A good example of a well-integrated use of Flash on a web page is the Brown & Root Services site (note: I was part of the design team for this site). Take a look at the content pages on the site (such as this one) and find the Flash content. Most people are only going to notice one use, the animated 'ads' in the Quick Clicks box, but there are two areas of Flash content on the page. In the header at the top of the page there is a Flash file that rotates headlines. This small bar provides dynamic information to the visitors while not giving them the annoyance of a 'ticker-tape' marquee or the incompatibilities of a Java applet. It improves the user experience on the site without beating the user over the head with sound and animation.
This type of Flash integration also leaves the user very much in control of the experience. Essentially the Flash is no more intrusive than an animated GIF or a banner ad. Users will deal with the Flash portions of the site with the same learned preferences that they do for similar media. By integrating Flash into a web site using the same practices as one would for animated GIFs or Java Applets a web site can improve the relationship it has with its visitors. The visitor has established preferences how to deal with the Flash and therefore trust in the site is improved.
Good user design is an important part of the success of any commercial site. Companies are competing head to head with other sites offering identical services where the only factor between the success of one site and the failure of another may be a good interface. Flash can be a powerful tool to assist a site in providing a better user experience. As designers we have to look past the 'flashy' features of Flash and start thinking about how it can make our sites better and easier to use. By doing this designers can start to combat the view that Flash is a 'Cancer on the Web' and turn it into a respected web technology.
I'd love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to post on the Flazoom.com Message Board.