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Flash vs. HTML: a usability test

Flash is Evil

Originally Published: September 1, 1999
Last Updated: April 26, 2000
See Also: Flash vs. HTML: A Usability Test

Update - July 25, 2017
"Adobe is planning to end-of-life Flash."

Update - October 10, 2002
I get a lot of email from people wondering how to uninstall Flash. The best way I've found to "uninstall" Flash (for Internet Explorer users) is to download a wonderful utility called AdShield (available for free at adshield.org) and add ".swf" to the program's block list. .swf is the file extension for most Flash content on the Web. If there is a cartoon or some other Flash content you'd like to see, removing .swf from the block list is easy. The program also does an excellent job of blocking those hugely annoying pop-ups and pop-unders. Installing AdShield will greatly improve your web browsing experience.
Macromedia says Flash is "the solution for producing and delivering high-impact web sites." It's also a solution for making your site highly annoying and downright unusable. Here's why:

Gratuitous Animation
Flash has contributed to the amount of gratuitous animation on the Web, and unlike animated GIFs, Flash animations do not respond to your browser's Stop button or your keyboard's Esc key, so they cannot be easily turned off. Users must resort to either covering the offending animation with their hand, or, more likely, leave the site altogether.

Splash Screen Renaissance
By sporting significantly smaller file sizes than equivalent GIF animations, Flash has brought back the splash screen, one of the most irritating of all web "experiences." Web users typically are looking for content, and presenting them with a content-free splash screen is a sure way to annoy, and give visitors a (good) reason to punt the site.

Flash Sites
Incorporating Flash into an HTML page or splash screen is bad, but entire sites built with Flash are positively evil because they make the Web much less usable. Flash sites render useless the browser's Back button and address bar, and make bookmarking pages inside a Flash site impossible. Printing Flash pages from your browser doesn't work, nor does intra-page keyword searching. Finally, Flash sites eliminate HTML links' visited and unvisited colors, and that color-changing feature is the Web's single most important navigational cue.

Flash Hall of Shame
There is loads of badly implemented Flash out there, but I think I've found the best (or would that be worst?) example: www.ford.com. If you make it past the overwrought Flash splash screen (that still weighs in at 50K), the home page has an especially distracting Flash animation that makes it almost impossible to focus on the site's content; and pushing your browser's Stop button doesn't do a thing.

Note: Since the initial publication of this article, Ford has eliminated the Flash splash page and removed the Flash animation from the home page. Web users can only hope other sites follow Ford's lead.

This article has generated a lot of fun email, most of it from people in The Flash Community who think I'm dead wrong. At the time of the initial publication of "Flash is Evil" (September 1999), I didn't see Flash as much of a threat to the Web as envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee. Sure, it would be used for an x-rated movie here, an annoying splash screen there, or a site no one visits anyhow, but it couldn't ever take over the Web ... or could it?

After reading my inbox and poking around in some Flash newsgroups, I believe there is reason for alarm. Some people are seriously talking about HTML being replaced, not by XHTML or some other acronym, but with Flash. You heard right. The entire web. In Flash.

As you ponder that horrible, deeply troubling thought, here's some of the best reader feedback:

Posted in a Flash newsgroup
From: Gabo Mendozo (of Gabocorp fame)
Message: I have strong reason to believe that dack has a small penis.

From: Robert Bunch
Subject: what a dumbass
Message: What's the matter Dack, Flash envy? Face the music HTML is dead.

From: Mike Petz
Subject: get a life
Message: [blank]

From: Jim Petersen
Subject: Flash
Message: "I were better to be eaten to death with a rust than to be scoured to nothing with perpetual motion." Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part II, Act 1, Scene 2.

From: Al Kirby
Subject: [blank]
Message: There's no denying that an unprofessional flash web site can be quite irritating: However, your ignorance towards flash generated web sites in general is quite ridiculous. I have to fully disagree with your point of view. I do agree not all web sites are targeted for flash, but to write such an article is narrow-minded. Flash is geared for the creative designer/developer and without such a product the web would be as dull as your site blaaahhhh....

