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Flash Usability: 25 Tips for Better Websites

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Flash Web sites can be more user-friendly -- it just takes a little work. David Emberton offers some common-sense tips for presenting Flash content in ways that blend smoothly with the HTML Web and allow users to get where they're going faster.
David Emberton is the co-author of Flash 5 Magic (New Riders, 2001), with Scott Hamlin.
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Broadly speaking, usability is a term that describes how easy something is for us to utilize, whether it is a physical object, such as an apple, or a notional object, such as a computer program. In software and Web design circles, usability refers specifically to the look and feel of onscreen interfaces, and how users interact with your creations.

Techniques for improving usability range from the obvious, such as making everything bigger, to more sophisticated scientific techniques such as Goals, Operators, Methods, Selection (GOMS) calculations.

My theory is that nobody tries to create a difficult user interface; it's just that inexperience or overexperience tend to get in the way. So, in this article, I'm going to highlight some common-sense approaches to making Flash movies better.

The Flash Handicap

When designing for the Web—and with Flash, in particular—it's important to realize that you'll never be starting with a clean slate. Designers of hardware and operating systems have a huge say, in that they define the limits of usability for anyone else further down the computing food chain (like you and me!).

By the time it comes to designing a Web site, the ergonomics of the hardware have already been set; therefore, so have the ways in which a user can interact with the system. Plus, whether the user is on Mac, Windows, or GNOME, certain screen clutter already exists, surrounding the browser window and defining its basic behavior. Then, at the tail end of the process, the browser window itself sets aside a small portion just for you.

Many authors on the subject of usability fill entire volumes, theorizing on how redefining the PC from the ground up could make computing easier overall. As Web designers, we don't have the luxury of that; we have to work with what's already there, warts and all!

But take heart: You can do a number of things to make your Flash interface look great and be easy to use.

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