Does Flash still have a place in web design? If so, should small businesses use it?
The next time you talk to any web designer, ask them about Flash animation and watch their expression change. This reaction is bewildering for many people. After all, Flash allows for the creation of the kind of websites that make customers marvel and your rivals sweat. The truth is that Flash is not as vital a web design tool as it once was.
The issue with the Adobe animation software is that it shifts the focus of a website to its appearance and away from its purpose.
“Flash started its life as a pure animation tool, breathing life into otherwise pretty dry websites,” explains Lachlan Pottenger of Market United.
In 2010, when someone types a keyword into Google, they’re not looking for a fancily animated website; they’re after information. Anything that stands in the way of that information will only work to deter or confuse them. Due to the immense content saturation online, most people have become very discerning when it comes to detecting whether content is relevant or not. For many, lavish animation just presents another barrier between their search term and its desired result.
“From a marketing perspective, most websites that use flash are not adding any value to their marketing by using it,” says entrepreneur and business author Carl Taylor.
“Internet Users are looking for information and they are looking for it quickly. They don’t want to wait for loading of pretty headers or splash welcome screens.”
Flash is also not easily indexable in search. A small business could have the most compelling, punchy, and perfectly optimised copy on their website, but if it’s couched in a Flash animation, Google will bypass it. This indifference to the Adobe software has even extended into Google’s recent modifications; Instant Preview replaces all Flash content with an ominous grey puzzle-piece.
Finally, many smartphones and mobile devices either don’t support Flash or are still only just adopting it. There is a long-standing feud between Adobe and Apple over the latter’s reluctance to support Flash. Businesses that commission websites that rely heavily on the software risk excluding themselves from exposure to millions of iPhone and iPad owners worldwide.
Despite all of this, Flash is not completely worthless as a tool, and is in no danger of dying out. The potential of the software means that it has formed the basis for a number of things vital to the internet as we know it. For example, most video found online is flash-based.
“Flash’s number one use outside of the production of banner ads these days is for video delivery, such as YouTube,” says Pottenger.
“It is also used for enterprise-level applications that can be published not just within the browser but also as stand-alone applications with the AIR framework and as apps for mobiles.”
Flash has also birthed an extensive and vibrant industry for online games, which in some cases has fed back into the use of the software as a branding tool. Cadbury, for instance, has recently commissioned a series of flash-based games to promote its Freddo products.
When small to medium businesses use Flash for the purpose of bolstering their online branding, they tend to try to create an immersive experience for their site visitors, the logic being that a greater ‘wow’ factor equates to better engagement and conversion.
“It is appropriate for business websites to use flash if they are trying to get a complicated message across to a customer,” explains Ian Jacob, online business and web advisor at EeZee Web.
Despite the software’s potential for communicating complex ideas, Robert Steers of Creative Development is still not a fan, given the availability of other methods that achieve similar results.
“My normal answer would be ‘never use Flash’, as now, with HTML5, almost all of the functions that Flash used to do can be performed better with other technologies,” says Steers.
He acknowledges that it shouldn’t be abandoned completely, however – if only for the fact that it’s still so prevalent online.
“There are still a range of legacy browsers that rely on Flash to view video,” continues Steers, “and if you want customised controls on your video player Flash is still probably the best format to do it in.”
In keeping with Jacob’s assertion that Flash can be valuable for communicating more complicated messages, Steers also acknowledges that good work is still being done with the software.
“For instance, creative agency The Furnace’s website is Flash and it is excellently well done. It is unlikely you could do anything that well with other technologies. Basically anything that has animated interactions, or where aesthetics override other functions like SEO or function, Flash is probably the best thing to use,” he concludes.
But what about the small business case for Flash? It comes back to the idea of people searching for information online.
“Never on anything that is critical to usability or conversion. A flash video player is about the extent of what I would support on a business website, anything else is unnecessary,” says Chris Bates of Frontbox.
The purpose of having a business website, especially in e-commerce, is to provide searchers with information that fulfils their search motivation, but that also drives conversions. With this in mind, it makes sense to avoid Flash in e-commerce.
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