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Flash: The Pros and Cons

Flash animations have become popular on the Web. But popularity is not often a good measure of useability or effectiveness. So what are the pros and cons of using Flash on a Web site?

Firstly, let's make sure we understand a few things. Flash is a software product suite from Macromedia. It features technology for designing and delivering low-bandwidth animations, presentations, and Web sites. It offers scripting capabilities and server-side connectivity for creating more interactive and engaging Web experiences than can be delivered with standard HTML. The Flash format is a proprietary format, owned by Macromedia, and is therefore unlike the HTML format, which is a non-proprietary, community-owned standard.

Flash is similar in many respects to Adobe Acrobat. The viewing software for Acrobat and Flash (called Flash Player) is free, and can be downloaded and installed on most computer platforms. However, the authoring software (called Flash 5) is not free. It costs approximately USD400. The Flash format is a vector-based graphics format. The vector-based approach is more disk-space efficient than bitmap-based formats, so Flash animations end up being relatively small in size, and therefore quick to download and display.

The Pros

  • Vector-based, but allows incorporation of bitmaps where required, such as when screen captures are required as part of a software tutorial.
  • Supports audio, animation, and advanced interactivity.
  • Relatively easy to learn, as it provides a designer-friendly authoring environment. However, it requires a good understanding of computer graphics, and the advanced features require familiarity with programming or scripting techniques.
  • Integrates well with other Web technologies.
  • Is bandwidth efficient.
  • Is widely used. This means that most visitors to a Web page incorporating a Flash animation will be able to view it without downloading and installing the Player application. (In fact, probably 96% of Web users already have Flash Player installed .)
  • Has a large developer community, providing great support for developers. There are many pre-built Flash files that can be downloaded for free or low cost.

The Cons

There is a view that functionality is (or should be) more important than design on the Web. This view, which HyperWrite has been pushing since it was established way back in 1993, is finally gaining popularity. The bursting of the Dot Com bubble has resulted in a more realistic expectation that a Web site should pay its way, and spending a lot of money on leading edge graphics at the expense of keeping the content up-to-date is increasingly a thing of the past. That's not to say that design has not part to play. Of course it does. It is the balance of budget allocation that still needs attention.

It is also important to point out that different Web sites have different purposes. Some Web sites are created totally to promote a corporate image, or to market or promote products and services. For these sites, Flash is an important tool. But for a customer support site, having a slick Flash animation of the company logo at the expense of a knowledge base is not good policy.

Flash is proprietary. While proprietary isn't necessary a bad thing, the Internet is built on the principles of open standards and mutual ownership. The rise of proprietary applications such as Acrobat and Flash ultimately threaten the effectiveness of the World Wide Web Consortium and similar bodies, and could possibly lead to something like the "browser wars" of the 1990s. It would be remiss not to point out, however, that the Flash .SWF format is now in the public domain, and third party products can now be used to create Flash files.

Perhaps most importantly, the useability of Flash has been questioned. The Web useability guru, Jakob Neilsen, has written: " Although multimedia has its role on the Web, current Flash technology tends to discourage usability for three reasons: it makes bad design more likely, it breaks with the Web's fundamental interaction style, and it consumes resources that would be better spent enhancing a site's core value. " You can read more about why Jakob reached these conclusions, but in short, he says that the use of Flash:

  • encourages design abuse,
  • breaks Web fundamentals, and
  • distracts from a site's core values.

But a totally contrary view has been expressed by Julie Melonie, in an article on WebMonkey.

Useability

Bruce White (of http://winhelp.com.au/) found the results of a useability survey on the Web concerning Flash and HTML. Although not rigorously scientific, the test surveyed the Flash and HTML versions of the www.tiffany.com Web site. It found that the Flash version scored lower than the HTML version in every objective measure, and was rated inferior by the subjects in 11 out of 12 subjective criteria. Details of the testing and the methodology can be found at www.dack.com/web/flashVhtml/.

Jared Spool, the renowned user interface expert, has some thoughts on Flash. He believes that Flash isn't good for everything, but it is great for some things. For example, if your design needs to manipulate something that is time-based or spatial, Flash is great. If your design would be more effective with sub-second response rates or by using some of Flash's key animation or direct manipulation capabilities, then Flash is your tool of choice. In contrast, if you just want a novel way to navigate the site or to just delight users by "providing something different", then Flash may not be as good a choice as HTML.

Jared's company, User Interface Engineering, has published those into a report called Making the Best with Flash , which you can buy online. 

More About Vectors

As we mentioned previously, Macromedia Flash uses vector graphics technology. Put simply, vector graphics are stored as co-ordinates, whereas bitmapped graphics are stored as a collection of pixels. For example, a red triangle in vector format might be stored as " closed polygon, from line 1 column 50 to line 50 column 100, to line 100 column 1, filled with red ". An equivalent bitmap might be stored as " Line 1: white pixel, white pixel, white pixel, white pixel.... red pixel, white pixel, white pixel... white pixel, Line 2: white pixel, white pixel... " etc. As you can imagine, bitmap images use up a lot of storage space, whereas vectors do not. However, many graphics, such as a photo of a person, cannot be stored in vector format. Logos, drawings, diagrams, and flowcharts, however, can be. The nature of bitmaps means that they are stored in just one resolution, and resizing them causes problems. However, vector graphics can be easily resized, as the coordinates can be easily multiplied or divided mathematically.

How Many Users Have Flash Support?

In September 2001, NPD Research, the parent company of MediaMetrix, conducted a study to determine what percentage of Web browsers have Macromedia Flash preinstalled. The results show that 97.4% of Web users (that's 386 million people!) can experience Macromedia Flash content without having to download and install a player. Earlier studies have put the figure at 77% (King, Brown and Partners 1999), 83% (NPD Online 1999), and 92% (NPD Online 2000).

You can check now to see if your own browser has Flash installed, and to see what else it supports. You can also read more about the NPD Online Research Browser Survey .

Want to Get Flash Player Now?

A new Browser window will open when you click the Get Flash Player image below. The installation should take less than a minute on a 56.6K modem.

[Get Flash Now]

You can learn Flash online at http://www.whoishostingthis.com/compare/flvtool2/tutorial/

Best Implementation of Flash

The best implementation of Flash that you are likely to find is the iHotelier OneScreen hotel reservations system. This system uses Flash to create a data-driven reservations system, where the whole booking cycle operates in the one screen. The pop-up help is also interesting. You can try out a demonstration system online. 

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