From: EuPHoRiaC
Subject: You must have SMOKED your breakfast..
Message: First question: Are you using a 14.4 modem, at best?

How can you possibly think Flash is a bad thing, as a matter of fact, you and your text-based, monochromatic, downright moronic excuse of a website could use one or two animations. Blah blah blah. And, well, that's pretty much all the talk you deserve...for this, I shall r00t in j00r b0x0r5. h4w!

Don't ever take the Macromedia's name in vain...again. Flash...is all that has ever been written, and all that ever will be. So if you don't like it...stick to IRC.

...or no....stick to Telnet.

Ya frickin' loser!

From: Adam Trachtman
Subject: you are pathetic...
Message: GRATUITOUS ANIMATION!!!! you are so unbelievably ignorant! Perhaps not everyone is on the net to buy and sell shit, but rather to create a world-wide place where people can communicate, and one of those ways is obviously through art and ANIMATION!!!!

(Regarding Flash making the web less usable) There is nothing you can't take from html/java/cgi or any other medium and encode into flash! Maybe you have never seen e-commerce sites in flash, forms, chat rooms, but I can tell you they not only exist, but are in most cases superior, as they require less back end work from the server, thus making them more reliable.

From: srooks
Subject: Flash is Evil...
Message: You don't know what you're talking about. Flash content has breathed life into a previously gif-populated or drably built world. Sure there are bad implementations of Flash, such as the Ford site, but there are also awfully bad cases of pathetic use of HTML, such as in your site. Your site may be somewhat usable, but it's ugly! Don't tell me that people in this world aren't concerned solely with usability and not how things look because I'd tell you you're crazy! As a graphic designer it's my JOB to create attractive and innovative ways to present information. A website that has content done in Flash can be far better than a static HTML page. That type of web site will eventually be limited to the "tab navigation" likes of Amazon.com and others ...

... To me it seems like you're either anti-flash because your opinions are formed the instant you read someone else's, or you're a person who lives and breathes statistics, or you just have no idea about design, and the web and flash's capabilities, or you just don't know what you're talking about.

From: Eileen Martinez
Subject: Flash is Evil?
Message: What in God's name are you talking about? The Web is evolving and I believe Flash is the key to its evolution. Flash is evil? Get real! I currently run into sites that are static, boring, and with no design element to keep the viewer from returning. If you think about it - please try - the web's multimedia interface makes it possible to move a step forward in reaching people across the world - why not make your site interesting?

What's wrong with a little (splash screen) intro? If the viewer doesn't want to sit through the intro most sites allow the viewer to "skip intro". Also incorporating flash with HTML allows for less download time and offers better navigation. You can also combine 'intra-page keyword searching', use cgi to gather information, etc in flash. I suggest you get all your facts before publishing such a defaming article. Just because you have problems using and understanding Flash doesn't mean it's wrong or evil. It is time you grasp what is happening! The world is changing and it will continue to change even after were gone. Why fight it, take a deep breath and let it in. Such bitterness is bad for your health.

From: Matt Zwartz
Subject: You're a moron
Message: Well so - o - o - ry!

The Internet when done in html is just SO interesting.

What do you want to do away with next? Databases?

Flash rocks.

From: hidetora
Subject: Flash is Evil
Message: i'm sure you've gotten a bunch of hate mail over this one but here's my take.

I agree with you that the current implementation of Flash is awful in most cases. i post on a few newsgroups for flash dev and i must admit some (or most) of the shit is awful.

i think the point you missed was the fact that 94% of net users are useless morons. people that can't even read off a screen and will end up calling tech support if they get a JS error on a page. i'm not into e-biz and all of that dying mule, but i love to use flash for making arsty fartsy stuff. much like praystation.com or softbath.com

check both of those out. They have nothing to do with content but "art".

As far as Ford or Yahoo using flash... i want info and fast.

i'm also with you on KILL THE SPLASH PAGE tho:P!

