Why Flash-based Websites Are Usually a Bad Idea

Sat, Feb 27, 2010

Through the last years developing websites for various types of clients - from small start ups, retailers, organizations to bigger companies - I've come to realize one thing pretty clearly.

Everybody loves Flash.

Well almost everybody. But there's one group of people that absolutely does NOT love flash (for the most part) - Web Developers.

Unfortunately, everybody else still loves Flash. Designers love Flash because their design doesn't have to obey any rules or adhere to any conformity, CEOs love Flash because they get a boner when they see stuff moving on their website, artists love Flash because they feel it doesn't "limit their creativity". The list probably goes on.

Comic: Flash

I like Flash

Flash is an incredibly powerful development environment and a very compelling platform to develop and design for. Even ActionScript 3 is a really nice language and the libraries and documentation keep getting better. So I can totally understand the attraction.

I personally like Flash for limited, narrow scoped purposes. For small presentations, 3d rolling slide-shows, video, multimedia stuff, etc, Flash is perfect. So I'm not a complete anti-flash maniac. I just really don't like it when people use Flash as their whole website.

The recipe list for failure

Through the years I've had to explain the whole thing about flash websites quite often. So, now I've compiled a list of my favorite reasons not to base your whole website on Flash.
  1. For the most part, it breaks the back-button. Sometimes I find myself looking at a product on a website, clicking around, minding your own business, then accidentally I press the back-button to go to the previous category. But instead of seeing the previous thing I was looking at, I arrive at the website I was looking at half an hour ago - The odds of me trying to find whatever I was looking at again are very slim. That is a classic case of breaking the back-button. You certainly *can* avoid this and implement the back-button behavior (hat's off to every flash developer that actually does that), but the simple fact that you have to think about those kinds of things yourself and even plan for it makes this the perfect ingredient in the recipe of failure.
  2. It's behavior is not the same as the rest of the browser. When you right click inside flash, you don't get the menu you're used to. Selecting text is not really an issue anymore, but basic things like "Copy link location", right clicking an image and getting it's location, copying it's shortcut, opening links in new windows/tabs. All those things break into small pieces of fail when you use Flash as a website.
  3. It's a black box. Most of the time, interaction between the flash object and the rest of the website is completely impossible. Best case, it's difficult. You can integrate the two, lot's of tutorials and stuff has been written about that, but it's still very uncommon in use. Javascript+Flash is very uncommon for a reason.
  4. Inserting Flash on your website is messy. There are some excellent tools for inserting Flash on your site, like swfobject, which takes 90% of the hassle out of the whole thing, but none the less, there are annoying plug-in version and browser issues to think about. As if web developers don't have enough of those to worry about. (I'm looking at you Internet Explorer and the whole browser wars)
  5. The Web can't read Flash (easily). Most people would mention how Google or other search engines can't see the content of the websites. Google can read Flash up to a point. I don't know how far that goes, but that's besides the point. The Web is more than Google. The fact that I can't easily make a request to a Flash-based website and get the text of that site with a simple call, makes it incredibly closed. That means your website can't participate in the whole "web conversation". Interpret that as you will.

Flash based sites that do Flash right

I don't want to be too negative and I think I've made my point, so I'm going to list a site that I really like, despite the Flash-centered nature of it.
  1. Grooveshark. I really like grooveshark. I use it a lot to listen to music and find artists that I don't remember the names of etc. Their whole user experience is completely Flash based. They have done a tremendously good job with the site, but you still have a problem copying link shortcuts and stuff like that. https://listen.grooveshark.com/
I was hoping this list would become a bit longer. I'm still hoping it will. But I just can't find any other site based on Flash that I like.

For more nice looking and nicely done Flash sites, you can see some in Smashing Magazine's article, 65 Excellent  Flash Designs.

I'm probably forgetting about a lot of things. Any comments, criticism, etc are welcome.