How to enhance your site with Flash

‘Heard any of these remarks lately? ‘Flash is bad’; ‘I hate Flash intros’; ‘Don’t do Flash’.

My long-term view has been that Flash is just another technology. Bad if it’s gratuitous showing off; good if it works for your users and their needs. And then a conversation started up attacking Flash again, so I started to worry if I’m a bit out of date and should be condemning Flash out of hand once more. Only hmm, I haven’t had much exposure to Flash recently, as my typical clients (government, non-profits) don’t really go for it much. So I was pleased when Maggie Reilly, a USA-based usability professional, mentioned that she’s been doing quite lot of work with Flash lately. Here’s her take on it. Over to you, Maggie.

Maggie gets into Flash

I’ve believed in the possibility of great Flash ever since I visited the Crumpler bag site after it was savagely criticised by colleagues for its poor usability. The site was held out as an example of atrocious, unusable design. But my reaction was quite different; it made me laugh out loud. I found the site creative, amusing, and quite usable for the likely audience: hip youngsters who enjoy a joke, even a sometimes scatological, potentially offensive and annoying one.

Use Flash to entice and intrigue

So Flash can work if you want to get a bit of reverse snob appeal: those who get it can snub those who don’t. How adolescents treasure that feeling of being in the know. In fact, it’s a pretty heady enticement for older generations too, or if your shoppers just want to have fun – and why shouldn’t they? Shopping is necessary (really, it is), and it can be daunting and time-consuming, so why not make it as pleasant as possible? I visit the Crumpler site from time to time just to cheer myself up – and then I check out the new products.

I’ve even seen Flash work well in banner ads, especially if visitors can control the scroll of the banner or turn off the movement.  It uses animation to engage its visitors, one-up the competition, and provide that same appealing experience of “I get it”. Visitors find what they want quickly, and animation reinforces not only the sales pitch but the entire brand. It could do better, of course, but it’s an example of effective animation that doesn’t interfere with use but enhances visitor experience and serves business goals. Pity that the site is inaccessible if you don’t happen to have the right Flash plug-in installed.

Use Flash to teach and explain movement

Shopping isn’t everything (although sometimes it feels that way). I’ve seen Flash used effectively as a teaching /explanatory aid as well, chiefly in internal sites for the research organisations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Basic rule: if you want to show how something changes visually over time, then think about using Flash to show those changes.

Use Flash to increase appeal for some Spanish speakers

And here’s one that I’ve learned recently. I’ve been testing some sites with Spanish speakers (primarily from Mexico and Central America). Much to my surprise, my participants loved websites with bright colour, crowded pages and movement. For these visitors, the busier the site the better: they feel ‘at home’ and are reassured and relaxed by crowded, busy, lively pages. They wanted more than the ability to find information. They want an integrated experience that resonates with their assumptions and expectations.

Think about your audience and their experiences

My experience with my Spanish-speaking test participants reminded me of a study I did a few years back comparing Japanese-language cookbooks with English-language cookbooks. Initially I was overwhelmed by how crowded and ugly the Japanese pages appeared. Eye-popping reds and yellows routinely contrasted with heavy black or swathes of gray. Page layout seemed haphazard, with images inserted irregularly (or so it appeared to me). But after looking at dozens of similar books, I began to enjoy the packed pages and the glaring colour. When I went back to American cookbooks, I found that the muted tones, subtle colours, simple typography, wide borders, and quiet drawings seemed tame and lifeless.

Flash will never be for everyone, but choose well and it will work for you

I’ve come to think that appeal is integral to successful Web experience, but what makes a page appealing varies across cultures. Adapt your media to cultural demands rather than vice-versa. If that means having fun with Flash: well, go ahead and do it. (But of course, make sure that you have a good fallback so that people who can’t use Flash also have a decent experience).

This article first appeared in Usability News