MA Hypermedia Studies 1999/2000
An aesthetic and economic analysis of Macromedia's Flash technology
The Role of Flash Today
Encapsulated Web Experiences
Flash Artists and Interface Designers
Virtual Business Cards
Flash as a Competitive Factor?
INFORMATION VS. ENTERTAINMENT
The field of web design is a vast area, including disciplines such as graphic design, information architecture, interface design, advertising, marketing and programming. Recently there has been a hype within these areas, created by a new technology called Macromedia Flash 1, a multimedia authoring tool based on memory-efficient vector graphics rendering that has been released in version 5 a few days ago. Flash has not only created a new industry of skilled artists and web developers, but seems to have revolutionised the world of e-business and corporate websites. In a time when online marketing strategies have evolved from banner advertising to creating compelling user experiences on corporate sites, Flash has become THE "tool of the trade".
The following essay will describe the Flash phenomenon in more detail, analyse Flash's aesthetics and discuss Macromedia's business strategies for its success. Developments towards a more corporate and controllable internet will be contrasted with an analysis of the internet's underlying economic structures, followed by a discourse of possible outcomes and expectations for online experiences in the future.
The Role of Flash Today
Disney, Volkswagen, Nike, The New York Times, Cisco, and IBM are just a sampling of the thousands of sites that use Flash to create an enhanced user experience on their corporate websites.
From being an insider's tool used by some web designers for experimentation in their online design portfolios, Flash grew to become an influential tool as well as created the state-of-the-art aesthetic style during the past two years, and has successfully entered the corporate business world online.
An established community of so-called "Flash artists" pushes the boundaries of the software and received early support and reputation through Macromedia's developer web site 2 , which showcases experiments and profiles case studies. This way a whole new industry branch was set up within new media workplaces. Experienced Flash-artists are amongst the most looked-after talents in the new media industry, both by recruitment- and design agencies.
Looking back at the history of the internet from the viewpoint of a designer, working for the web has always been a struggle. Limitations in file sizes, typographic choice and specifications, interface standards, etc. have left little space for innovation and expression for designers.
With the advent of Flash and its widespread as a Plug-in, designers are finally able to literally "do everything" - put animations and full-screen transitions on a website without the cost of heavy image sizes. Anti-aliased typography, as it has been used in CD-rom design before, is finally available for the web.
Simple animation techniques like rotations, blending transitions and zooms were the first imminent features of Flash websites and have since been used to an excessive amount. Smooth edges, zoomable type, fixed-size presentations opening in new browser windows, and accompanying ambient sounds being further Flash features that spring to mind.
The intro or splash screen, an introductory page designed to welcome users and give them a first impression of the upcoming content of a website [sometimes also described as entry tunnels 3] has had a big comeback with Flash websites. Just when online content providers seemed to be abandoning the pre-Flash practice of creating a pretty but nonfunctional front page to click through, many designers are finding the Flash equivalent irresistible. The result is scores of rococo splash pages that do little except showcase their designer's capacity for self-indulgence.4
Once abandoned as a useless, time-costly feature of a website that turned out to scare off visitors rather than invite them, the intro page is now popular with corporate websites as well as design-orientated webzines and portfolios.
You can, of course, usually skip Flash intros. But doesn't that make them the equivalent of pop-up widows - annoying extraneous things that you want to get rid of as soon as they appear? 5
After the intro, or on the same level, websites often offer two options for browsing their content - the "enhanced" flash version that requires the Plug-in (very often with a direct link to free download), or the "plain" HTML version.
Going for an "enhanced" Flash web experience will usually force the user to wait for the intro movie to load. It is hard to define the average time, as connection speed depends on the modem used, the speed of server connections, the time of day, etc. On a 56K modem connection, an average-sized Flash page of 200K will take around 15-20 seconds to download. Considering the results of studies 6 about browsing habits of web users that explored the average attention span a user will invest in a new site, 20 seconds is far beyond the average tolerance level of web users. Flash site users seem to be willing to stay and invest more time, though, as Flash is a new technology and promises a richer experience. Yet it is to ask whether this user behaviour will change by the time Flash websites have lost the "bonus of the new"...
