To Flash, or Not to Flash?

January 10, 2011 by Scot Gallup

Sure there are many website owners and designers who would give a responding, “Yes!” or, “Why not?” to the use of Flash in website design/development. After all, Flash can give a website that cool WOW-factor with its smooth and innovative animation effects and/or interactivity. Some websites are developed entirely using Flash, while others will use Flash to display a section of content, such as a banner ad, slideshow or video. But is it always a good thing? The answer is, No. Flash is not always a good tool to use on your website. Allow me to explain how Flash can pose problems as well as offer some alternatives.

Problems with Using Flash
  1. Search Engine Optimization
    Internet Search engines like Google and Yahoo use robots to search for websites, and index the site’s content into their database, follow any links they find and index this content as well. Using the site content along with a number of different criteria, they rank your site based on search terms they develop. In most cases, the search engines are unable to read any content or links that exists within a Flash object, making it difficult if not impossible to accurately and completely rank your site, making it more difficult for users to find your site through Google/Yahoo.
  2. Compatibility with Some Web Browsing Devices
    In order for a web browser to process and view a Flash element it needs a Flash plug-in. While most typical PC-based browsers today have the plug-in already installed, the most common problem is with mobile devices. To date, Apple has refused to allow Flash capability in their iPhone, and iPad--two of the most commonly used mobile devices today. Windows too has also given overtures that they may not support Flash in their future mobile operating systems. If your site is one that people will likely access using a mobile device, such as a restaurant or retail store, the Flash object will prevent some people from being able to read or experience any Flash contained content.
  3. User Experience
    Everyone has encountered that webpage that displays an animated graphic asking us to be patient while the content loads. Sometimes the load time can be significant and irritating to the user. This is quite typical of Flash objects. User studies show that many people do indeed leave, and move on to another website, rather than wait. Sure some visitors will love the animated eye-candy of a Flash presentation, at first. But the more they use the site, and return frequently, which you hope they will!—the Flash begins to lose its luster and can become a distraction, if not an annoyance.
  4. Website Updates
    Most websites built in standard HTML/CSS/Javascript are pretty simple to update, while updating a Flash object can pose problems. At best, some Flash objects may pull content from a text file and/or database, but this is more the exception than the rule. In almost all cases, revising Flash content requires the original (FLA) file from which the final Flash object (SWF file) is developed and plugged into the site. As a web designer, it is quite common to have a client who can’t update their site because they do not have the original file, or the fairly expensive Flash software, to open and modify it.
New Solutions

It seems surprising that many web designers seem to be unaware of the interactive and animation capabilities of Javascript, especially jQuery and other Javascript libraries since they are more compatible with web browsing devices, adhere to industry standards, are search engine friendly, load quickly, and are easier to update—unlike Flash. Recent trends in browser support for the upcoming HTML5 now provides an alternative to Flash delivered video, as YouTube and other video hosting services are beginning to implement. It is no wonder that many people including Apple believe that Flash is becoming a dead technology.

If You Must Flash…

Personally, I love Flash. It can be used effectively in a number of different situations in website design. Even a site developed entirely in Flash can provide a wonderfully rich and immersive environment, ideal when entertainment is the principal objective of the site. Here are some additional considerations in using Flash effectively.

  1. Don’t Rely on Flash as the Main Expression of Your Brand, Message, or Critical Content
    While the Flash element should always support your brand, your site should not rely on it as the key tool to express it. It could serve as an interactive/animated demo as an enhancement to written content already on your site. If users can’t see Flash, they can’t see your key messages or content.
  2. Don’t Use Flash for Your Site Navigation
    The Flash element can contain links to other pages, but it should not be the main method for which users navigate the site. Users with non-Flash browsers as well as Search Engines need to be able to read and follow these links.
  3. Provide Alternative Graphics
    I am often surprised to see Flash designers who fail to use an alternative graphic which can be easily loaded and displayed to users who are using a non-Flash compatible device. Recently I visited a site for my satellite TV provider using my mobile (non-Flash compliant) device, and was presented a web page filled with several “holes”. Each of these “holes” was a Flash object that I could not view. It would have been nice to see an alternative content to fill each hole.
  4. Avoid Using Flash as a Video Delivery System
    Using HTML5, YouTube, Vimeo or other non-Flash video delivery system or service will allow users of Non-Flash browsers to enjoy the experience of viewing your videos just as users of Flash-enabled browsers.
  5. Provide an Alternative (Mobile) Site
    Whether your site uses Flash or not, these days, with the popularity of mobile devices, chances are your site does not translate very well onto a 1-inch screen. Developing a mobile friendly site free of Flash which can be automatically delivered to mobile devices may cost a few bucks, but it might be worth it to capture more potential revenue from your site.
  6. Get & Keep Your Original Flash (FLA) Files
    When you work with a Flash developer, make sure you request a copy of the FLA, and other supporting files. If you ever need to use another Flash developer to modify the Flash Object, there is a good chance they will need these files.

Recommended Resources:

Are You Ready for a Flash-Free Future?  (Advertising Age)
The World's Worst Agency Websites (Advertising Age)

Posted in From the Design Team, Help Me Understand

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