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Flash Usability: Sizing Up Text, Part 1

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When using Flash to improve your Web site, you risk breaking the browser's basic functionality, potentially rendering the text size button unusable. Find out how to make that button work again in this first installment of a four-part series.
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Imagine this scenario: You go to an automaker's Web site to look up information on your favorite German sports car. The text on the page is slightly hard to read at your screen resolution of 1024 x 768, so you increase the size of the text onscreen by clicking the browser's text-sizing button and selecting Largest.

To your surprise, the text size doesn't change. In fact, nothing changes. The functionality you have come to expect from your browser's text size button has somehow been rendered useless. This may not deter you from reading up on your future car purchase, but this inconsistency in browser behavior can be a shock to some users and can lead to an unhappy experience—all because the designer of this Web site assumed that breaking the text size button in the user's browser was okay with the user. It wasn't.

Don't Break the Browser

In Skip Intro: Macromedia Flash Usability and Interface Design (New Riders, 2002, 0-7357-1178-X), we talk a lot about knowing your users and designing a site that creates the ideal experience for them and helps them accomplish their goals at your specific site. One of the issues with Flash, however (and an easy target for the Flash-bashers out there) is that, although you are using Flash to improve the usability of your Web site, in some cases Flash does the unspeakable: It breaks the browser's basic functionality, such as rendering the Back button and find functions unusable to the unsuspecting visitor.

In the latest version of Flash, MX, Macromedia has fixed the problem of the Back button breaking and introduced an option to turn it on just a few clicks away. You can include this in any of your Flash Web site interfaces. Robert Penner also has a fix for the Back button problem that works in Flash 5. These fixes go a long way toward making Flash interfaces even more usable on the Web. This shows usability gurus that Flash can improve the user experience without sacrificing browser features that we all take for granted when developing in plain old HTML.

Another topic that we cover in depth in Skip Intro is how cutting corners when developing a Flash Web site can (and probably will) lead to unhappy users, unhappy customers, and an unhappy client. In this article, we take you through the details of making that text size button work again in the user's Web browser. This means some extra legwork to implement the fix, but the payoff will be worth it: Users can now expect the same browser functionality on your Flash Web sites as they do on Web sites designed in HTML.

The fix that allows your Web browser's text size (or text zoom) button to work with Flash is what we like to call a "brute force workaround," commonly known as a "nice hack." This is because this fix is not just a few lines of ActionScript or JavaScript; instead, it's ActionScript, JavaScript, Flash, and DHTML all working together. The unfortunate reason why we need to use all these technologies in a brute-force way is surprisingly simple: Not all browsers are the same.

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