A study 7 published on Macromedia's Flash developer website profiles the redesign of the MTV2 website. A project exclusively done in Flash and executed by new media agency Digit 8 London, describes that page visits have been increased by 30% [after the relaunched site was promoted in several print media as well as on MTV] and that the average MTV2 user now spends about 40% more time on their site. A result that would be seen as a failure by web usability experts, MTV2 considers its site a major success in web marketing, and claims that Flash had a reasonable impact on that success.
As movement is the most compelling facet of vision, many websites make use of the Flash Plug-In to embed animated elements. Furthermore, Flash is a favourite tool to create animated banner ads that are placed within advertising areas on content provider sites. Users on the other hand have noticed that these animations do get distracting after a while, especially when viewed out of the corner of the eye while trying to concentrate on the site's content.
Usability expert Jakob Nielsen, favourite "hate object" of the Flash community, who doesn't seem to get tired of fighting against design-escapades and bad web interfaces in his "Alertbox" columns on his website, useit.com, has listed animations and animated banner ads amongst the "Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design":
Selective attention is very powerful, and Web users have learned to stop paying attention to any ads that get in their way of goal-drivennavigation. Thats why click-through rates are being cut in half every year and Why web advertisments don't work. Unfortunately, users also ignore legitimate design elements that look like prevalent forms of advertising. After all, when you ignore something, you don_t study it in detail to find out what it is (...) Animation avoidance makes users ignore areas with blinking or flashing text or other aggressive animations.9
Encapsulated Web Experiences
Kioken 10, a New York based design collaborative, have become famous [in the web design world] for their web design approach using Flash, and have worked for clients like Sony, Nike and others. Kioken like to call their client works "virtual operating systems" websites that are optimized for ultra-fast connections and the latest browser with, of course, the Flash Plug-In installed. One of Kioken's favourite techniques is to open a new, full-screen browser window without the Windows title bar that includes the Minimize, Maximize, and Exit buttons. All in favour of an immersive user-experience, such an interface leaves the uninitiated visitor with no way of getting back to the operating system or the browser with out having to learn their imposed "virtual operating system" for that site just to get out.11 An experience similar to one we know from navigating CD-roms, and that is disliked by many internet users, it is at the same time used as a "sticky" and captivating technique by corporate clients and marketing strategists to draw users in and keep users on their websites.
Flash Artists and Interface Designers
There seems to have evolved a gap between the two skillsets of Flash artists and Web or more generally:] Interface designers. As the technology is moving fast and software is being released in new versions more and more frequently, designers have to be fast in learning to keep up to date with the latest technologies.
Not all web designers have immedialtely jumped on the Flash train, and many still don't use Flash as an authoring tool. Parallelly, the community of Flash artists is growing steadily, pushing the boundaries of the software and exchanging news about styles and techniques online. Flash designers seem to get all the attention today, having at the same time one of the most looked after skillsets in the new media industry.
Over the last 12 months, multimedia Flash projects have become synonymous with Web design. If it doesn't sing and dance, it must not be good ‹ and it certainly isn't cool. Great work is being created in Flash (SWF), and it's receiving overdue recognition in award shows ‹ particularly in traditional, high-profile award shows, where "the digital stuff" precedes the multimillion-dollar TV commercials. Judges expect TV commercials to have a brilliant concept and higher production values than most commercial films. Naturally, they expect Web sites to blow them away, too. 12
Usability experts and traditional interface designers who are skilled in diverse disciplines, such as Information Architecture, Graphic Design, Information Design and Programming, are increasingly concerned about the future quality and usability of websites that are increasingly developed in Flash, by Flash artists who often lack a profound education in interface design.
I worry about the medium, because not enough designers are working in that vast middle ground between eye candy and hardcore usability where most of the Web must be built. And there are fewer and fewer incentives for Web designers to toil in these fields, since this type of work pleases Web users but wins absolutely no recognition from the industry, aside from a paycheck. (...) Most of all, I worry about Web users. Because, after six years of commercial Web development, they still have a tough time finding what they're looking for, and they still wonder why it's so damned unpleasant to read text on the Web ‹ which is what most of them do when they're online. 13
In the end, though, it should be the users' needs and the clients' goals that count in every web project.
