Saturday, June 14, 2008

Flash in the pan - rich media use in government

My agency, due to various factors outside direct control, has long had a reluctance to consider the use of Adobe Flash (previously Macromedia Flash) in our intranet or websites.

I can understand this - there are network and security considerations that need resolution, and Flash has only been around since 1996 (well OK I don't consider that a good reason - even government uses desktop applications and operating systems less than 12 years old).

Also Flash as a rich media application is, well, flashy. It is often overused or used incorrectly and requires skills that not all web designers or developers possess.

There are also a number of myths about Flash which cloud the issue.

Having used Flash and Adobe Director (formerly Macromedia Director) since 1996 in several hundred multimedia and web projects, I've had many experiences - mostly good but also some bad with the product.

Here's some of the lessons I have learnt - and myths busted.

Think visual not verbal
Web is still primarily a text medium, in that messages are largely conveyed via text on the screen. Also more web people seem to come out of print media than visual media. The text mindset is not appropriate for Flash and similar rich medias, which are primarily visual.

Therefore it is important to think visually, using techniques such as storyboarding rather than scripting and deliver 90% of the message via visuals and short takes rather than long written descriptions.

Use Flash sparingly - keep the purpose in mind
Flash is best used to create an effect or convey a visual message. Therefore my view is that when you need to provide navigation or blocks of content it is better to use HTML rather than Flash.

There's several reasons supporting this.
  • Flash is optimal for visual not text delivery
  • Flash tends to be more expensive to develop and maintain than HTML
  • Flash has a longer development cycle, making it slower to update Flash websites than HTML ones - note that there are ways to separate the content from the presentation layer to make content updates easy, however changing the look still requires dedicated time
  • Flash is not accepted in all environments. What happens if your customers block Flash via their firewalls? (I've encountered this direct situation in my agency - at one point we could not see the website of one of the advertising agencies pitching to us as their website was entirely constructed in Flash)
  • Flash can be less accessible to people using screen readers - note the can. It is possible to make Flash accessible, but the effort required is greater.

Flash is best used in an interactive way
Think carefully before using Flash for animations that are simply for people to watch.

Online is an interactive experience and people rapidly grow bored with animations that they can only watch. For any animation consider using animated gifs instead, although they may not be as small or as smooth as a Flash alternative.

Flash is best used for interactive experiences where the user can effect changes within the Flash application by selecting alternative options.

Apply application development standards
All the normal rules of application development apply when developing interactive Flash applications.

Use a consistent interface, provide contextual help, make the user's choices clear and unambiguous, ensure there is appropriate feedback when the user selects a choice through and do not display any unnecessary choices - every choice should advance the application.

Make sure it is properly usability tested on paper or digital wireframes beforehand and iteratively tested throughout development.

Game experience makes Flash designers better
This is very much my opinion. People involved with PC, console or mobile gaming have a clearer understanding of how to create interactive applications that are also fun to use.

A Flash application that is not engaging or fun will not see much use, so adding that element in the 'gameplay' is critical to ensuring use.

Those with game experience have a different take on interface design. Whereas business applications are gray, square and non-imaginative, the best Flash applications are colourful, curvy, and dynamic.

This is because they serve different purposes and people use them at a different frequency level.
Qualifier: Note that I have been a game designer, so my view is biased. I am sure there are talented Flash designers out there who do not have experience in game design (and one day I'll meet one!)

Myths busted

  • Flash is inaccessible
    This is a myth I've heard repeated many times. It's untrue - Flash is not inaccessible, it simply requires a little additional effort in the approach (as all accessibility does) and that where necessary appropriately accessible alternatives be provided, such as a HTML versions. Adobe Macromedia has a great paper on the topic of Flash accessibility.
  • Flash files are very large
    Granted, the average Flash application is indeed larger than the average HTML web page - however Flash does so much more!
    Flash was developed specifically for online delivery, as such it copes well with slower connections. It provides options for streaming, background downloading or segmenting code which work very well to reduce the amount of data required before someone can begin using a Flash application.
    I've recently seen an instance where an eLearning application offered animated lessons via DHTML (Dynamic HTML) or via Flash. The DHTML versions were 10x the size of the Flash versions and placed a much greater load on the network.
  • Flash applications cannot be indexed by search engines
    This may be true for some of the older (and less used) search engines. However the leaders, particularly Google, have been able to index and search within Flash files since 2003. Adobe Macromedia also provide an SDK for website/intranet search so you can find Flash apps within your website or intranet as well!
  • Not many people have Flash on their PCs
    It is true that Nepal and Bangladesh have low penetration rates for Flash. If you are in a country with low internet penetration or restrictive government policies it's quite likely there will not be many Flash users around.
    However across the developed Western and Eastern worlds, Flash penetration exceeds 98%.
  • Flash doesn't separate the content, presentation and business rules layers
    Actually this is an issue with inexperienced Flash designers, not Flash itself. It's very possible (and I've delivered projects in this manner) to separate these layers using XML. All of the Flash applications I produced whilst at ActewAGL used XML to feed content into the Flash presentation engine - making it simple to update text.

Here's a couple of the Flash applications I've produced/directed in the past.

These were for edutainment purposes, but also served to support the organisation's branding and build awareness amongst future customers.

Note I'm NOT a Flash designer - these were designed by specialists, I was responsible for concept and ongoing direction.

  • Power up a rock concert - taught children about the need to use different energy sources to replace coal power.
  • Energy saving fun house - used at several major events to show children different ways to save energy and water in their homes
  • Utilities timeline - a historical timeline of the development of utilities such as telecommunications, water and power

1 comment:

  1. Hi Craig, sorry I haven't commented earlier on you blog. It wasn't on my blogroll.

    Anyway - I'm in the anti-flash camp for most of my b2c and b2b projects that don't benefit from being a destination site for government information.

    Most of my clients are forced to scramble for traction on Google or other search engines. While I agree Google can search inside flash files, I'd challenge you to find a top 10 placing for a keyword or combination where a flash site beats a HTML site.

    Maybe I'm wrong. I often am