Flash: what it should and should not be used for in website development

Using Flash in website development

Adobe Flash (formerly Shockwave Flash and Macromedia Flash) is a technology that can be used to add animation, video and interactivity to web pages. It has a programming language (Action Script) built into it that allows web developers to build impressively looking web applications with enhanced and flexible functionality. Many popular online games are done in Flash: popular among Facebook users Lexulous is just one of those, but there are thousands of such games available on the Net, if not millions.

Also, Flash is great for animated presentations, charts, diagrams, and the videos uploaded to YouTube use Flash for their work too. Many websites have Flash intros, but one has to be careful about those, since they can impress some visitors and annoy others. There should always be means to skip the intro or to turn off the sound if the intro has it. Attention: many people leave websites immediately if they start playing unsolicited music into their earphones.

Flash has a long history. It was introduced in 1996, and ever since, nearly every year welcomed a new, improved version of Flash. It can be upgraded online for free, and modern browsers usually have one of the latest versions built into them.

Advantages of Flash

In the hands of an experienced designer, Flash objects acquire rich and almost luxurious look and produce a strong “WOW” effect. Besides, Flash objects continuously send and receive data from the web server, so they don’t need a “Submit” button so typical for HTML-based forms. It makes Flash-based interfaces easier to use and greatly increases the range of features that can be implemented within web applications.

Drawbacks of Flash

Flash objects – especially the most impressively looking Flash movies – can take a lot of time to download and consume a lot of bandwidth, which presents a problem to users with slow Internet connections and to those who pay for bandwidth. Hence various Flash-blockers introduced by different browsers and actively used by web surfers. It makes it necessary to duplicate important content in HTML.

Flash is binary, so it’s ignored by search engine spiders, screen readers and other user agents that can only read text. It affects SEO and accessibility of the website, once again meaning that important information should be available in HTML also and automatically served to those user agents that don’t support Flash, including browsers with Flash turned off.

What Flash should be used for

Flash is great for games, videos (like the ones hosted at YouTube), animated charts, maps and presentations. Fashion websites use a lot of Flash, because it allows dresses and shoes to shine and look almost real on the screen. Carefully built and not too heavy Flash movies can be used to decorate the top part of the website’s design, but the webmaster should take care that the movie is downloaded just once and then cached, to the bandwidth is not consumed over and over again as the used moves from one page to another.

What Flash should not be used for

There is absolutely no reason to use it to represent text or implement hyperlinks. For these, HTML and CSS are the best tools – search engine friendly, screen reader friendly, consuming minimum bandwidth and next to no time to load up. If the navigation menu is implemented in Flash (allowing some picturesque special effect), an HTML version looking as close to the original as possible is a must – for those who use Flash blockers. The greatest mistake is to build a whole website in Flash, including text and everything – this will normally take ages to load up, will be invisible to search engines and disabled users and affect usability in a bad way. For example, Flash-embedded text is impossible to copy and paste (well, there are better ways to stop copyright infringers, but some people might need to copy and paste your content for legitimate reasons, and you might need to do it too). Any modification of the copy will require a complete re-creation of the whole Flash object, which makes the use of any content management systems out of the question – you’ll have to ask your designer to help you even if you need to as much as add a comma or an apostrophe. And every page in such a website will have the same URL, making it impossible to link to separate pages.

This article covers most of the important things you need to know about Flash if you consider having a website that utilises the latest and most advanced web technologies. Now you can discuss your project with your prospective web designer with confidence.

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