Don’t Let It Be Misunderstood, Flash Intentions Are Good.

Est. Reading Time: 7 minutes

Adobe Flash (formerly Macromedia Flash) began as vector-based animation software that was embraced by artists, designers, and animators. Its application on the web initially began as a cool tool that designers used to try and make the web more visually interesting by making things animated.

Knowledge of computer programming was not a requirement in order to build Flash animations, and for several years many Flash designers and developers had little knowledge of code or computer science fundamentals, while some Flash designers and developers had no knowledge of programming at all. Flash provided a growing but limited development environment using ActionScripting, so for many, Flash was simply an animation tool and not much more than that.

During its early web implementations, many users will remember Flash applications as those annoying “flashy” banner ads that were found on lots of web sites. These animations were annoying because they caused sites to load slow and also because users had no control over the animation and often found them distracting. Then there were those web sites which when a user tried to visit the site, they got the infamous Flash splash “Intro” page or the “Enter Site” page. Many users hate these pages because they’re viewed as barriers to the information they are trying to access. Even now, many users do not understand that there was often an underlying reason for those pages to be there. “Intro” and “Enter Site” pages were often used as a check to see if a user had Flash capabilities since there was no universal cross-platform way of checking to see if a user had the Flash plug-in installed. These pages also served as a method of offering users an option to view the Flash version of a web site if they had a higher speed internet connection, or to view the static HTML non-Flash version of the web site for slower internet connections. But users did not care that the developer was trying to give them an option. They expected to be able to access the site immediately and these Flash “Intro” pages were often seen as an annoying hindrance.

On top of robbing users of controlling their internet experience, Flash applications and web sites were often big and bulky which is the reason that they were best viewed on higher internet connections. Even with higher bandwidth, some Flash content still loaded slowly. This made accessing information or just navigating within a Flash web site a time-consuming and frustrating process that quickly caused users to lose interest in a site. In addition, some Flash developers went overboard when trying to showcase the interactivity possible with Flash applications and created web sites that were a usability nightmare. Because of this, when many clients hear “Flash” it conjures up bad memories of negative user experiences, of sites that were too complicated to use or utilized functionalities that users were unable to control. Thus many folks are quick to express their disdain for anything Flash.

Their complaints are, at least on the surface, well founded. A large majority of Flash used on the web fell into this category. These specific instances often contained large amounts of graphics, images, text, and audio with complex animations that were all contained in one file, which had to be downloaded all at once. Often these files contained more information or data than was necessary to display at any given time. It was an all or nothing situation, where the user had to download the entire web site at once, yet all they needed to access was the home page.

The good news is those days are in the past. Flash does not have to be a bad memory and there are several reasons for this. First, there have been drastic changes in the use and capabilities of the web. The web is now many things to many people and is becoming more and more media driven. Studies have shown that users respond more positively to web sites with high modality, in other words, multiple pathways of communicating information to a user, as opposed to sites with low modality. A web site with high modality would incorporate multiple channels of information communication such as text, images, interaction, and video, whereas a web site that has low modality is one that consists of text alone.

Secondly, there has been a tremendous growth in the capabilities of Flash software. Flash has gone from a vector-based animation application to a full-fledged robust development environment. ActionScript is the programming language used within Flash and it has evolved from a basic scripting language to a fully developed object-oriented programming language with the latest version, ActionScript 3.0. Flash now has the ability to seamlessly combine graphics, text, animation, audio, video, and logic driven interactivity that also allows integration with XML, JavaScript, Classic ASP, ASP.Net, PHP, and Cold Fusion. This integration allows Flash applications and web sites to be built in a more modular fashion, where content is loaded dynamically based upon user interaction. What this means is that instead of downloading an entire site or application, the user downloads only what is necessary for the specific content requested, which can be updated in real-time based on user interaction, without having to refresh the entire page. Integration with JavaScript and the ability to load dynamic data allows Flash web sites to have page specific URLs, which means that users can bookmark or navigate to individual pages within a Flash site, which is a critical factor in implementing Search Engine Optimization functionality such as page tracking. In addition, there is also the ability to add browser history functionality within a Flash site, which means if a user hits the browser’s “Back” button they can actually navigate forwards and backwards in the browser’s history, so that there’s no more “accidentally” hitting the back button and watching as the whole site reloads and takes you back to the beginning—which was a major complaint of many users.

Lastly, there has been a shift in the technical abilities of Flash designers and developers, so that many are proficient in programming concepts and capable of developing robust applications. This has led to much better implementation methods while making Flash’s past uses a gross misrepresentation of its current and future potential.

Flash is now a powerful development environment, which can offer many advantages when implemented correctly. Yet I do not believe that Flash is always the best solution. I am a large proponent for using the right tool for the job whether it’s Flash, ASP.NET, AJAX, Java, or simply XHTML. However, I do believe that due to its disreputable past within the IT industry, Flash is sometimes overlooked in situations where it could play a vital role in creating ideal solutions to complex needs. When considering using Flash technology as a part of your web site, it is important to choose an IT company that can properly assess the efficiency of having a Flash solution and implement it in a way that serves your business, whether it’s a simple image transition promoting a marketing message, or interactive modules that concisely display complex information, or video capabilities that spotlight products, services, or serve as educational tools.