From: Joel Moser
Subject: flash is evil
Message: I read your "Flash is Evil" article, and I have to say I agree with you on almost all of it. I'm actually developing animation using Flash, but I definitely agree that Flash interfaces, generally speaking, are a horrible thing that's happening to the web. I should say "to the amateur web", because that's mostly what I see done with Flash. Flash is a streaming animation technology, and I think it should be reserved for that, for the most part.

I posted a link to the article on the Macromedia forum, and --as I suspected-- people have responded in a Macintoshian way to the criticism of Flash. What is Macromedia putting in the water to inspire such loyalty? Sheesh, it's a piece of software. I guess it's like the explosion of desktop publishing a few years ago. Everybody has design tools, so everyone MUST design.

Anyway, you made many legit points. I hope you stick to your guns and don't listen to the zealots who think Flash will change the world.

From: Raymond Strowbridge
Subject: response to flash is evil
Message: (Regarding browser functions not working) "Boo Hoo." You want to go back one website type it in. You want the flash animation to stop, STOP WHINING and do something about it, like right clicking and un-checking "Play"(how long have you been surfing anyway?) As for printing options, maybe the people that make those websites don't want their pictures or text printed. Did you ever think of that genius? What if they actually want to keep their material their own and have people come to their website to boost the hits? I am currently working on a Flash website for the company I work for and the Boss was exited to hear that the company logo ws now going to be able to jump to life and talk to the users in our company. The users never previously went to our website mainly because it was boring and just filled with information. But, when you had information with media you get a website that people WILL use over and over again.

From: Chad Udell
Subject: Spreading False Propaganda is also evil
Message: (Regarding Flash making the web less usable) Pretty slanderous in tone don't you think? Back buttons and address bars aside, you state that Flash is unprintable, unbookmarkable, keyword searching, and the visitied / unvisited is disabled... sometimes this is the case, but flash IS printable (upgrade your plugin -and read the white paper it's far MORE printable than an HTML page) keyword searching is possbile if the developer has implemented it, and as far as the visited/unvisited is concerned, that can be programmed as well. (Not that I would, I don't think it's all that useful, there are better visual cues out there as well)

From: Dave Lampton
Sent: December 4, 2002
Subject: RE: Flash is evil
Message: I'm amazed at how many of these folks don't agree with your "Flash is Evil" thing... OK I admit, a year or two ago I might have preached the Flash gospel with some more voracity, but now... I feel that all of those same talented graphic designers that cherish their Flash tools today could design a pure HTML/XHTML site that looks just as beautiful and is MORE usable, intuitive, predicatable, faster and lower-bandwidth than any equivalent Flash site (granted, they just need to have, or work with someone who has, the HTML or XHTML & Javascript experience to do so). For web animations/cartoons - sure... Flash still rules! But for a serious (e.g. a corporate site - typically a database-driven, highly dynamic site) forget doing it all in Flash - you WILL regret it! Yes, you still need top-notch designers to make it beautiful, but please don't frustrate your users with Flash interfaces. Keep your site as simple as possible - keep it utilitarian (i.e. user goal-oriented) - keep the nav completely consistent - and you will keep your customers.

From: Vic Phillips
Sent: January 2, 2003
Subject: Flash
Message: Flash is for children. Adults neither want nor need all that silly bullshit on a webpage. Flash people are those same weiners who smother everything they eat with hot sauce, because their palates are so dead they can't tell caviar from potted meat.

From: Frank Upton
Sent: May 14, 2003
Subject: Flash
Message: As the last person in the World to read your diatribe against Flash, I say 'Amen, brother!'

If you want to look cheap and crappy, use Flash.

If you want to show contempt for your website visitors, waste their time and annoy them, use Flash.

If you want to show that you (the boss) are clueless about promoting your business/organisation/sect/party or whatever, are equally clueless about COMPUTERS and have left the whole thing to some greedy geek, use Flash.

If you have nothing to say, use Flash.

Here endeth the first lesson.

animation: users just don't like it
In his book "Web Site Usability," researcher Jared Spool found that his web site testers found animation uniformly irritating, and some were so distracted that they could not read the other text on the screen. In testing the Disney site (no longer online), many users were so annoyed with an animation that they covered it with a hand.

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