Is it Time to Reconsider Flash?

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Not long ago I visited a website selling yurts and teepees and was immediately drawn to their photo slideshow located in the upper center of the home page. To learn more, I needed to scroll down to the content or locate a link to follow a task. Typically, the mere sight of Flash provokes a “warning, warning Will Robinson” like feeling in me because of past experiences with it. In this case, however, the product photos were crisp, captivating, and quickly loaded. I actually wanted to sit there and imagine being inside a teepee. How much would it cost to get one for my own backyard? After a few daydreaming minutes, I clicked to a product specifications page, which was easy to find.

Flash can work miracles when it inspires people to take action. Does Flash contribute or detract from persuasive design? Can Flash help with conversions? Some may be surprised, but there is much evidence that Flash is beginning to help. Its success, however, is dependent on how well Flash is optimized, and how it is applied.

Here are some examples of where Flash can shine. A university may show videos of professors casually discussing their course for prospective students or display student photography in a narrated online video presentation. Hotels and real estate websites can embed Flash images of room and house interiors to help with sales. Property management sites use Flash to sell condos and vacation rentals by showcasing beautiful views, rotating shots of interior rooms, and adding soothing audio of ocean waves.

Keep in mind that teenage students today are routinely taught how to use Fireworks, PowerPoint, and complete advanced tasks such as inserting video into Dreamweaver web pages. They have grown up with video games, DVD players in cars, YouTube on their cell phones, and play math games on the Internet for extra credit schoolwork. The resulting demand for Flash by the emerging consumer group is only going to grow as more uses are found for it, especially in online sales.

The Usability of Flash

The idea of using Flash has become complicated because, as with almost every element in web development, the many ways to access the Internet and web pages introduces challenges. A slow connection speed makes downloading Flash pages a chore and, for a number of reasons, users may have JavaScript or images turned off in their browser. In general (with exceptions of course), websites are designed to work one way for one group of end users.

One common user complaint is being presented with product pages done in Flash, with no way to return the previous page or navigate to the next product. Introduction pages to websites, called “splash pages,” may provide no way to click into the main site or force a long wait for it to download. Even Microsoft’s Ms. Dewey looks bored waiting for the search engine to load in their viral campaign (http://www.msdewey.com/).

Flash presents a problem for those suffering some forms of cognitive impairment. Consider the customer who has trouble with attention span and focus, is easily distracted, and may even be dyslexic. For someone like this, waiting for Flash to load is a different kind of problem and reading available online content nearby may be another, especially if placed near an animated object. Such users want to browse for gifts for their friends and family, but they also need the page to sit still long enough so they can process the information.

How to Make Friendly Flash

After investing time understanding customer needs and user behavior to plan your online business, how do you insert Flash elements into your web pages without scaring those same customers away?

Page-embedded Flash elements, such as pictures that move across the screen are entertaining and can be strong visual selling tools. For example, an online store selling products requiring assembly might provide a Flash demo that displays the assembly process itself, communicating the number of steps involved, how quickly and easily assembly is accomplished, and the number and type of parts involved. Likewise, a video of a product in everyday use, along with audio pointing out value proposition benefits, is another positive role Flash can play in persuasive design.

If using animation, photo displays, and video, allow customers to control movement. Let them stop it altogether, slow it down, remove or close it, or guide them to a completely different path in their task that has no visuals at all. Avoid building websites entirely in Flash if your goals include accessibility, user-friendliness, and inclusion in search engines.

“Accessibility” is a broad term used to describe conditions that may prevent both people and search engines from determining what exactly is displayed on a specific web page. A secondary accessibility concern revolves around-page elements that prevent the page from being used by people and crawled by search engines.

Adobe’s latest version of its Flash software has built-in accessibility assistance for Flash developers.

Jakob Nielsen, who once worked with Macromedia to help bolster the usability of Flash, offered these comments when contacted concerning current use of Flash.

“Flash is a good example of the lesson that technology is rarely what matters most for user experience. The Flash *technology* was substantially improved as long ago as 2002, when I did do some work with Macromedia. (I no longer work with them.) It is now possible to create Flash designs that are accessible for users with disabilities, that integrate well with the browser (e.g., allow the Back button to work and allow bookmarking), and that function better with search. Also, Flash introduced a standard set of GUI widgets which improve the usability of the designs by the simple means of making it easy for users to recognize what they can do.

However, just because something is possible doesn’t mean that it’s done.”

He’s right. Flash design takes more than learning the software and making it do something on a web page. It requires strict attention to the needs and habits of those expected to use it.

Nielsen also stresses that, “Again, it’s *possible* to use Flash for good, and there are some nicely done applets in Flash with good usability. YouTube’s video player may be the most famous example.”

Additional steps are helpful, such as text inside the HTML page surrounding a .swf file or links to alternate versions of Flash websites, Flash pages, or Flash-created scripts. Obviously, a Flash player is also needed (Adobe has cooperated by offering help for making Flash Player 8 and up work with assistive technology.)

Search engines work best with static HTML pages. They can’t push buttons or activate plug-ins. HTML pages with embedded Flash are found in search engines because of on-page optimization around those elements. Some designers will use SWFObject as an assist for search engines. The beauty of taking these extra steps towards helping pages with Flash rank in search engines is those who require assistive technology to view pages may also be helped.

Flash Advances Offer New Conversion Opportunities

Perhaps the only people who truly love Flash without question are Flash designers who appreciate the freedom of artistic expression. It’s not necessary to shy away from Flash, however, if you want to be successful online.

Adobe is well aware of user concerns. Their latest Flash development software, CS3 Flash Professional, has built-in tools to increase accessibility. They offer tutorials on optimizing pages with embedded Flash for easier indexing by search engines and provide Adobe Flash Accessibility Design Guidelines (http://www.adobe.com/accessibility/products/flash/best_practices.html).

A new book, Producing Flash CS3 Video, by John Skidgel (http://skidgel.com/flv/), devotes a chapter on issues surrounding Flash deployment, including how to deal with browser compatibility and web standards.

Help is also available from the 2006 Publicly Available Specifications (PAS 78), which offers full documentation on what accessibility standards are and how to meet legal obligations, including the latest information on Flash Player 9 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pas_78).

Certainly, since Flash is visual and at times requires activation, it will never fully be a piece of cake for Internet users and search engines. Decisions to embed Flash elements into web pages should be based on website business and legal requirements (as in the case of some countries and Section 508 compliance by .gov sites). There are multitudes of Flash developers skilled in optimizing for search who understand user behaviors and will make alternative task paths and navigation as Flash workarounds available to help.

While traditionally used primarily to entertain users, enlightened Flash development and implementation has the power to increase online conversions through emotional inspiration, helping us make purchasing decisions, and introducing new places, products, and people. 

About the Author

Kim Krause Berg began working in website design in 1995. Her consulting business, Cre8pc (cre8pc.com), was launched in 1996, where she is a global Usability/IA/SEO consultant. Her training includes software testing, user interface and usability, information architecture, search engine marketing, and human factors design. In 1998, Kim founded Cre8asiteforums.

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