Flash Development, e-Learning, Usability

Some of the comments, discussions, notes here are old, addressed and rectified but still it is worth the re-read. This is rather an excerpt from a discussion between a Flash Developer and some Top-Decision-Maker (the discussion is more biased towards e-learning but then it is applicable to most Flash development work).

Q. Vanity/Rudeness: Just because you can make a logo, text or an object rotate and transform, it doesn’t mean you SHOULD. Your focus should be on your learners as guests, use of Flash shows that your true priority is “look what I can do!”. I particularly dislike Flash intro pages, they’re the height of rudeness (thank goodness that’s becoming rare). I want to get to the content, not see an intro movie about what I WILL BE able to see/learn as a “preview of coming attractions”.

A. Noted, however it is possible to use animation appropriately too, to supplement learning material. Think of a science learning module showing how a particular widget works. Showing an animation, portraying how things interact would be beneficial. Showing a chemical reaction how atoms form into a molecule, showing business graphs etc.

Q. Navigation: I don’t need to see your navigation pretty, I just need to be able to see it. Wish more time were spent by site/module, organizing their content, rather than trying to make it pretty. Plus, you can break some browsers that way, or your learners may be in an environment that prohibits plug-ins, in which case no one gets to see how to get anywhere on your site/module.

A. The issue of organizing content is independent of the technology used. Regardless of whether it is Flash being used, or traditional HTML, a proper information design is essential. Flash offers more tools for different types of navigation, but if it is well designed and made with the idea finding information quickly in mind, Flash is more flexible and more powerful. As far as plug-ins are concerned, we don’t make courses in Flash if we are not sure of target runtime environment. A user who turns off Flash may have his Javascript turn off too, graphics turn off!

Q. Handicap: Imagine you’re visually challenged, how the heck are you supposed to “see” content that’s been Flashed? Read about Section 508 compliance and Flash. You can either go through a LOT of time and additional expense to try and make Flash slightly accessible, or just don’t use Flash in the first place. If you’re physically challenged, I’ve seen sites that require you to chase links around the page before you can select them, not the best idea.

A. I agree that Flash is limited with it’s accessibility features, but they are there. Accessibility is largely a state of mind, though, and both Flash and traditional html apps can suffer badly in this area. Overall, Flash benefits with better potential for good usability. With HTML based apps, your form components are limited to drop-downs, selection lists, text fields, radio buttons and check boxes. If you want to do something like display tabular data and allow rows to be selected, or to display nested data, you have to develop the component using DHTML, and good luck getting it to work across browsers. With Flash, you have a significant choice of ready made components that can augment the usability of an application. You can do 508 compliance in Flash, and we better do the tricky but challenging stuffs than in boring old HTML.

Q. Security: There seem to be a growing use of text only browsers (!) which can’t see any Flash. There hasn’t been any security breaches, that I’m aware of yet, but as Flash allows more interaction into deeper areas of content, it probably won’t be long.

A. (giggles a bit but well under the sleeve) Do you mean, using lynx or gopher once again? Today, learning content are delivered not only through text, images but videos, games, interactive contents are vital part of e-Learning. As one who works in the field of professional web design, I don’t see this preponderance towards text browsers. As far as security goes, everything is vulnerable. Flash has gone for years with only a few things here and there. I think it is best to judge security based on history rather than based on what might be. Anyways, Flash runs in browser’s security sandbox. So it has similar security level as browsers have. It is noway less secure than a browser.

Q. Control: The Internet is flexible and dynamic. Flash is not. I know it’s presented as a dynamic tool and with Action Scripting it can act as dynamic front end. However, what do you gain by using Flash as a front-end to dynamic content? When developers use Flash, they are using it to control what is seen and when. They capture content into some type of linear presentation that’s based on what they think should be presented, it’s like PPT but much worse. Content is more usable when it’s small and available for non-linear access, when the user can control their access. Now that Flash is friendlier with embedded video’s…. it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better.

A. This is nonsense. Equating Flash with PowerPoint is silly. How data is presented is a function of what the designer wishes to do. We have designed learning modules in Flash that I think considerably impact more than if they were attempted in HTML. Being able to show the learning material to the user and letting them interact and try out exercises is easier to do with Flash than traditional HTML. Because Flash allows XML data access, data can be read dynamically in small chunks as is described above. Flash is much more suitable for non-linear access than traditional HTML. Perhaps the person questioning or making that above remark does not realize what can all be done with ActionScript to allow for a non-linear navigation system. You do not have to rely on the timeline, and generally for any sort of web application, scripting is used much more than the timeline.

Extending away from the Education field and into web applications in general, try designing a multi-step web application with good usability using traditional web pages. Think of what the user has to do if they want to go back to change data on a previous page. Generally, this involves having to re-submit pages and having to re-enter data. Having the paradigm where the user must submit a web page, have the page disappear, then come back as a new page is not the best for usability, leading to potentially long delays, and causes the user to lose their position on the page, particularly for long pages. Since Flash can send and receive data via XML (and much more with the introduction of Flash Communication Server, Flash Remoting etcetera), smaller chunks of data can be sent, resulting in faster response with the server. Also, multi-step apps can be designed to be much more flexible, responsive, and usable than traditional web applications.

Q. So, design your site w/o Flash. If you think there’s a situation that requires Flash, think about it again. If you still think you should use Flash, then maybe it is one of the rare, appropriate times to use it.

A. Yup, I am sorry to say but I think you have little real-world knowledge of what Flash is actually for, and on usability in general. You were thinking of it as strictly as an animation tool, as is made evident through the PowerPoint comment. Usually the only way to combat this kind of thinking is by showing examples of interactive web applications or interactive learning modules that are based on Flash. I shudder to try to make something interactive using DHTML and cross-platform.


The Anti-Flash’s forces have laid siege to Internet Application Development, in their efforts to eliminate the usage of Flash. The once-intro savvy Flash-dom, watched over by a high end animators, has never been in more desperate need of the continual renovation and re-incarnation to the level of what Flash is today. But can Flash Developers answer the call of the time and need and become what we are destined to, bring out the development power out of Flash? In no small measure, the fate of Internet Application Development rests on our broad shoulders.

With the battles joined and the developers of Flash gathering, we all can deligently try to rally the marred image of Flash into action. Yet even with our dedication and passionate loyalty to Flash, the forces of Anti-Flash are not an easy task to conquer. Still in the midst of all the flames, rants, we will forward into the battle of our development, tied together by our singular goal to keep Flash on top of the development tool for the User’s appropriate needs. The hopes of many aspirig Flash Developers and Designers alike lies in the already prominent figures in the Flash community and we all should keep the spirit alive and kicking all the time to win and excel.