Web Usability © Niall Fleming 2005

While doing my usual daily crawl of The Register I somehow stumbled on an article about Flash being evil

Reading this got me thinking, how many people are sat there screaming at their computer because some PFY of a web developer has decided, "ooh let's implement the *entire* site in Flash! That'll look ace".

While they can look absolutely gorgeous, that's not really the point, they're about as usable as a dead bloodhound with an olfactory deficit. The apparent need to use flash for all band or musicians' websites is quite frankly annoying. Especially ones which play music at you. Surely it's the user's choice whether they want to listen or not? Personally if there's a choice between the HTML and the Flash version, I will invariably choose the HTML.

The problems with Flash are many, and while there are many Flash zealots out there just itching to disagree with me, they should get an education first, read on.

hypertext linking
Entirely Flash websites make it impossible to link a user to a particular page, they must navigate from the root menu every visit. This one really annoys me, specially if someone sends me a link to visit, telling me there's something exciting or interesting to read there, only to find that I have to navigate through a billion levels of annoying animated flash menus that take about a month to animate into place at each section change.
printing
It is possible to print from Flash, but it is often difficult to get it to print the information that you require. Some sites make it so that you can copy and paste the text, which is good, and makes it slightly more accessible.
screen readers
Screen readers cannot read from a flash animation. Sites which run a single version of their site, using only flash to present it are cutting off visually-disabled users completely.
forms in flash
Web forms in Flash can be very usable, they do miss out the text-only browsers, but that is a very small percentage of users. They can do a lot of form validation and conditional field views on the fly, it could probably be done in javascript, but may require more work. Yet not everyone has the Flash plugin, and not everyone's ethics or OS allows them to install it. UNIX/Linux users for example. Flash is not GNU/FOSS software. Though there is a GNU project to create one, Gnash.

This is not to say that Flash is not useful, of course it is, but for the purpose for which it was created, animation, Flash games, etc. For these purposes it is an excellent piece of software. Animations in Flash are made up of vector objects, so it scales infinitely, without degradation, this also keeps the file size down. Much of the animation is tweened -- you design a start and end frame and the computer fills in the rest, this saves file space, as it can be done on the fly by the plugin. Of course standard frame-by-frame animation is also possible and is well used by animators I suspect that much of David Firth's work is frame-by-frame.

Other Usability Issues

Of course Flash isn't the only unusable feature on the web. Bad use of URLs feature quite highly. Tim Berners Lee creator of the World Wide Web says that 'URIs shouldn't change'.

There's no reason for them to, you can keep an old system running which rewrites the links on the fly to the new ones, you can have a completely virtual directory system, that bears absolutely no relation to their location on the physical disk of the webserver, as long as the webserver knows where they are it can serve up the correct page to any URI old or new. Apache's mod_rewrite is immensely powerful and underused.

URIs should also be meaningful, if a human can't reason what sort of information should be contained in a particularly named page, how are future webservers and replacements of the current web site management team going to manage? The most amusing example of meaningless URIs I've come across recently is the Prime Minister's website every page is numbered, the homepage is /output/Page1.asp and yes that's a capital P

Rubbish, whoever designed that system is completely mental.

While my URIs are not currently very well designed, at least they're meaningful. I do need to work on the backend of this site a little. Though that may be best done after I finish University. I'd like it to be database driven, which has the benefit of easy keyword searching.

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On Bollywood Movies
The Institution Of eXtreme Friday
Lifestyles Of The Rich And Terminally Stupid
The Sad Truth Of Materialism
Old People - From A Bygone Age?
Pop Music...
The School Bell - An Existential Perspective
Townies - Can't We Just Bundle Them All Off To Mars?
On Uni Life
The Travesty Of A Fast Food Nation
My Disdain For American English
On 'blogs And RSS Feeds
The Web And Usability