Virtual Business Cards
The first steps in corporate Flash websites were rather careful. Audio-visual Flash portfolios were created, reminding of CD-rom presentations, often annoying users with animated intros and sequences of animated corporate keywords flashing across the screen. These first generation Flash sites are still around on the web, but have lost their initial impact and popularity.
An example for such a site can be found at www.cysive.com, the website of an e-commerce developer that showcases their portfolio in an animated Flash movie that opens in a new browser window. A voice guides through the presentation, sound effects enhance the visual transitions, typographic effects bring up the keywords. Viewing the whole presentation takes about 4 minutes.
The next generation of Flash sites was developed with new strategies of approaching the online audience. The keywords now are "stickiness" and "online branding". Companies create unique user experiences around their products and services, involve their audience into online quizshows and games, and try to keep users on their sites and more importantly make them come back.
www.nikefootball.com is an example for an immersive and addictive user experience. The homepage (shown left) mainly features an interactive game competition, the Nike Cup (see below). Once registered, users compete in 4 different disciplines, can personalise profiles, and invite their friends to play along. Results are published on a high-score page.
The idea of experience creation as a business model is not merely a new approach, but rather a consequence of a fundamental economic shift, as described by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore in their book "The Experience Economy" 14. They claim that the western digital culture has now moved beyond the consumption of mere goods and services online. More and more peole seem attracted by immersive online experiences.
Experiences represent an existing but previously under-recognized factor of economic output. (...) Information is not the foundation of the New Economy, because information is not an economic offering. Only when companies constitute in the form of information services - or information goods and informing experience - do they create economic value. 15
Economic theories like this sound familiar to the concepts that arose when other promising new media came up. CD-roms were once seen as THE corporate business media, offering users to interact with corporate content, but turned out to be a failure.
Back in the days when television was introduced, Marshall McLuhan envisioned the end of a print-based information era and the advent of the age of TV, a cool, participant medium 16 that involves audieces and is engaging. McLuhan already talked about the experience factor when analysing Television:
...Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behaviour, especially in collective matters of media and technology, where the individual is almost inevitably unaware of their effect upon him. 17
The term "experience" could be used to describe any number of customer interactions, from Interactive TV to broadcast to print. However, of all these media it seems that the web is the most inherently active in its engagement with consumers.
While TV is a much more passive experience, typically consumed comfortably from a couch in the living room, the web experience is more active. Users have complete choice of where to go and when. Initial attention spans of users during their first visit on a website are said to be below 5 seconds18 and hyperlinks lead visitors away from websites to new [and sometimes completely different] content.
Flash seems to be a compromise. On the one hand, Flash sites can compete with the entertainment factor of television, and once access bandwidth increases, downloading times won't be an obstacle anymore. On the other hand, Flash has the power to keep users on the site and involve them into a user experience.
Flash as a Competitive Factor?
One reason why web designers turn to Flash is the simple fact that after the long time of struggling with browser incompatibilites when developing websites, the Flash Plug-In seemed to be a perfect solution.
Before Flash, web designers had to develop for different platforms and browsers, which often meant that implementing a certain design for a website resulted in creating two different versions of the same site one for Netscape, one for Internet Explorer. Web design companies therefore were forced to build entire divisions dedicated to Quality Assurance. This development is said to have raised the cost of Web development for every client by at least 25 percent. 19
The details about why the two main browser developers, Netscape and Microsoft, never managed to agree on common standards and went on developing their own standards are complex and will only be discussed in an overview here.
Originally, Internet protocols were developed as open standards, they were freely available in the public domain for anyone to use at no cost. A "gift economy" for sharing ideas in a global academic research environment, the original idea of the internet, as intended by its inventor Tim Berners-Lee 20, was not only to share knowledge but also software protocols. If software is developed and released as open standards, it allows the specification to be available to anyone who wishes to enter the market, allowing competition on a global scale. This competition benefits consumers, as they can switch between different vendors with the cheapest product, without the loss of standards and cross combatability. This system of sharing technological standards was lateron described as the Hi-Tech Gift Economy 21.
