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Flash Web Design: Strengths and Weaknesses

Flash technology, by Macromedia, can be used to develop websites that have a level of visual impact from the graphical point of view. It can be used in other applications as well, such as presentations. However, there are some fundamental restrictions with Flash that you must take into consideration when creating a website or enhancing a current one.

What it all boils down to is understanding what your target audience wants.

Flash is a good technology to use if you want to make a big graphical impression. Concrete evidence still points to the fact that most web users utilize the web to find information. The following aspects are what are most important to them:

  • Quality of content
  • Speed
  • Ease of navigation
  • Usability

Weaknesses of Flash

  • Download time and bandwidth

  • Sites designed with Flash take a long time to download and consume vast amounts of bandwidth. Not all users have a high speed connection. Flash forces users with dial-up connections to spend long lengths of time waiting for the site to load.

    The latest statistics show that you have no more than three seconds to engage your visitors before they'll click away from your website. If they don't see something appealing to keep them there or need to wait to load the site, they won't stay.

  • Usability constraints

    In Flash sites designed with an older version of Flash:

    • Back button does not work - instead of taking you to the previous screen, it will get you out of the Flash site.
    • The standard colors for visited and unvisited links will not work.
    • Users have no control over the text size they want to use. The "Make text bigger/smaller" button in browsers does not work. Users are thus forced to read text in the designer-specified font size which can be too small.
    • Flash reduces accessibility for users with disabilities.
    • The "Find in page" feature does not work. In general, Flash integrates poorly with search functions.

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  • Internationalization is complicated

    Local websites must enlist a Flash professional to translate content.

  • Search Engine Constraints

    Search engines use text within a site to help index and rank a site. Typical search engines (or spiders) cannot index content within Flash movies. Only some large search engines (e.g. Google) have some Flash indexing capabilities but they are still very limited. You will definitely have a hard time achieving high rankings with a Flash site. If you can afford the time and expense, one solution to this problem is to have a second search-engine friendly HTML version of your site as well.

    Another option is to not create a 100% flash-based website. Provide some text or HTML displayed on your Web pages if you want your content to be indexed by search engines.

  • Plug-In required

    Flash movies still require a separate plug-in installation in order to run in most browsers. Many companies do not allow their employees to install applications on their computers. This will deny Flash site owners access to a portion of their potential customers.

  • Distraction

    Distracts attention from the content of your site – this is debatable. Some say it enhances the content. It can delay the users' ability to get what they came for – information.

  • Hard to update information

    Can not easily update with new information – if your site will need to be constantly updated with new and current information, you will not be able to do it yourself. You will need the actual Flash document to make changes. Flash content tends to be created once and then left alone.

  • Print Problems

    If your site is based around delivering text-based information to the viewer, then don’t distract or delay them from getting what they want with unnecessary animations. Printing and selecting text in Flash movies is often not as simple (or familiar) to users as that on HTML sites.

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Flash’s Strengths

  • Presentations

  • When you need to show a presentation, for example a demo of your product, Flash would be an excellent technology to use.

  • Games

  • Flash Technology can be used to develop interactive games, like those found on sites for kids like Sesame Street or Yahoo! Games.

  • Enhance User's Experience

  • Flash can enhance the user experience. By using subtle animation and audio you could well leave the user wanting more - wanting to make contact with you, or buy your product or service. The key is to use it intelligently, not to overload the browser with bulky graphics and colour.

    Use flash when you want to dress up a tiny website. A small Flash animation or banner embedded in an HTML document will not consume excessive bandwidth, will load fast, and will enhance the appearance of a bare-bones site.

  • Freedom

    Flash provides a degree of freedom of development that’s not found elsewhere. Flash allows the designer to place objects anywhere they like without having to worry about having to program its position. In Flash, you simply place the object where you want it on your canvas and move on.

  • Browser compatibility

    With Flash, you no longer need to worry about which browsers your page will render correctly in and which will choke on it. Your page renders the same way – correctly -- in all browsers.

  • Greater Interactivity

    Flash allows you to incorporate sound into your pages (speech, background music) using mp3 and wav files. You can also directly import digital video into Flash. There are other tools, such as Windows Media Player, Real-Player, and QuickTime that can incorporate sound. However, the Flash player plug-in penetration is now at around 97%. Compared to Windows Media Player plug-in at 59%, Real-Player plug-in at 56% and QuickTime player plug-in at 41%.

  • Greater Control

    Flash gives the designer the ability to adjust the entire display size based on the browser size and, in doing so, keep your images and text clean and unpixelated. This will increase in importance when people begin to frequently surf the Web from sources other than desktop computers (e.g. PDAs, mobile phones, car displays, wrist-watches).

  • Easier Font Handling

    With Flash you have the ability to embed any font you wish and have it display in the client browser regardless of whether they have the font installed on their machine. You no longer have to convert fonts to images in order to maintain the font for display on varying user systems.

  • Stand-Alone Movies

    Flash allows you to play movies as stand-alone presentations called projectors. Projectors are Flash movies that come complete with an embedded player -- you don’t even need a Web browser to play these Flash movies. You can burn Flash projectors to CD-ROMs or DVDs.

Although Macromedia is actively working to improve Flash's weaknesses, such as slow downloads and search engine un-friendliness, the problems still remain. Until these issues are solved, you are better-off to stick with HTML sites and sparingly use Flash in small areas of your website.

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