Today usability guru Jakob Nielsen released his list of the “Top Ten Web Design Mistakes of 2005.” I’m gratified to see that Flash is #3.
I view it as a personal failure that Flash collected the bronze medal for annoyance. It’s been three years since I launched a major effort to remedy Flash problems and published the guidelines for using Flash appropriately. When I spoke at the main Flash developer conference, almost everybody agreed that past excesses should be abandoned and that Flash’s future was in providing useful user interfaces.
Despite such good intentions, most of the Flash that Web users encounter each day is bad Flash with no purpose beyond annoying people. The one bright point is that splash screens and Flash intros are almost extinct. They are so bad that even the most clueless Web designers won’t recommend them, even though a few (even more clueless) clients continue to request them.
Flash is a programming environment and should be used to offer users additional power and features that are unavailable from a static page. Flash should not be used to jazz up a page. If your content is boring, rewrite text to make it more compelling and hire a professional photographer to shoot better photos. Don’t make your pages move. It doesn’t increase users’ attention, it drives them away; most people equate animated content with useless content.
Using Flash for navigation is almost as bad. People prefer predictable navigation and static menus.
Nielsen is right that Flash can have useful applications, but as he also points out, most of the time it’s used just for the “wow” effect. And with Google’s creativity showing how far one can go with “Ajax”-based apps, the number of situations in which Flash is necessary is shrinking.
What I dislike about Flash the most and what makes it an anomaly on the Internet is that it’s a proprietary standard. You have to run software made by Macromedia in order to view Flash. Unfortunately, when Macromedia decides it doesn’t want to port Flash to a given operating system (as it has done with mine, Linux 64-bit), then users are out in the cold. The number of those users is bound to increase, as mobile phones with web access become more common. Almost no other significant web technology is proprietary. From serving web pages to browsing them, you can do it all with open-source applications. Why should Flash be the exception?