Many of you may now be familiar with the story of Boo.com, which failed in May of this year. The British sportswear outfitter burned through $135 million in venture capital, eventually selling its operations and technology for only hundreds of thousands of dollars after a mere 18 months.
The cornerstone of Boo.com’s site was a super high-tech storefront, where users could visually manipulate products in 3-D. It’s a concept that’s not particularly novel — prototypes of 3-D shopping on the Internet were undertaken years ago. But the decision of Boo.com’s management to stretch itself that far into the avant-garde brought with it a pair of stylish concrete booties. The problem many users encountered with this site was not only that it was slow and awkward (cardinal sins in e-commerce), but that users couldn’t even see what the company had to offer without a high-powered machine and the right plug-in.
Boo.com is the first example of a phenomenon I call death by Flash. You can expect to see more of it over the next year, as sites that tried to “break out of the box” find that “the box” is where too many of their potential customers live.
Certainly, Macromedia Flash software isn’t the only catalyst for inaccessible sites. It’s merely the most common one found today. Java applets, dHTML sites, and ActiveX controls can turn your users away at the door. Unfortunately, “flash” was a popular term for shiny sites before Flash appeared. To avoid confusion, I’ll lump these all together as “shiny stuff,” and explain why dependence on shiny stuff could turn you business into another Boo.com.
Shiny Stuff Obscures Information
Sites built around Java or plug-ins can’t be searched or indexed by search engines. (This, incidentally, is also the case against content-free splash pages, since search engines can’t find anything to index on the page.) Given that searching is a large part of what makes the Web the spectacular information source that it is, there’s something frustrating about designs that put concept before function.
Shiny Stuff Isn’t Accessible to Many Users
I’ll make the hard sell first: Respect the needs of vision-impaired users. Screen readers and voice browsers don’t know what to do with Java or Flash. If you have a blind user browsing your Flash-only front page, you just lost a visitor.
More people are likely to pay attention when browsers and platforms become issues. Java doesn’t work well on the Macintosh. If you choose an ActiveX control, you can say good-bye to all your Mac and Unix users. Even Flash, one of the most widely available plug-ins, is troublesome when you’re implementing a newer version of the software than your users have.
Shiny Stuff Takes Time to Download
I’ve been a bleeding-edge type for years. But when Flash 4 came out, and I started hitting sites that wanted to push me the plug-in, I waited and waited and waited, refusing to install the plug-in. Every time the request box to download the plug-in came up in my browser, I refused to download it and went somewhere else. Finally, I took the plunge and installed the plug-in on all my machines, but there were dozens of sites that I overlooked. The fact is, it takes too much time to download even a tiny plug-in, and users don’t like to wait.
A designer’s need to push the envelope should never outweigh the users’ need to do what they want to do without frustration. (The same holds true for developers who require too much of the user, as we saw in the era of Web sites that told us they were “Best Viewed with Netscape Navigator 3.0, Beta 2!”)
Shiny Stuff Wastes Time
It’s that simple. On a business site, every three-second animation in a Flash movie means that much time you’ve made your user wait. I’ve seen some of the most brilliant work in Flash — beautiful textures, smooth motion, strong branding — but left in 30 seconds because the transitions were so slow that they suggested self-indulgence, even disdain for the user and the task he or she was trying to complete.
Yes, people want to have fun, sometimes. They want to be wowed, sometimes. But with few exceptions, if your goal is to keep people coming back, or to get people to buy your products, leave the shiny stuff alone.
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