It May Flash, but It Doesn’t Streak

OK, I’ve just gotta say it: I’ve had it. After recently judging over 50 Web sites in an advertising competition, after having seen what passes for “cool” these days in design magazines, and after just spending a lot of time online as a simple Web consumer looking for information, I’m just gonna come out and say it: Flash intros suck.

Yes — irritating enough on a broadband connection and deathly slow over a modem (even when streaming) — those nifty, techno-fueled, groovy, whizzing logo animations that so many designers feel compelled to put in front of their Web sites suck. Plain and simple. The time has come for Web consumers everywhere to scream, “Stop the madness!”

Yeah, I’m cranky about it, but I’m a practical guy. I want information. I want to find out about the company whose site I’m on. I don’t want commercials that require me to sit, twiddling my thumbs, while I wait for the inevitable animated letdown. I don’t want to be sold; I want to be told. I want access. I want information. I just want to know what kinds of products and services your company has, dammit!

I know why these things happen — designers love them! Clients love them, too… those 30 seconds or so of zippy animation sure look impressive at boardroom demos. Everyone involved in the project loves Flash intros because they make great demos of technical skill, animation prowess, and taste (or lack thereof) in music. They’re flashy, splashy, and a lot more exciting than “boring” HTML pages displaying product info.

The only problem is that consumers don’t care about them.

How do I know? Besides the universal derision displayed by my fellow judges as we waded through nearly 50 of these things, besides the fact that joke sites such as Skip Intro have gotten tons of traffic from sympathetic browsers who enjoy a good parody, besides the fact that any anecdotal survey of fellow Web users will find you hard pressed to discover people who actually look forward to these things, two recent surveys from PricewaterhouseCoopers provide some compelling evidence that bells and whistles aren’t what make Web businesses.

The first survey (reported on by Nua Internet Surveys) found that most consumers don’t give a hoot about e-commerce bells and whistles, such as online wish lists, live customer service, personalization, and product comparison guides. In fact what they really want is simple product information, information necessary to make a decision about buying the products they’re searching for.

The second study surveyed consumers in five countries and found that what people are looking to do online is get information and send email — not be entertained. Consumers reported that they just want the facts and not much more.

Now none of these surveys mention Flash intros by name, but their findings point to a major fact about online consumer behavior that was often ignored or pooh-poohed during the dot-com explosion of the past couple of years: People go online because they want to accomplish something. They’re not there to be wowed by how cool your tech is, how much money you spent on animation, or how impressive your music is. They want to get in, find out what they want, and get out. They’ve got lives… and your site will never play a central part in it.

Now, I’m not saying that brand-building creative isn’t important. It most certainly is, now more than ever. But we can’t be blinded by techno lust and forget that our most important task online is to communicate with our customers. And part of the task of communication is to respect their wishes — and what they wish is clear: accessible data.

It’s interesting to look at the design of two of the most popular sites on the Web: Yahoo and eBay. Did I say “design”? OK, barely. There’s not much in either one of those sites that gets Web designers’ pulses pounding. In fact both are pretty boring by Web design standards, with little if any animation, no music, and simple, quick-loading home pages.

What they do have is simple, easy-to-navigate structures and designs that clearly lead the user to the information he or she is looking for as quickly as possible. And they’ve got content, compelling content that isn’t available anywhere else. They’re pure substance over style, and they work.

Now I’m not saying that good design isn’t important. It really is. But what makes up good design on the Web has more to do with providing information and user-friendly functionality and less with aesthetics for its own sake. Good design is design that takes advantage of the unique strengths of the medium and uses those strengths to communicate.

I know that it’s been said a zillion times before, but the Web isn’t print and (thank goodness) it isn’t TV. It’s an information medium, designed to provide ready access to data. Flash intros, unwanted bells and whistles, and flashy gimmicks may impress people inside your company, but they don’t impress your most important audience: your customers.

Do yourself a favor: Skip those intros.

Related reading

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