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Dated: Aug. 13, 2004
Flash is a vector graphic based application. It is used worldwide to produce movies, animation, presentations and more. You can use it to create presentations for your company, equipped with an up to date database to show the right information at the right time to creating a button for your web site. An example would be a Stock Ticker. Flash is very easy to use and a very effective tool in the web development industry. One advantage to Flash is it is a cross-browser platform, which means you can show your movies in any browser out there, such as Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator.
Flash is a bandwidth friendly and browser independent vector-graphic animation technology. As long as different browsers are equipped with the necessary plug-ins, Flash animations will look the same.
With Flash, users can draw their own animations or import other vector-based images.
Vector graphics refers to software and hardware that use geometrical formulas to represent images. The other method for representing graphical images is through bit maps, in which the image is composed of a pattern of dots. This is sometimes called raster graphics. Programs that enable you to create and manipulate vector graphics are called draw programs, whereas programs that manipulated bit-mapped images are called paint programs.
Vector-oriented images are more flexible than bit maps because they can be resized and stretched. In addition, images stored as vectors look better on devices (monitors and printers) with higher resolution, whereas bit-mapped images always appear the same regardless of a device's resolution. Another advantage of vector graphics is that representations of images often require less memory than bit-mapped images do.
Almost all sophisticated graphics systems, including CADD systems and animation software, use vector graphics. In addition, many printers (PostScript printers, for example) use vector graphics. Fonts represented as vectors are called vector fonts, scalable fonts, object-oriented fonts, and outline fonts.
One of the most revolutionary multimedia technologies to take the web design community by storm in recent years has been Macromedia's Flash. When it first premiered in 1996, Flash was then an unknown program and plug-in called FutureSplash that enabled designers to add simple animated graphics to their websites. Today, renamed and redesigned, Flash has evolved into a powerful web authoring tool and application which is not only redefining the art of interface design, but also dynamically changing the online experience world-wide. As libraries and information professionals increasingly rely upon the Web to communicate with and educate users, Flash has the potential to facilitate the efficient and evocative delivery of web-based information and services.
Macromedia Inc., the owner and current developer of Flash's proprietary technology, defines its product as "the Web standard for vector graphics and animation." In other words, Flash is a tool that many web developers use to create still and motion graphics, more commonly called Flash files or Shockwave Flash movies.
Flash software consists of two important elements:
- An authoring tool or Flash Editor, which enables designers to create a movie that can be synchronized with digital audio
- A plug-in or Flash Player, that allows a web browser to display the movie to users. The native file format for Flash movies, created in the Flash Editor, is ".fla." But, in order to be viewed on the Web, users must have the Flash Player and Flash movies must be exported to the Shockwave Flash (.swf) format---not to be confused with another Macromedia file format called Shockwave, which describes the multimedia content created using Macromedia's Director.
How to Create a Useable Flash Site
Flash receives a great deal of criticism from usability and web standards advocates, and their arguments are usually valid. What the critics fail to understand is that the designers are usually responsible for the lack of usability, not the program itself. Flash has the capacity to create usable sites, but requires that designers follow a few guidelines. That is what I will be discussing here.
Always Use a Preloader
A common problem with many sites is that there is no preloading image or status bar. This causes the visitor to perceive the site has either broken or stalled. Sites often run slowly at dial-up speeds, so it is always a good practice to let the visitor know when a movie is loading. This can be a static graphic that informs the user that the content will appear after it is loaded, or a moving status bar that shows how much has been loaded. Without this, there is a chance the visitor will leave the site, never to come back again.
Has anyone ever told you about a cartoon, and when asked how to access it they tell you to go to the home page, click there, click here, and then wait for it to load? This will drive users crazy and discourages people from visiting the site. When one Flash movie loads and plays others, it won't have a unique URL. Instead it will have the top level URL that all visitors use to access the site. Try to publish content pages separately, on their own page. You can then publish each movie individually out of Flash, and link to the URL of the page from other movies.
You can generate traffic by placing content on individual pages. If a visitor wants to send the page to a friend, they can cut and paste the exact URL into email. You can submit more pages to search engines, which could result in more pages being listed. This might prolong the development process, but it is worthwhile when it comes to finding information. It is a bad idea NOT to do this.
There has been a recent trend to use ambiguous images as navigation. These might look 'cool' and might give the site some style, but they don't tell the visitor what your site has to offer. Most people visiting a site, whether it is a Flash site or other, will be there for the content and no other reason. If they can't find it, they will leave rather than spend the time to look for it. Images for navigation buttons are nice, and will enhance the look of the site, but it will help if you provide an explanation of where clicking will take the visitor. This should be done for the same reason that alt text or corresponding text links should be used for images on an HTML site.
So you have a Flash intro that you worked on for days and it lasts over 5 minutes. In your opinion, it's the best piece of Flash animation out there. The intro might even be the prime attraction of the site. Great! Now let the visitor get out of it if they want. This can be done with a simple "Skip Intro" button, which can be created either in the Flash movie or on the published page as a text link. Chances are the visitor will look at the intro the first time they visit the site, and possibly even the second time. The visitor will most likely choose not to wait through an intro they've seen already the next time they visit the site. If you don't give them an alternative, they will likely close the browser window.
