Note: I originally wrote this article several years ago (2005 or 2006, maybe?). Since that time, there have been a number of technical advances that make Flash both less obtrusive and also less necessary. I’m leaving this article here mostly for historical purposes, and also because it contains some ideas about web design that some may still find worth consideration.
Should you use Flash on your website?
There are so many sites on the web that use Flash, and in many cases, it looks great and can be very entertaining — and it is definitely fun for me, as an artist and designer, to draw in Flash and make those cool things happen. But should you use it on your website?
Consider these questions: what is your reason for choosing to use Flash on your site? To add an interactive element that either entertains, explains a difficult concept or teaches something that would be hard or cumbersome to teach in another way? To add pizazz? Because it looks cool?
Will it enhance the experience for your intended audience? Or is it possible that some of the limitations of Flash will annoy your users or cause them to click away before reaching your important content? Keep in mind that it can slow download time.
How many sites have you visited that you cannot enter without either first clicking on the “Skip Intro” button or viewing some lengthy non-meaningful animation? Has it ever gotten in your way when you’re just trying to get some information quickly or get something done?
As cool as it looks, there are several reasons why using Flash is not always advisable — especially on your home page, where download time is critical. You may have as few as 1-4 seconds to grab the attention of your potential audience. Even though about 92% of active web users are now on broadband (as of fall 2009), pages containing Flash elements can still be time-consuming to load, and thus potential visitors to your site may just click away.
The latest statistics I have seen show that about 96% of web users have some version of Flash. Still some do not, and there are a number of others who may have Flash disabled (see below).
Above left is an example of what those who have disabled Flash in their browser see wherever a Flash element is located on a page – they must click on the button to see the Flash animation or ad, but not knowing (or possibly caring) what it is, many just move on to the next site. And many pages on the web have nothing but this on them. Above right is the complete view of a Flash-only website as it appears to those with Flash disabled (shown with a portion of the browser bar above).
What that means to you is that any important content you have included in the Flash portion of your web site also needs to be offered in alternate form — which may require double the coding, and therefore more expense both to develop and to maintain.
And as the web has developed, and so many advertisers have attempted to draw the eye through the use of Flash animation in their ads, usability studies have shown that most users have become ‘banner-blind,’
which means they have learned to just ignore any moving or animated content — or even any content that resembles an ad.
An all-Flash site also limits users’ bookmarking options, and thus their return to your site is hindered. Additionally, all-Flash sites are not easily picked up by search engine spiders, so your search engine results will be adversely affected.
Still, should you decide to have your website or a portion of it designed using Flash, consider this tip from usability expert Jakob Nielsen: do not defeat users’ expectations for navigation and layout design. “Jakob’s Law of the Web User Experience states that ‘users spend most of their time on other websites.’ “1 Their expectations for how websites work are based on their overall experience on other websites, so do not confuse them with unusual or ‘mystery meat’ navigation.
The bottom line is that Flash is a great tool for specific purposes or a specific audience, but even then, the best Flash applications follow the accepted standards of user-centered design.2
Pros and Cons of Using Flash
|Flash can add to the user experience.
||Requires a plug-in (though most users have the plug-in, or can install it quickly and easily).
|Can be used to really engage your audience.
||Some people have Flash disabled.
|Excellent tool for creating training courses, tutorials, presentations, and other interactive information.
||Flash can download slowly, causing you to lose potential viewers before they ever see any content.
|Can be used to create ‘pizazz’ on your site, such as games, ad banners, interactive animation or Splash pages.
||Defeats standard navigation expectations: back button does not work as expected; link colors do not work as expected; the “make text bigger/smaller” feature does not work.
|Flash is excellent at animating complex shapes.
||Flash reduces accessibility for users with disabilities (newer Flash versions do offer some enhanced accessibility features, if the designer uses them).
|Flash does a very good job of playing audio files.
||“Find in this page” feature does not work.
|Can be used for pushing dynamic server content.
||Search engines cannot spider the text in Flash as they do standard HTML websites.
|Flash uses vector graphics — which can scale to any size and retain their quality.
||May be more expensive to develop initally, and may require offering an HTML version as well at even greater time and expense.
|Flash allows the designer to use any font of her/his choice and displays it beautifully.
||Requires more time and specialized expertise to develop. Code can do many of the same things as Flash more efficiently (smaller file sizes).
|Great for creating and displaying picture galleries.
||Bookmarking features do not work on all-Flash sites.
Links to More Information
There are many good articles on the web that go more fully into some of the considerations about using Flash on your website; here are just a few:
When Good Flash Goes Bad – Flash is a tool which can be used well or not, from the usability folks at Web Pages That Suck — not as negative an article as you may expect.
Flash – What Is It Good For? – in his blog, a programmer discusses some of the things that Flash does very well, and some of it’s weaknesses, from www.jonathanboutelle.com.
To Flash or Not to Flash – a sensible article from About.com
‘Skip Intro’: the Curse of Flash Some usability tips when using Flash on your Web site.
To Flash or Not to Flash – yet another good article with the same name.
1 Top 10 Mistakes in Web Design – from Usability expert Jakob Nielsen.
2 Flash is 99% Good (for the Right Audience) – Usability expert discusses study on positive response of troubled youngsters with high expectations for music, video and animation and short attention spans to Flash applications (oops – post has been removed from their site – June 2011).