I’m seeing much less full on flash sites than I used too, but I seem to be seeing more flash portfolios. If your only goal is to be a Flash developer than that’s fine, but if you want to be seen as a web designer / developer and your site is 100% Flash, you’re probably not going to impress anyone.
Why Flash sucks — most of the time
Flash usually sucks because it is used in places where it’s not needed, breaks usability basics, or tries to deliver a rich media experience to people who don’t care. Lets face it, most of us are not coming to a site to see Flash animations, flashy enter pages and load dialogues; sure this was impressive 5 to 8 years ago, but most of us are over it now. I remember animating menus, playing with collision and elastic algorithms I found on the web and drooling at the newest Flash in the Can awards which are still pretty impressive. It was really cool and fun, and there are a lot of places where this will still fly if done right, your website may not be one of them.
Flash sites have to be better than awesome
The only flash sites that will ever hold my attention are ones that are unbelievably clever or awesome on a huge scale, and even if you qualify in both these areas you have to get your users to stay at your site long enough for it to load and initialize. The point I’m trying to make is if you are going to use flash, you better have a good reason for it, you need to be a fantastic flash guru, and it better be freaken phenomenal.
Information, content is still king on the web
People like cool screen savers, even little visual touchy feely apps are getting very popular on handhelds like the iPhone, but when people are searching the web they usually are looking for information. That information is best found in plain text. Google and most of the other search engines index plain text on your site, if it’s content people want they will most likely find your site via Google or some other search engine. Yes Adobe is working hard with search engine providers to make Flash more search engine friendly, but we are not there yet, and even when we are a lot of my reasons for not using flash will still be valid.
I remember several years ago people were talking about high speed bandwidth and how we would be able to use as many graphics and as much Flash and rich multimedia as we craved. Yet here we are and the web is more text heavy than ever. RSS feeds are gaining popularity daily, and in some cases you are seeing less graphics, not more. Why? Because content is king, and so is searchability. There is a whole package to developing a fantastic website and Geeks In Training has a great article called Developing websites — structure, content, and design that delves into this deeper, but we are going to limit ourselves to Flash here.
Flash has changed the web
There is no doubt, Flash has changed the web, and mostly for the better, but it has done it in ways no one could have imagined several years ago. It hasn’t changed how we navigate the web, it hasn’t changed the fundamental structure, or usability, although I would say it has hurt usability when used poorly.
Flash has obviously changed how most of us view video online. It’s also added rich content in what I like to call Flash modules. I define a Flash module as a tiny piece of a website that is Flash based. This could be an advertisement, a video, interactive graphs, a game or application. This is where flash really shines.
Where Flash fails
Full on Flash websites are where things get ugly. I remember visiting a then famous Flash site called Gabocorp in 1997. It blew us all away, us being any web designer / student I knew at the time. I have found an archived version of the original Gabocorp website. I remember this thing took forever to load on my Pentium 133 and chugged and stuttered away as I watched the animation in awe at 3 frames per second. It even held this bold statement:
You are about to enter a new era in website design. This is the new standard for all things to come.
Welcome to the new Gabocorp.
What we have here is a splash / enter page and a Go button, both considered bad by today’s standards. I don’t want to bash this site though, at the time it was jaw dropping and completely innovative, but the web was mostly geeks back then and there was nothing on this site that came anywhere close to what we see today, it was just cool because it was a new technology used in a way we had never seen before and for no other reason. The time when things are cool just because they are Flash is long gone. Yes people are still doing amazing things with it, but for mainstream sites Flash is usually an add-on component.
This brings me back to Flash portfolios, when we look for new web developers and designers we want to see great usability, standards compliant code and an engaging site that we don’t have to sit there and figure out. As soon as you have to explain what a button does (click the cool little animated thingy and drag it to the box) you fail. You have lost me and you have definitely lost Google and the majority of search engines indexing your site. You’ve probably lost all of your less tech savvy users too.
So let get back to basics, the web is not TV, although we may watch TV on it, we expect the containing site to be usable in all the ways that we are used to. I think the topic of usability can scare off some designers, but usability in some ways is easier than design. Design is an art and it’s subjective. Having your site practice good SEO and accessibility for everyone is not subjective, it either works or does not, and you can measure this through your website analytics software.
Usability, usability, usability
Right now Flash sites do not work on iPhones and other handheld devices, if a fraction of your visitors could be coming from these devices than you effectively have zero usability on these platforms. When these devices do support flash there will still be major limitations like file size, download speeds, tiny screens and limited processor power to deal with. Good usability is also even more important on a small screen, so use Flash wisely; impress without sending all your search engine traffic away and give people the great content, applications and experience they came for. Make that experience last past the load screen.