When you place a 'skip' link with your intro, make sure you give them access to it before the movie loads or while it is loading. Modem users won't want to wait 20 minutes for the movie to load each time they visit. Put the 'Skip' link either on the preloader or on the published page. If you do this, some first time visitors will miss your intro, but at least you a get a second chance. They will stay on the site and see what it has to offer. If they like the rest of the site, chances are they'll watch the intro when they visit again.
Communicate With the Visitor
The visitor should always know what's and happening or where the site is taking them. This is probably the leading usability problem with Flash sites. The designer, who has an above average browsing literacy, assumes that the visitor will too. Not true. Let the visitor know what's going on at all times. Make sure they're always aware of where they are in the site, and how to navigate elsewhere. Always let them know when they're supposed to wait, supposed to click, or supposed to watch. If they have to guess, chances are they'll click somewhere other than the designer intended, which could cause the movie to fall apart.After the site is created, find someone who isn't web savvy to test it. Watch as they are navigating and pay attention to where they click, where they hesitate, or anything else that confuses them. This will help in making your site more usable for future visitors. If they can get around the site without a problem, you've done an excellent job.
The Flash Player
Despite their popularity within the professional design community, vector images have not made a quick or an easy transition to the web environment. Currently, there is still not an accepted web standard for vector graphics, although the scalable vector graphics (SVG) format is under development by the World Wide Web Consortium. Therefore, in order to view a Flash movie in its native Shockwave Flash (.swf) format online, users must have the Flash Player or plug-in installed on their computers. This fact alone has created some controversy among web developers and is seen by some as a hindrance to its widespread use. However, Macromedia claims that Flash is being used by over 500,000 web authors (Macromedia, August 2000); and furthermore, that the Flash Player is now available on nearly 92% of all web browsers (NPD Research, June 2000).Is Flash Evil?
Regardless of Flash's penetration in the online marketplace, web users and designers seem to fall into two different groups regarding the use of multimedia applications: they either love it or love to hate it. Often the latter is more commonplace. Why? Perhaps because many users---including librarians and other information professionals---still consider animated graphics, sounds, and videos on the Web gratuitous and annoying. Flash has even been described as evil (Dack.com, April 2000) and as a "cancer on the Web" (Flazoom.com, June 2000).
Certainly some of Flash's numerous critics are justified in their assessments. Multimedia web applications like Flash have indeed been misused and abused by designers and have contributed very little to a site's overall usability. In many instances, Flash has literally earned its name, adding not useful content to a site but flashing animations, less-than-intuitive navigation buttons, "bells and whistles" or jarring sounds and background audio which cannot be turned off, and pop-up windows which cannot be closed. However, an abuse of the technology does not justify discarding the software altogether. It is the author's opinion that the Web is not only a communications tool but also a design medium. Therefore, as a multimedia application, Flash is poised to help redefine how the Web is experienced. From at least one perspective, Flash is an inherently beneficial web design tool; and, if applied judiciously and intelligently, it can improve website usability while at the same time exploit the aesthetic impact of the Web.
Flash's Strengths and Weaknesses
Regardless of one's web design perspective, Flash has undeniable strengths and obvious weaknesses. Perhaps one of the most compelling reasons to use Flash is that its movies are browser independent. This means that a Flash movie will look the same to an end user whether or not it is viewed in Netscape (version 2.0 or later) or Microsoft's Internet Explorer (version 3.0 or later). Flash also enables designers to control the colors, fonts, and resolution quality in their web designs, another important consideration for usability. But, considering that many users are still accessing the Web via phone modems and suffering with terribly slow downloads, the most beneficial aspect of using Flash-enhanced websites is a significant reduction in overall file sizes without having to compromise on design quality. Flash movies, unlike bitmapped or raster graphics, can also be scaled to virtually any size without affecting image resolution. They can be animated, interactive, and easily combined with audio (e.g., MP3s) to create memorable web experiences. And, like so many other Macromedia web publishing products available today, Flash software is very powerful, flexible, well-supported, and frequently updated. Compared to the degree of functionality that will result, it requires only a moderate investment in training.
Flash, however, is not the easiest application to learn. Other than the fact that a plug-in is still required to view Flash-enabled websites, the learning curve for Macromedia's Flash is perhaps its most salient weakness. For inexperienced web designers and those new to multimedia applications in particular, Flash will present a definite challenge. For example, users must learn new concepts and jargon, such as Flash's timeline and stage, layers, motion twinning, symbols, and instances. The interface is also not very user-friendly or intuitive for non-designers. However, with the much-anticipated release of Flash 5.0 on August 24, 2000, the GUI is supposedly much improved.
How Can Libraries Use Flash?
Several academic libraries are already using Flash to enhance the online experiences of their users. One of the most noteworthy examples is the highly interactive and creative information literacy online tutorial, known as TILT or Texas Information Literacy Tutorial. Created by staff in the University of Texas System Digital Library, the TILT site incorporates animation, colorful graphics, and sounds. The homepage for the University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries is a great example of minimalist Flash design. It includes simple interactivity and a lot of information in a very user-friendly, compact and straightforward interface design. Another academic library that is using Flash to deliver a compelling yet useful homepage is the Art & Design Library at the University of Connecticut Libraries.
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