Soon capitalism entered the internet and made use of this gift economy to develop goods and services online. Netscape, the company behind the long time leading Browser software, which was founded by Jim Clark and Marc Andreesen in 1993, developed a business model based upon the concept of the gift economy, open, but not open 22. They started to give away the Netscape Browser through the Netscape web site in late 1994 with the purpose of gaining dominant market share.
The Netscape distribution model destroyed competition, using the Internet as it's sole distribution channel. At its high point, Netscape reached a marketshare of 70%.
This was before Microsoft entered the so-called "Browser War" against Netscape, which was in the end fought out in court, as Microsoft was claimed to have abused their monopoly in the Antitrust Case 1999 23.
Today Microsoft is the market leader in Browser software, and Netscape went back to open source development and free distribution of their software. The Netscape story, however, has influenced online business strategies of Software developers a great deal.
Michael Cusumano and David Yoffie 24 analysed the Browser War and have established the term "Internet Time" as an essential factor in the internet economy. Companies have to move fast, with flexibility to change direction. According to them, one strategy to succeed in the digital economy is to lock in 25 and create a monopoly.
Macromedia offers a wide range of web authoring and creation tools, Dreamweaver for creating HTML pages, Flash and Director to create animation and interactivity in a proprietary format, Fireworks and Freehand for image creation. All Macromedia products are available "free, but not free" on a 30-day trial basis, downloadable from the Macromedia web site.
The combined Shockwave-Flash [SWF] Plug-In is Macromedia's proprietary player format. The SWF Plug-In allows users to view content created in Flash or Director and can be freely downloaded from the Macromedia website. It now even comes bundled with Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator. Every time a user hits a site without the Plug-In, the consumer is directly pointed to Macromedia's download centre.
Today Macromedia claims that 98% of web users have the Plug-In installed in their browsers 26, a widespread that has never been reached by any other Plug-in before.
It seems obvious that Macromedia has learned from examples like Netscape, effectively using their business model of distributing software for free [but not free], "locking in" consumers by forcing them to download their Plug-In from their website.
Once a Plug-In is that widespread on the internet, website producers and corporate clients don't have to worry about locking out consumers from their site that needs a Plug-In to view it.
Therefore it can be argued that the decision to develop a website in Flash nowadays is not alone an aesthetic one, but also an economic and strategic one. Developing in Flash can save time and money, and ensures high-level interactivity and graphics.
Developers only have to design for one platform and can be sure the result will look exactly as planned. On the one hand, Flash saves time for designers in the creation and production process of websites, and on the other hand it saves money to clients, while offering high-impact visuals, animations and effects. Macromedia has succeeded in near total penetration of the Flash Plug-In and selling the Flash authoring software to thousands of web developers worldwide.
INFORMATION VS. ENTERTAINMENT
The internet was created as a network for sharing knowledge amongst academics worldwide. Now it seems to have become one of the biggest economic markets, and corporations had to learn to understand the structure and characteristics of the net to be able to compete in the digital market.
With the commercialization of the net, tendencies to establish proprietary content formats and to control distribution on the net have grown. Big corporations like Xerox 27 are working on technologies that enable property protection of digital content, and are developing schemes to introduce micropayment for information.
Parallel to such tendencies towards a privatisation of the web, collectives like the Open Source Movement28 and Free Software Foundation 29 propagate the free distribution of code and content, to ensure a flexible and accessible internet in future. 30
From their point of view, the internet is, and has to stay, a self-regulating, uncontrollable medium, due to its "end-to-end" architecture. Initially a technical principle, end-to-end gives all Internet users the same rights to publish and develop. End-to-end enables innovation and competition, and avoids that any party, government or corporation gains control over the Internet. The net therefore is often seen as a self-regulating, self-healing environment that cannot be controlled. It has no borders and therefore is an environment free of laws. Richard Barbrook describes the Internet as a global gift-economy, a giveaway model based on the idea of sharing information freely as opposed to selling information as a commodity.
