We have all seen it. You enter a site expecting to see about 20 categories, perhaps an attractive graphic on the home page, and the merchant’s contact information. And then something flies in your face out of nowhere. Some merchant trusted a designer who probably just learned Flash, and that designer decided to go hog wild by making it too big or putting it where it didn’t belong.
Flash can add an exciting element to a website or effectively demonstrate how a site or product is used. However, Flash used excessively actually distracts your customer from their original goal, which is to either purchase from you or read about your products. According to Jakob Nielsen, web usability expert and creator of the most boring looking site ever (www.UseIt.com), “Flash designers decrease the granularity of user control and revert to presentation styles that resemble television rather than interactive media. Websites that force users to sit through sequences with nothing to do will be boring and pacifying, regardless of how cool they look.” Nielsen doesn’t even approve of intro splash pages using Flash, but does appreciate the “Skip Intro” button. As boring as Nielsen’s own site looks, www.UseIt.com has a PR ranking of 8, meaning that plenty of other people feel his content is worth noting. So much for fancy design.
Here are a few tips for sprucing up your site with Flash while still keeping it interactive and engaging:
1.) Design around the content, not to entertain. Not only is Flash very SEO-unfriendly, it can take a while to load on the page, especially for the users still on dial-up. As a rule, Flash should be used sparingly on a page, such as an element of a home page graphic or a logo. Even if you are using Flash to present a demonstration, which is actually not a bad idea for some merchants, it should never take up more than half of the screen’s real estate.
2.) Use Flash to accentuate your message, not as the message itself. Considering not all users have even downloaded the Flash plug-in, any messages you need to convey to your customers need to be said either in text or as a graphic. If you are having a sale and you let people know in a Flash graphic, up to 10% of your visitors might not know it.
3.) When in doubt, leave it out. Much to the chagrin of designers of the past, websites are increasingly becoming web applications, which are fully capable of engaging the user. If your Flash animation or video does not help users achieve this goal, perhaps its better to stick with the basics.
So if you are clever enough to create an interactive Flash file that somehow encourages people to buy from your site, by all means, go for it. If including Flash animation enhances the message on your site, include it. If it’s just cool, remember that your store is offering a place for your customers to buy your products, and take the Flash somewhere else.