Web Design Pet Peeves
To SWF or Not to SWF
I visit a lot of websites in the course of a day. In particular I spend a great deal of time checking out sites for graphic design studios.
I've noticed that a significantly high percentage of these sites are built exclusively in Flash. I've got nothing against the judicious application of Flash. In fact, Smallbox CMS treats Flash files just like any other image file. Flash adds dynamic energy to a page when it's applied properly.
However, it's my personal opinion that most of the sites built entirely in Flash suck. They suck for a number of reasons, reasons that I will layout in this post. If you're a designer and your site is built in Flash I'm sorry, but try and get through post. I hope that by the end you will find some of what I say hard to argue with. At minimum I hope to start a discussion on this topic.
Let me start by making the argument in support of Flash as a means of understanding why designers love this application.
I believe most professional graphic designers that develop creative for the online or interactive environment got their start in the print world. Print design, unlike web design, is all about the grid. A successful print project will have at its foundation a solid grid that supports the required layouts. The grid does not easily translate in the online world. Enter Flash.
One of the first steps in building a Flash project involves defining the dimensions of the stage. Flash enables designers to apply the familiar grid concept in the unruly online environment. Flash gives complete control over a layout, an overstate, and all the component elements of a web design. Designers can design and leave the software to render out the final code that our browsers interpret when we visit a Flash site.
The print equivalent to Flash is the colour laser printer. Digital printouts offer beautifully rendered and richly detailed copies but they are not a replacement for the results of a calibrated offset press. They are worlds apart. Flash websites and code-based sites are the the same. While I understand the desire to control the online user experience there are Flash alternatives but they require coding to implement. This is the first reason why I think Flash sucks - it offers the designer an easy out.
Keeping It All In Frame
Another thing you will notice if you frequent designer websites on a regular basis is the consistent desire to constrain the structure of a design within a set frame. This can be achieved with or without Flash but the effect is the same–a site that doesn't grow, or if it does grow it scrolls internally to the frame.
I don't mind scrolling. But if you force me to find the scroll on a page, and make me use your cleverly designed scroll bar arrows, then they had better be as easy-to-use as my browsers scroll and they should respond to my keyboard arrows as well. If not, you've frustrated me and the countless other visitors who don't have the time or inclination to learn how to interact with your site's interface. Standards exist for a reason.
The desire to constrain the interface design to a set frame is so print. It's NOT an acceptable interface for web design. Internal scroll bars are the second reason why Flash sucks.
"Without aesthetic, design is either the humdrum repetition of familiar cliches or a wild scramble for novelty. Without the aesthetic, the computer is but a mindless speed machine, producing effects without substance. Form without relevant content, or content without meaningful form."– Paul Rand
Print designers must be brave when they design a website interface. They need to throw out what they know, consider the environment, consider the user, consider the application and design for the medium.
Oh, were you trying to get my attention?
Your cleverly designed loading graphic that shows me it takes 20-seconds to load your page is a traffic killer. See ya! I didn't even wait for your site to load. Sad isn't it. You put all that time and effort into creating the most amazing representation of your work and I didn't get a chance to experience it because you bored me to death.
Your website has 2.5 seconds to make an impression before your visitor moves on. Don't take my word for it, read what Google's Avinash Kaushik has to say on the matter. You will rethink the 20-second load time for your site.
It's hard to resist the sexy creative freedom and interactive flexibility that Flash offers, but just because you can doesn't mean you should. If a Flash site has to load and it's not something that I'm paying for or if it's not interacting with me or giving me something interesting to look at it while it loads–it's dead. Forcing a user to wait is unacceptable. Think of it as a customer service problem. Do you like being ignored at a place of business? Why would you design a website that ignores it's customers? This is the third reason why Flash sucks.
Flash Kills Search Optimization
I bet when I mentioned Google you knew I was going to bring up Flash's dirty little SEO secret. It had to come up some time or other. Flash kills your site's SEO performance. Unless you are a Fortune 50 brand forget it, your site is totally invisible to a search engine.
Try this test. If you have a Flash site, copy your url, go to Google.com and enter this search term and see what comes up in the search results:
You will probably get two to five results. Not 2-5 pages of results, 2-5 results total. If your Flash developer has done his/her job correctly they may have added some XML code that will get indexed but in all likelihood the results page will be thin on information.
Major search engine providers and Adobe are working to improve the performance of Flash-based sites in search, but the responsibility of coding the file correctly ultimately falls to the designer/coder. Even if it's done right your site is effectively invisible to search engines unless someone knows your domain or company name. This is the fourth reason why Flash sucks.
Mobile and the No iPhone Zone
As an iPhone owner I can tell you that Flash sites are completely inaccessible to me. Oh well, you say, not such a big deal. Consider this - mobile handsets are reaching 100%+ market penetration rates in most of the world, and internet enabled handsets are increasingly the norm for North American consumers. Depending on your information source Apple owns 15 - 30% of the North American smart phone market.
Consider that as networks upgrade and contracts are renewed consumers will use mobile internet browsers more-and-more frequently to interact with the online world. If I can't see your website on my phone, your business is effectively invisible to me. Are you prepared to say goodbye to 15-30% of your business? Apple's market share continues to increase, so this number will only get higher.
Without an insider's knowledge of the machinations of the Adobe and Apple corporate environments one can only assume that the reason why Flash won't work on the iPhone has to do with money. Apple seems to have figured out how to make a lot of money online without implementing Flash, so I wouldn't hold for a Flash patch anytime soon. This is the fifth reason why Flash sucks.
I could go on, but why?
You get the picture. Flash is a great technology when used properly. When it's used to build an entire website bad things happen.
The Smallbox toolset allows anyone to REALLY utilize their website. No more waiting for the techno-wizards, just do it yourself. Instantly!!
Matt Warburton, Past President
GDC Society of Graphic Designers of Canada