...the academic gift economy welcomes technologies which improve the availability of data. Users should always be able to obtain and manipulate information with the minimum of impediments. 31
Monopolies like the Macromedia Flash Plug-In constitute a threat to this structure.
Esther Dyson, chairman of the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) 32 views that In the end, any large organisation is a threat; all we can hope for is balance of power and continuing turnover so that no single organisation , government, corporation, trade association, or even regulatory agency , get too entrenched. 33
In spite of predictions of future bandwidth bringing super-fast downloading speeds, the internet today doesn't seem to be ready for time- and memory-extensive sites. Flash experiences are tendencies towards a more televisual, "one-to-many" model of the internet that locks in viewers. This goes along with a convergence of the internet [browser] with television, game consoles and wireless mobile devices that will enable users to browse the internet and send messages.
Yet television is a media that is completely different from the internet in it's architecture. As discussed before, television is a "one-to-many" broadcasting media, on which content is being cosumed passively. It can be argued that the broadcasting structure is much more suitable for experience websites, and broadband internet accessed from Game Consoles, Interactive television or Handheld Devices are ideal future platforms for Flash sites. Next generation mobile phone and I-TV browsers therefore have already integrated the Flash Plug-In 34. The Internet is not a medium at least, it is different from all other media in its structure and in the fact that it's interactive:
The interactivity of this medium is a guarantee against the monopolization of contents. Anyone (...) can launch his/her own (reasonably sophisticated) site, accessible to all other Internet users. Space is available through home page providers.
The name of the game is no longer the production - it is the creative content (design), the content itself and, above all, the marketing of the site. The Internet is an infinite and unlimited resource. This goes against the grain of the most basic economic concept (of scarcity). Each computer that joins the Internet strengthens it exponentially - and tens of thousands join monthly. 35
Conclusion So why doesn't Flash work for the internet?
Because Flash ignores the principal structure of the internet and its content. And because Flash ignores usability standards that interface designers, information architects and programmers have established in the past, to provide [novice] users good usability standards throughout the web. Flash sites render useless the browser's Back button and address bar, and makebookmarking 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. 36
In a usability study 37 based on a common usability testing methodology, Dack Ragus tested two versions of Tiffany.com: one HTML, one Flash version, both with the same content. After browsing the site and fulfilling a [shopping] task, users were asked quantitative questions about the structure and navigation of the site. Each tester finally could give a subjective rating. The results were clear: The Flash version of Tiffany.com scored lower than the HTML version of Tiffany.com in every objective measure, and was rated inferior by nearly alltesters.
In the end users will be the ones to decide whether the Flash technology and Flash content will succeed. Today, they still seem to prefer well readable and searchable content to time-consuming Flash presentations.
The users of the Internet are still undecided: do they prefer drafts or newspapers. They frequent well designed sites. There are even design competitions and awards. But they display a preference for sites that are constantly updated (...). They prefer sites from which they can download material to quietly process at home, alone, on their PCs, at their leisure. 38
I am sick and tired of people telling that Flash is great. People tell me it is cool but I think that it ruins the customer experience. I think that it should be thrown out as an e-commerce tool, except in rare cases of promotion and marketing. Maybe it is useful for entertainment, personal web sites, art and game sites, but it isn't any good for e-commerce. 39
At the time of writing, John S. Rhodes from WebWord.com [a website providing Usability News and Research] initiated the Flash Usability Challenge. A prize of 150 US-Dollars was set up for the person to come up with one example of an effective and usable web site using Flash that is proved to generate profit.The initiator was obviously sceptic about whether there would be any such site on the web.The challenge immediately generated huge response and was discussed on several usability- and Flash focussed newsgroups.
Finally, a winner was found: The prize went to Ted Baker online 40, a well-done e-commerce site that was completely engineered in Flash.
Concluding with an excerpt of various reader reactions on Webworld.com, it is interesting to see how controversial and emotional the opinions about Flash are:
"Flash is just a tool, just like a screwdriver or and airbrush. It can do some things extremely well but if you try to use it to drive in nails or give a charcoal effect you won't meet with much success. That comes down to the person that is using it, not the tool itself."
