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Why we don't like Flash either

Posted 30 April 2010 by System Administrator (Datalink)

Apple CEO Steve Jobs has come out with reasons why his company does not like Flash, which is something we've been telling our customers for years but for varying reasons.

What is the Fuss with Flash ?

Adobe Flash (formerly Shockwave Flash and Macromedia Flash) is a multimedia platform that is popular for adding animation and interactivity to web pages.  The technology had its heyday in the late 1990s when just about every site had a trendy animated "splash page" and many others were built entirely in Flash (these are what I now call classic signs of website ageing).  Many amateur and semi-professional web designers find Flash an easy way to slicken websites up with fancy font and animation effects that couldn't be achieved using standard web technologies.  But in the wrong hands it can be a disaster for your website.  The "wow factor" clients often get or demand is superficial and with very little technical knowledge of the serious negatives they are about to inflict on their website.  For a start, they would only be able to actually view the site on computers which have the required "plug-in" installed (and some like me actually disable Flash by default on their favourite browser).  I've talked recently about the trend toward "one page" websites, which tend to revive many of the habits from the bad old days of Flash.

While Jobs' issues with it's non-standard nature, security flaws, performance and usability issues have led him to disabled it on iPhones, I several additional issues with its use on websites which I'd like to vent given the current focus on Flash.  There are actually too many to list, but I'll tell you a brief story of something fresh in my mind. 

Why I told my customer to show their Flash the door

In fact I've just spent a day or two helping rid a client's website of yet another very bad implementation of Flash by another design.  It was full of Flash with a minute long intro every time you visited the site and annoying things animating in the header and its headings and main menus.

We were asked by the client to change the content and behaviour of the site including the menus.  The Flash elements were created by a web designer who had moved on many years ago, they were embedded using another nasty - Dreamweaver.  This brings me to my first issue.  All we had was the Flash files (.swf) and they didn't have access the original source files (Flash files or .fla).  Meaning that we couldn't do anything to help them without doing something incredibly tricky like decompiling the files which would have costed them an arm and a leg.  The issue is that Flash is compiled, so unless you have access to the original source you're pretty much left with something you can't do much with.  So if you have Flash on your site make sure you request the original source !

But one of my biggest issues with Flash is its issues with search engines like Google and Yahoo.  Even with recent improvements these search engines find it incredibly difficult to index content in Flash movies.  It is with good reason that some in our industry call 100% Flash websites "SEO Suicide" (SEO here meaning Search Engine Optimisation).  While there are tricks to get around this, they are beyond most web designers and tend to change with the evolution of search engines and web browsers.

Another issue is that it isn't compatible with most content management systems.  Yes, it is technically possible to change Flash content using a Flash CMS (our CMS Freestyler had some of these abilities with its no longer supported Freestyler-to-Flash plugin).  This means that a customer can't edit every aspect of their site, which again contributes to the site not being fully search engine optimised.

Most of all though, I think a lot of Flash websites miss the point of a website.  The focus on bells and whistles is really only telling people what they either already know or should be able to work out within a second of visiting your site.  This is a point that Gerry McGovern succinctly made recently CMSWire "Web Customers Care About Tasks, Not Goals".

Use Flash in Moderation

Personally I believe that Flash has its place, but only when other options are exhausted.  We would never use it in a navigation menu.  We almost always recommend using simple standards based techniques for animating websites, for example many of our council websites features animation such as popular "sliders" that is also accessible and usable.  However Flash can be an important element in the Attention step of the AIDA marketing model for example, for animated advertising banners on portal websites.  Examples where we have embedded internal Flash banners include the Athletics Australia portal, which demands to be moving and exciting ,and a bushfire awareness campaign for the Shire of Yarra Ranges.

For the particular client in my story, we opted to simply remove all Flash on the site.  The result is a much faster, more usable website that is a pleasure rather than a pain for first visitors and customers.  And with a future redesign (without Flash) it will look much less dated and help the business grow and prosper ...

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