Considering Flash for Your Web Site

The latest trend in web site design is the inclusion of animated Flash content. If you have a web site or are considering one for your business, you may consider embracing this technology. Many companies offer tools to produce Flash animation, but the principal player in this medium is Macromedia and its Flash software.

Macromedia Flash offers web developers the ability to design visually stylish interfaces with ease. Flash is still an emerging technology. Guidelines on how to utilize this tool successfully for web sites are still being formulated through the trials and errors learned from current implementations. This article examines design concepts you should consider if you are thinking of incorporating Flash in your Web site.

Flash is here to stay

Macromedia's Shockwave product brought animation to the Web. It's main drawback was that it required the browser computer to download the entire file before the multimedia would begin to play. At that time, a company called FutureWave Software had a Shockwave-like product called FutureSplash, which was a superior product in that it delivered multimedia much more quickly through its smaller file sizes.

Sensing the rival product's superiority, Macromedia bought FutureSplash from it's competitor and renamed it Macromedia Flash. Although the original Shockwave still exists, Macromedia as well as the web design community is favoring Flash.

The All Flash site

Today, Macromedia's Flash player has become the standard format for running Web page animations. Throughout the Web, there are examples of high quality artwork to substantiate its use. And now Macromedia is lobbying for designers and Web developers to create entire pages in Flash.

Building an entire site in Flash can result in consequences that defeat the benefits of HTML. Flash limits the sharing of Web information because Flash pages can't be easily indexed and are thus inaccessible to search engines.

Because everything happens within the same browser window, there is no way to externally link to specific parts of a Flash site. One of the benefits of HTML is its openness. It allows for a variety of sources, such as Yahoo, Google, and AltaVista, to index all the content on the Web and make the information accessible to the world.

To get around these problems, Macromedia does offer tools to allow developers to export an HTML page containing the keywords used in their Flash site. However, Macromedia's stance is that indexing is really up to the search engines. Their freely published SWF specifications have been open for years, and it should be pretty straightforward to develop new search tools for their format, but only time will tell.

How to use Flash on your site

Until further progress is made on this front by either Macromedia or the search engines, consider using Flash only sparingly on your site. And instead of designing your site around a visually appealing Flash interface, your site design should be designed to reflect your and your customers needs. Below are some guidelines for incorporating Flash into your site design.

Non-Flash Users

A major obstacle with Flash is that some users may not be able to receive your Flash content. Not all users have the Flash plugin installed, and they will have to download the plugin (and in some cases download the correct version number). Thus, your homepage should accommodate users without the Flash player by providing the following options before any Flash content is introduced:

  • a link to download the plugin
  • a link to a non-Flash version of you site.

    This does create a duplication of effort, in that two sites need to be created and maintained, but anything less says that you do not care about your customers.

    Animation Considerations

    Animation should be used to as a tool to promote your site's goals or as a navigation device. Animations that loop repeatedly or shout for attention distracts the user from the main content. On your Flash enabled pages, use Flash to enhance the company’s products, to raise its overall appeal, and to promote the brand.

    Flash can be an excellent tool for demonstrating how a product works or creating very exciting banner ads about the company. Use Flash when it has advantages over other media. If you can achieve the same results with Animated GIF’s or Cascading Style Sheets, then it is best to use them to reach the broadest audience and save the Flash for another section.

    A prevalent, but misused practice of Flash by Web designers is the inclusion of lengthy animated introduction pages (commonly known as splash pages). Many sites force Flash introductions upon their users, and some force you to download the latest Flash version before you can enter the site.

    If forced to sit and wait, most visitors will leave the site and never return. Companies that wish to have such introduction pages should consider what value this really offers. If you feel that your site does require an intro page, observe these design guidelines:

  • All intro pages should have a Skip button that enables users to skip the intro if they wish.
  • When users return to your site, redirect them to the main content page so that they do not have to wait through the intro again.
  • Provide a link to ‘View Flash Intro’. This will allow you to record how many users voluntarily go to watch the Flash intro.

    Navigation Considerations

    Navigation is the mechanism your web site provides that allows a user to move around your site. Good navigation is critical to the success of your web site. If your customers can't find what they need in a timely manner or get trapped or lost somewhere in the site, the probably won't return. Some things to keep in mind with Flash from a navigational standpoint:

  • Ensure that there is a navigation menu.
  • Don’t create pages that are linked to nothing else.
  • At a minimum, display previous and next links.
  • Keep the navigation structure visible instead of hiding it until the user has triggered an event (such as a mouse over).
  • Design Buttons and Links that are easy to click on. Avoid using tiny text or small ‘cool’ buttons that are difficult to click.
  • Using HTML Frames, include the navigation in a fixed frame and load the Flash page in a separate frame. If there is a problem, such as low bandwidth supply, the Flash stream and the requested page may crash. With the fixed navigation menu still visible, users can still visit non-Flash sections of the site.

    Sound Considerations

    Sound adds a richness to many experiences in your life. Film and Television rely heavily on the combination of audio and video get their messages across. The use of sound on your web site can enhance your image, but you should follow some general guidelines when designing it into your site:

  • Don’t use it as a gimmick.
  • Not all users have computers that can play sound or may be hearing impaired. Be sure to include information contained in both audio and visual format.
  • Sound files increase the download time. Every sound file has to be downloaded by the user.
  • Always provide a way for the user to turn the sound off (and have the their settings preserved between pages)

    Bandwidth Considerations

  • A homepage with Flash content should be no more than 40k in size. This translates to 40 seconds of a wait on a 56k line.
  • If a wait is required, display a ‘Loading...’ sequence with a progress indicator. Users need to see something appearing on the screen or they will click elsewhere.
  • Use background loading of images and sound where possible to improve the perceived speed of the site.

    Operating System Considerations

  • If your users are running under operating systems such as UNIX, Linux, Amiga, forgo the use of Flash content on your Web site. Macromedia's licensing practices for the Flash player make it difficult to incorporate Flash into anything but Windows and Mac Web browsers.

    Ernest Leong is a Senior Web Developer at F3 Computerized Solutions, a web site design and consulting firm specializing in providing innovative solutions to business problems. F3 Computerized Solutions can be reached by telephone at 813.413.4558.
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    Last updated on 7/20/2017