Is Flash Really 99% Bad?

Recently I came across Jakob Nielsen’s article “Flash: 99% Bad.” The web-usability guru writes: “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.”

Far be it from me to challenge the esteemed wisdom of one of the leaders in current web design. But, unfortunately, this sort of negativity, particularly as it relates to online advertising creative at a time when the entire industry is taking a big hit, is unwelcome and invites comment.

In many cases, usability is a slippery slope when developing engaging and informative experiences on the web. On one hand, the freedom Flash gives designers CAN break the web’s fundamental interaction style; on the other hand, that’s not always such a bad thing. Below, I’d like to comment on some usability issues that Nielsen raises in his article.

  1. The ‘Back’ button does not work. If you navigate within a Flash object, the standard backtracking method takes you out of the multimedia object and not, as expected, to the previous state.”

    This may be true, but the “Back” button has never been the greatest way to navigate (how many software applications have a “Back” button?), and often, superior design solutions allow for just as intuitive a way to navigate through a site or rich media execution.

  2. Link colors don’t work. Given this, you cannot easily see where you’ve been and which links you’ve yet to visit. This lack of orientation creates navigational confusion.”

    Sure, this can also be true. But come on… if the content you visited didn’t leave a memorable experience, then how can having seen where you’ve been from previous links be of any real benefit?

  3. The ‘Make text bigger/smaller’ button does not work. Users are thus forced to read text in the designer-specified font size, which is almost always too small since designers tend to have excellent vision.”

    I don’t want to come off as too pro-Flash, but one of the great things about Flash is that since it is created using vector graphics, one can always zoom in to read content or see something closer; in fact, this is a major plus of developing creative with Flash.

  4. Flash reduces accessibility for users with disabilities.

    I’m not informed enough to understand how this is true. I wish Nielsen had elaborated to explain how this issue relates to Flash development.

  5. The ‘Find in page’ feature does not work. In general, Flash integrates poorly with search.”

    This is generally not a significant issue because long bodies of text can still be placed in HTML within Flash-enhanced sites — using Flash doesn’t mean you throw out the other web-authoring technologies like HTML and DHTML.

  6. Internationalization and localization is complicated. Local websites must enlist a Flash professional to translate content. Also, text that moves is harder to read for users who lack fluency in the language.”

    Regardless of whether one develops creative using Flash or not, it is recommended that local designers and writers translate the content. It’s arrogant to assume that a site should flip a translate switch with the exact same design and think it’s serving a local market.

As always, Nielsen raises some very relevant points regarding the usability issues that arise with the freedom Flash allows for designers. As well, advertising is no more restricted by “Webster’s” dictionary as it is restricted by Nielsen’s teachings.

Usability is one of the factors a designer has to take into account, as well as creating engaging online advertising creative, fulfilling the marketing strategy, and connecting with consumers on an emotional as well as intellectual level. For this reason, and the fact that, for now, Flash seems to be the most stable and flexible tool for creating rich media from scratch on the web, I believe Flash is 99% better than anything else for creating high-impact web advertising.

One has to respect the importance of usability on the web. I’ll be the first to admit poor web design can discourage users quicker than anything else. At the same time, progress is a necessity. We haven’t reached a plateau in the slightest with bigger bandwidth, and the proliferation of improved web technologies means that the web hasn’t settled into any meaningful “fundamental interaction style.”

One might suggest that creating a uniquely engaging experience for a user is a method of enhancing a site’s core value. What frustrates me the most is that intelligent and influential people are cutting us all off at the knees at a time when people in the know should be rallying to the web and promoting present opportunities and the possibilities the future holds.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.