What Would Wal-Mart Do?
What Wal-Mart can teach a Flash Developer
If you live in small-town America, or in the suburbs of a US city then you may be familiar with the Wal-Mart store. Wal-Mart has taken the discount department store and turned it into an empire, becoming one the US's largest retailers in the process. The company posts profit after profit and is obviously doing many things right.
If Wal-Mart were a Flash Site
Imagine that Wal-Mart just opened a new store, close to your house, with a shopping experience similar to that of the typical Flash site on the Internet. It would be something like this:
- Instead of long downloads, the parking lot is a ten-block walk to the front door.
- There are no intro movies, but before you enter the store you must watch the latest Wal-Mart TV commercials.
- Even though the clothes you came in are fine, Wal-Mart requires that you wear a uniform before shopping, just like a full-screen pop-up window.
- For Flash 4 plug-in users, if you do not have the latest Wal-Mart smart-card, you can't come in.
- Every time you put something in your cart you have to walk to the front of the store and get a sub-total of everything in your cart, and then decide if you want to continue shopping.
- There are no small fonts but you can't read any prices or product information without a magnifying glass.
- Department signs do not appear until you stand under them.
- Sections of the floor move for no reason at all and the lights blink at random.
- To move from one department to another means walking back to the store entrance and then walking to the new department, even if they are next to each other.
- The store is empty. You are shopping alone.
- No lines, but lots of waiting.
Would you Shop there?
Would you shop at that Wal-Mart? You might go there once, but with an experience like that return customers would be few and far between. Wal-Mart is successful because it easier, faster and cheaper than its competitors. When Wal-Mart comes into a small town, local stores can't compete with the giants shopping experience and are generally driven out of business.
Wal-Mart's success formula is the same formula for success on the web. Sites that design their user experience to be easier, faster and cheaper will share the same success on the web that Wal-Mart enjoys in the retail industry. Sites like Amazon.com are successful, not because of a huge selection, but instead because it is almost effortless to buy. That effortless quality of use breeds loyalty from consumers, and brand-loyalty is money in the bank.
Sites like Amazon.com use HTML to provide their effortless user experience, but I don't think that a great user experience is the sole domain of HTML-based sites. Flash can be easier, faster and cheaper for users, but only if we choose to make it so.
Flash Enabled or Flash Inflicted?
Usability Guru's have long proclaimed that Flash is almost all bad on the web. Their opinions are for the most part valid, but they are looking at what has been done, not what is possible. The fault for this usability backlash is not important, what is important is recognizing the problems that lead to this critique.
For too long Flash developers have not been concerned with optimizing their Flash projects for the user, instead we have been doing little more than imitating HTML web site functionality with added glitz. Instead of making navigation easier, we have added animation and sounds making it frivolous. We have mistaken adding interactivity for adding functionality. We are not optimizing our Flash files, forgetting that one of Flash's strong points is its small file size. Instead of making access to information easier and faster, we have added obstructions like intro movies and animations. In effect the majority of Flash developers have been making games instead of offering clients faster, easier and cheaper ways for their customers to use their online services.
We are not enabling Flash on our sites; through poor implementation we are inflicting Flash on our users. That has got to stop.
Flash is not Just Making Movies.
Some scientists believe that we only use about 10% of our brainpower. The majority of Flash sites on the web are using about that same percentage of Flash's capabilities. Of course, Flash has become such a robust tool that even highly skilled developers can't hope to understand all the facets of the program.
With the advent of Flash 4 and ActionScript Flash ceased to be an animation tool that offered a little interactivity. Now Flash is an interactive media-publishing tool that also does animation. A quick look across the web will show everything from Flash based e-commerce sites to humorous animations poking fun at current events. Flash content can certainly be cool, but not often is the content a tool for users.
With the power of Flash 5 Flash developers can move from creating interactive access to information to actually allowing users to interacting with it. We can build Information applications.
Let's Build Information Applications
Information Applications are the 'killer implementation' of Flash and ActionScript. Because they are developed in Flash, information applications are cross-platform and cross-browser compatible. They can easily interact with live data on a server. Users can open, manipulate and save data online. Through Flash our web sites can be as useful to our visitors as a word processor or scheduling program.
Information applications are already making their impact on the web. Sites like TheyRule show how complex structures of data can be easily understood through the visual tools created by Flash developers. On the site visitors can view, organize and save charts showing the interconnected web of boards and board members of America's top 100 companies. Visitors learn more about the data through interacting with it.
SmallBluePrinter is another example of an excellent information application built in Flash. Visitors using this application can create a floor plan for a one-story house complete with doors, windows and walls. Once the desired floor plan has been created, visitors can get a feel for how it would look from the inside by using the Flash applications virtual 3D walkthrough. Amazingly, this application is only 75k.
Other Flash developers are using Flash to create a new breed of site that offers a user experience that even HTML can't match. Company web sites like Relavare use usability-tested navigation and a single page experience to engage users. Relavare's site also adds bookmarking and back-button functionality to Flash based sites. This type of development effort pays off too. Relavare has gained a number of clients by packaging their user-friendly Flash experience.
There is a Catch
There is a catch to building information application in Flash. That catch is education.
To design and build Flash-based information applications we need more than just graphic design and coding skills. We need to know how users interact with our application, what they expect and how to provide it. Flash developers looking to create truly engaging and user-friendly online services and applications are going to have to admit that the reason a button is pressed is more important than the way that button looks.
Flash developers are going to have to start understanding usability. We need to have an understanding of how people interact with computers, their browsers and more importantly, the interface elements that we create in Flash. We need to develop our own experience as to what makes a good experience for the user. We need to have a good judgment of what interface elements are best suited to the content we are developing. We need to become interaction designers.
Job Description: Interaction Designer
Interaction designers think about the experience they are creating. They think about deeper issues than color schemes and button states. They think about you and all the other potential users, interacting with the applications they build. An interaction designer works with graphic interface designers and programmers to make sure that the end product is user-friendly, useful and elegant.
- The graphic interface designer is in charge of picking the color of the car and the interior styling. His job is to make sure the car is branded effectively and pleasing to the eye.
- The ActionScript coder is in charge of driving the car and keeping it running. His job is to make sure that the team can actually get there.
- The interaction designer is in charge of planning the trip, his job is to pick the route, decide on the type of car (mini-van, luxury car or compact) and what type of features will be necessary for the trip.
Picture a Flash team driving across country to a Flash conference:
Our Flash Must be Usable
No matter what we create in Flash, it is not going to offer lasting value for our clients without being usable. Our Wal-Mart store with the equivalent of intro-movies, pop-up windows, mystery navigation, complicated shopping carts, hard to read fonts and long delays will not build a customer base, so why are we making Flash sites with these features and expecting any different.
By understanding and applying usability principles, interactive designers can become interactions designers. By focusing on the interaction of the user with our Flash content we can build content and applications that improve usability and extend the power of the web. Next time your team is working on a Flash project, think about interaction design, and how to build the best Flash for the content.
Ask yourself, what would Wal-Mart do?
Join the discussion, add your comments about this article.
written by CHris MacGregor - firstname.lastname@example.org
Chris MacGregor is an Interaction Designer with MacGregor Media in Houston, Texas. He consults with clients across the world to improve the usability of their Flash projects. In addition to his award-winning work, MacGregor is recognized as a leading proponent of Flash and Usability. He is the publisher of Flazoom.com, a popular Flash critique site and author of a number of articles focusing on Flash and Usability. Earlier this year Macromedia published MacGregor's Flash usability white paper entitled "Developing User-Friendly Flash Content."