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Web design guru sees Flash challenges

A prominent critic of Macromedia's software for Web animation says the new Flash MX shows a lot of promise, but it's created potential pitfalls.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Spider-Man learned it the hard way, and so are Web developers: With great power comes great responsibility.

Software maker Macromedia granted Web professionals great new powers earlier this year with the release of a new version of its Flash animation tools called Flash MX. The revamped tools are focused on creating useful Web applications and integrating them into sites.

The application-centric approach has a lot of promise, Web design guru Jakob Nielsen said Monday at the opening of a weeklong series of tutorials for Web professionals. But it has also created new opportunities to make Web pages confusing, unresponsive and annoying.

The potential pitfalls were amply demonstrated in a recently completed study by Nielsen's consulting firm, Nielsen Norman Group, which observed how ordinary Internet users navigated several dozen cutting-edge Web sites prominently featuring applications designed with Flash MX.

Some encouraging examples in the study demonstrated applications that made it easy for customers to process transactions or gather information. But there were plenty of instances in which applications had Web surfers clicking randomly around the screen looking for the next step or trying to figure out on their own why a procedure wouldn't work. Less than half the consumers surveyed were able to complete the tasks they set out to do, and some sites foiled every potential consumer.

"I think we're seeing that because it's easier to do these Web applications, you're getting people who haven't done a lot of applications before and may not know much about user interfaces and other elements," said Nielsen, who declared Flash use "99 percent bad" in a report published a few years ago.

Issues with new Flash sites include not making it clear how to get from one step to the next, using unfamiliar terms such as "drop-down menu," and offering inconsistent visual feedback. Most mistakes are the results of designers and developers overestimating the average person's familiarity with technology and trying to cram too much onto a Web page, Nielsen said.

"If we leave developers to their own devices, they create complexity," he said. "It's in their genes to love creating new features. You end up with software that's mainly accessible to other geeks."

Such usability issues are much more critical with Web applications than desktop software, Nielsen said, because the threshold for frustration is much lower on the Web. Prevent a person from easily completing a transaction, and they'll just give up and go to another site rather than spend time trying to learn an unfamiliar application.

"The frustration gap is immense," he said. "It's usually just a few seconds before they give up."

Solutions include designing Web applications for tasks that offer significant benefits for the consumer, reducing those tasks to a minimum of steps, and using interface elements borrowed from the most familiar desktop applications.

Nielsen credited Macromedia, which hired him as a consultant earlier this year, for taking usability seriously and paying attention to such issues while Flash is still relatively young.

"I think we're still in the relatively early stages of determining what these Web applications will look like and how they'll work," he said. "There's still a lot of room to learn."