Flash Fatigue

by Egatz

With Apple’s stock at an all-time high, and Adobe employees bumming change on the corners of San Jose when not revising their resumes, it looks like the greatly-hyped clash over Flash has largely subsided. Chalk up another non-event for the computer technology history books.

As AppleInsider reported, “Apple’s decision to allow intermediary tools to port software from formats like Flash” to Apple’s iOS devices didn’t do much to stop the free fall of Adobe’s stock price.

Shantanu Narayen, Adobe’s CEO, is quoted as grudgingly saying, “In the short run, I would say the impact was muted.” Narayen then left Tuesday’s quarterly earnings call to commence whipping software engineers with a razor strop in hopes of speeding the development cycle for Creative Suite 6 up to next week, which won’t happen no matter how many quality assurance tests the company skips.

As a wee lad, I authored CD-ROMs in Director. Shockwave Flash was a pretty cool thing, and in the mid-1990s I wrote on the old Egatz Epitaph how Flash would change the Web. It did, and made many things much easier than they were then in authoring environments such as JavaScript, for instance.

Unfortunately for Adobe, time has marched on, and the Internet with it. Hit a Web site built with Flash, as opposed to HTML, for instance, and the misery starts instantly. Flash has become painfully bloated, and the first thing you notice is you now have time to get up, go to the kitchen, and start the kettle on the stove because this sucker is going to load. Then it’s going to load some more, even with broadband. Hello, Adobe? The rest of the Web loads fairly instantaneously with a broadband connection. No progress bar, wheel, or fancy animation is fascinating enough to watch while a massive Flash file loads at the start of your visit to a new site.

The next thing you notice is every Flash creation has a user interface entirely all its own. Having to relearn a navigation system with every new site is nothing short of maddening, and turns users off instantly. There’s few things worse than flailing around with your mouse, clicking like an epileptic while trying to find out how to advance to the next page, image, embedded movie, or whatever.

I often write about photographers. The largest turnoff you can imagine when visiting a photographer’s site built in Flash is the dreaded scrolling thumbnail navigation of their images. This method of user interface was invented by a sadist, and is nearly impossible to figure out. Thirteen-year-old video game enthusiasts have been known to go to photographers’ sites with Flash-based scrolling thumbnails in order to test their reflexes, hand-eye coordination, and stamina by trying to select thumbnails as they roll by at varying speeds, often with zero logic or mouse-nuance. When I encounter this type of madness, I typically quickly leave the site, and find someone else to write about.

Video is painful to watch in Flash. The compression is ugly. It’s slow, and takes too long to load. The video playback controls are often nonexistent, and when they’re present, they rarely work well. To say they can’t touch an embedded QuickTime movie’s controls is an understatement. Since a video is typically part of the entire Flash file it resides in, this is more data which needs to load before you can do anything.

On average, site creators are not well-trained in interface design, information architecture, or content usability. With all the navigational and interface permutations Flash can allow, this isn’t a good thing. People hit your site for information, not an education in how you think a site should flow. They’re not going to stick around when they see how difficult it is to navigate.

The Web is largely silent, unlike CD-ROMs, which were a fully-imersive experience. This isn’t a bad thing.¬†Some Web pages have embedded video, which present their own soundtrack, so they have no need for another audio file playing without readers asking it to play. Web pages are largely for reading. Music typically only distracts from that task. Are you going to gamble and include your favorite songs? Fine, but remember you’re probably driving away a lot of people who don’t like the same kind of music. Oh, and those little controls hidden in your Flash user interface which enable you to mute or stop the music? They’re an extra click or two, and they take time, if they can be found. All they do is annoy the reader, who is already annoyed because the music made the Flash file take a lot longer to download. Music embedded in Flash is a bad choice for Web pages. Stop it. Because I can ride on a roof rack doesn’t make it the smart choice.

There’s valid performance reasons why Apple’s kept Flash off their iPhone and iPad, despite the latest announcement of porting software from other formats. Do you really want to completely ignore this huge segment of readers who use iOS? Do you want these viewers to be unable to access what you’ve taken the time to create on your site? If so, use Flash to limit your traffic.

Flash is an SEO nightmare. Most search engine spiders can’t parse the content of Flash files. If you want to limit search engine rankings for your site, Flash is the way to go.

Lastly, Flash crashes. A good way to alienate users is to make their browser crash. Think they’ll come back a second or third time after you’ve choked their Web browser? Nope. There’s plenty of other content out there more accessible than your Flash-based site.

Flash was an impressive way to render and deliver vector-based animation over the Internet a long time ago. It’s become more bloated than the average American has in the past thirty years, and neither of these are a healthy situation. Fight the urge and ditch this aging technology for an open standard most users feel little pain using. In the end, it’s all about creating a pleasant user experience. That and compelling content drive readers to your site. Don’t knowingly alienate your audience with bad technology. You don’t see a lot of DJs in clubs running 8-Tracks. No amount of fancy animation is worth the drawbacks you’re imposing on your site by using Adobe Flash.

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