Why Flash-based websites are bad

Despite there being many tips on separating content from presentation in web design, and the existance of entire websites devoted to practicing this ethos (which has been around since at least 2001), there still remain a plethora of websites that don’t seem to take any of this account, despite the demonstrated benefits. Much of this can be attributed to sites that aren’t well-maintained or updated; however, many new websites are still being designed without regards to standards and best-practices.

Furthermore, websites done entirely in Flash are still being pushed – indicating that proliferation of best-practices and advantages, as pertaining to web-design, are still not well known. Perhaps it’s time to outline (at least briefly), why doing an entire site in Flash is a bad idea.

A brief history of the problem

The problems leading to people designing entirely Flash-based websites are in many ways related to, or the same as, those found in the design of poor websites. If we understand why this happens, then there’s less ignorance – and hopefully less thinking that people who design entire Flash websites are “idiots” – they are not. There’s just a basic misunderstanding of what’s at stake, and problem compounded by standards not followed by either designers or browsers.

Alright, so what is wrong then?

To the average user, there’s nothing wrong with Flash-based websites. To many, they represent a unique experience – you’re able to do many things in Flash (such as animations, nice vector graphics, etc.) that you simply cannot do in regular XHTML. Additionally, nicely-designed Flash websites can look nifty and have that “wow-cool” effect. In fact, proper use of Flash can enhance a website without harming it – sIFR being the best example that comes to mind; furthermore, Flash games are probably here to stay. However, making an entire website in Flash can have many negative effects.

When I say “entire website”, I mean that all the content – text, links, pictures – is contained within Flash. This is bad, because it eschews standards-based content representation (like XHTML and CSS) for a proprietary format. Perhaps because of this, it also has negative effects on usability and accessibility – it’s often hard to search for text in Flash-based websites (the standard browser search doesn’t work), text resizing is difficult, and often widgets (such as the scrollbar) are re-designed or made to look different, which can be confusing to a user.

Furthermore, Flash content is hard for search engines to index. If you’re making some sort of website, chances are that you want it to be popular, especially if it’s a store. If you have your content displayed via Flash, it’s inherently difficult for Search Engines to get at it and add it to their index, thus making it harder for people to find your website. You have to take special steps to ensure that a search engine will index it – when just doing the website in regular XHTML would have probably sufficed. Additionally, this doesn’t help those who are disabled – Flash is notorious for being inaccessible.

But for me, the biggest problem is that the use of Flash sets the stage for bad design. Jakob Nielson sums this up best in his article, Flash: 99% Bad. (Sometimes I think he’s too pragmatic, but he hits the nail right on the head here.) The issue is not whether Flash is inherently bad – it isn’t – but rather it tends to be used poorly and creates issues. For example, Flash is often used for things that don’t add much value to the site, and in many cases, actually make it harder or more annoying to use. The things that come best to mind are useless fancy animations, and sound effects or music. A website that automatically plays music or sounds is one of my pet peeves – I make it a point never to revisit that site. I’m not sure how mainstream users feel about this sort of stuff, but I believe once the “wow-cool” factor of a Flash-based website has worn off, users quickly realize that they tend to be harder to use.

Additionally, Flash is used for things where it’s simple not needed. The most popular example I can think of is the menu of links most websites use. There is no reason to do this in Flash – as mentioned before, complex animations slow things down and detract from the content being presented, and furthermore, many of the animations can be done in JavaScript, with proper regards to standards and graceful degradation, something Flash does not do very well.

By graceful degradation, I mean how does your site respond when someone doesn’t support that feature? For most Flash websites, if the user doesn’t have Flash, they’re outta luck – they’re greeted with a very unfriendly link telling them to get the latest Flash player. Before anyone points out that “most people have Flash”, remember that accessibility also has to be taken into account. For people using speech readers this is a very important problem. And again, most Search engines don’t care for Flash.

Other problems with Flash-based websites are small but noticeable. They often break the back-button functionality, don’t work as great on slower computers, and usually take longer to load than non-Flash-based websites. These are the factors that make my cringe anytime I visit a website done entirely in Flash.

What can be done

Firstly, many of the problems can be traced to a need to add “neat” effects to a websites, such as the aforementioned animations and so forth. Much of this simply isn’t needed as it doesn’t add real value to the content, which should be the most important part of a website. While it’s true that many people will think that the effects are “cool”, effects are not what will keep users returning to a website – fresh content is what does that, and often neat graphical effects get in the way of displaying content in a fast and efficient manner, thus detracting from the most important aspect of a website.

I’m not saying that a website can only be done one way for it to be “good”. And, I’m not saying that a website must not have Flash in order for it to be good – there are many ways for Flash to enhance a site’s usefulness. However, designing a website entirely in Flash is a poor choice when the current drop of standards-friendly tools like XHTML, CSS and JavaScript were made for website design. Flash was not – and this is why the websites are inherently less accessible and usable. Designing using standards-based approaches doesn’t have to boring, and doesn’t have to result in websites that all look alike. One look at the CSS Zen Garden and you’ll it to be exact opposite of that.

Summing it all up

Flash is not inherently bad, but it tends to be overused to the point where many do consider it to be evil. This tends to happen when web designers haven’t read up on the benefits of standards or proper design. This doesn’t indicate that someone is “stupid”, but rather that they just haven’t been exposed to all the knowledge that is out there. Unfortunately, as with poor website design, it’s easy to start down the wrong path.

Furthermore, many of the criticisms about Flash can also be applied to Ajax, which I tend to promote instead of Flash. Unfortunately, it’s also easy to use Ajax improperly, and there are accessibility issues as well. Thankfully, these are being addressed relatively early in Ajax’s development, and we can only hope that it doesn’t suffer from overuse and misuse like Flash has.


  1. Aside the poor design. Flash is pretty much a pointless medium when trying to get information from a site. They are flash only websites which could easily be achieved non-flash and unviewable on devices which do not support it. What happened to the old guidelines where websites could be viewable in any browser…. When a site is completely flash-based, no matter how ‘flash’ it is – it is automatically a poor design because it remains only accessible to people with flash installed. Mobile devices have poor flash support and with this a growing market (mobile internet) surely, more thought should be into sites that have mobile accessibility….I just can’t believe that some so-called trained/expert web developers overlook this. Cowboys I say..

  2. Even though this post is two years old, i couldnt agree more.
    I do not blame the flash programmers for the site, because flash is fun to write, but I blame the people paying them to make a website.
    I am in the market for a new vehicle, and out of the 36 different brands websites I visited, only two sites had minimal or no flash. http://www.lexus.com and http://www.mercedesbenz.com
    I went to fords website, and the main page took 41 seconds to load on an 800kbs connection. That is simply insane!
    I think the only acceptable use of flash, is for gaming.

  3. Hey Andy,

    I agree 100%. There’s nothing inherently wrong with flash – it’s great for websites like YouTube or Google Finance where it plays an important part in delivering content and interaction. However, using Flash to deliver loads of text or other information that display just fine in HTML is a waste.

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