"I will however argue that flash is a tool which can help develop Brand Identity, emotion can be breathed into a brand / product and generate an image for the consumer that they may not have got without the use of a dynamic media (like flash or shockwave)."
"I was discussing you argument with my colleagues and one of them mentioned the term 'flashturbation' (n. The practice of using Macromedia Flash on Web sites for nothing more than demonstrating its cool "whiz-bang" features) - v. funny..."
"You are obviously a primitive dinosaur mind."
"P.S. I agree with you, Flash is cool, but when I shop, I like for the site to adhere to the KISS principle (Keep it simple stupid)" 41
1. First introduced in 1996, Flash was originally called FutureSplash Animator and was created by a company called FutureWave, a San Diego-based software developer. It was renamed Flash when Macromedia acquired FutureWave in 1997. Now a popular authoring software developed by Macromedia, Flash is used to create vector graphics-based animations, full-screen navigation interfaces, graphic illustrations, and simple interactivity in an antialiasing, resizable file format that is small enough to stream across a normal modem connection. The software, just recently released in version 5.0, has become ubiquitous on the Web, both because of its speed (vector-based sites, which can adapt to different display sizes and resolutions, play as they download) and for the smooth way it renders graphics. Flash files, unlike animated but raster graphics GIF (Graphics Interchange Format) and JPEGs, are compact, efficient, and designed for optimized delivery. The Flash Plug-In Web users with Intel Pentium or Power Macintosh processors can download Flash Player to view Flash content, which performs across multiple browsers and platforms. Flash is nowadays known for being one of the Web's most widespread and accessible Plug-ins. According to an independent study cited by Macromedia1, 98 percent of Web users already have got Flash Player installed in their browsers.
2. Macromedia Showcase
3. David Siegel, Creating Killer Websites. Hayden Books, 1997.
4. Julia Lipman, Newsflash: So far, we're not impressed, in: DigitalMass online
6. Jakob Nielsen, Alertbox March 1997: Need for speed
7. Macromedia showcase site, MTV2 case study.
8. Digit London
9. Jakob Nielsen, Alertbox May 30, 1999: The Top Ten New Mistakes of Web Design
11. A Cancer on the Web called Flash, Editorial Article, Flazoom online.
12. Jeffrey Zeldman, Style vs. Design.
14.Joseph Pine, James Gilmore, The Experience Economy. Harvard Business School Press, 1999.
16. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media - The Extensions of Man. p311. MIT Press, 1994.
17. ibid., p318.
18.Jakob Nielsen, February 1997: TV and the Web.
19 Jeffrey Zeldman, HTML Hell.
20.Tim Berners-Lee, Weaving the Web. Orion Business Books, London 1999.
21. Richard Barbrook, The Hi-Tech Gift Economy.
22. Michael A. Cusumano, David B. Yoffie, Competing on Internet Time: Lessons from Netscape and its Battle with Microsoft. New York, The Free Press, 1998.
23.Judge Thomas Penfield, Finding of Fact. United States v. Microsoft Corporation. 1999
24.Michael A. Cusumano, David B. Yoffie, Competing on Internet Time: Lessons from Netscape and its Battle with Microsoft. New York, The Free Press, 1998.
25.ibid., p 315.
26. Macromedia is citing figures from IDC and NPD Online research
27. Xerox Content Guard
28. Open Source overview site
29. Free Software Foundation website
30.Christine Zmölnig, Copyright or the Right to Copy.
31. Richard Barbrook, The Hi-Tech Gift Economy.
32.Electronic Frontier Foundation website
33. Esther Dyson, Release 2.1, A design for living in the Digital Age. p. 158. Penguin, London 1998.
34.Leander Kahney, Flash Is a Gas, Gas, Gas. In: Wired News online, May 2000.
35.Sam Vaknin, The Internet: A Medium or a Message?
36. Dack Ragus, Flash is Evil
37. Dack Ragus, User testing Flash vs. html on the Tiffany.com website
38.Sam Vaknin, The Internet: A Medium or a Message?
39. Webworld Flash Usability Challenge
40. Ted Baker website
41.Webworld Flash Usability Challenge, Reader Comments