June 2, 2002 9:00 PM PDT

Flash critic to coach Macromedia

Macromedia plans to announce a partnership Monday with Jakob Nielsen, a leading Web design guru and one of the most prominent critics of the company's Flash software for Web animation.

Nielsen and his consulting firm, Nielsen Norman Group, will work with Macromedia to develop guidelines for creating practical, easy-to-use Web applications with the new version of Flash, Nielsen and Macromedia executives plan to announce at Nielsen's User Experience conference in San Francisco.

The arrangement marks another turning point in Macromedia's efforts to expand the role of Flash, once used mainly for colorful but essentially useless graphics tricks. The company is promoting the new version of the software, Flash MX, as the basis for delivering Web applications that make sites more useful and easier to navigate.

Nielsen, whose objections to Flash were most directly stated in his essay "Flash: 99% Bad," argued that Flash-based multimedia typically makes Web sites harder to navigate and distracts from the site's real message.

"About 99 percent of the time, the presence of Flash on a website constitutes a usability disease," he wrote two years ago.

Nielsen credited Macromedia for listening to him and other critics, as evidenced by changes in Flash MX and by the company's growing efforts to educate customers about design techniques.

"To me this proves that it is very much worthwhile to promote usability and point out when there are problems," Nielsen said. "The responsible vendors will listen when people have valid points."

Nielsen said the "usability" message has also gotten out to business executives, who increasingly acknowledge that bad design means abandoned e-commerce shopping carts and other lost business.

"I think, in general, businesses are getting the message that usability is key to their performance on the Internet," he said. "People do go away if it's too difficult to use a site. We're starting to win the first step of that battle, which is to get people to believe that usability is important."

Kevin Lynch, chief software architect at Macromedia, said that while the criticism may have stung at times, Nielsen and other Web design critics have had valid insights about the way Flash is used.

"I think there are a lot of good points that Jakob has made about design usability," Lynch said. "That really started some significant discussion in the Flash community, and you've seen some of that reflected in Flash MX."

Lynch said pre-built Flash MX components such as scrollbars and buttons make it easier for designers to be consistent, and new tools will help developers create more useful Web applications. But there's still plenty of room for Flash abuse, he said, putting the onus on Macromedia to help educate developers and designers.

"I'm sure well see continue innovation in design; some of it will be great, and some it won't be," Lynch said. "We'll keep working with developers and designers to promote what really works. Our goal here is we want to make Flash 99 percent good."

Nielsen said intelligent use of Flash is all the more critical as the software becomes the foundation for many Web pages.

"The old Flash intro screens were annoying, but they weren't core to the mission of the Web site; you could ignore them," he said. "If Flash becomes how you deliver the true functionality of the Web site, then the stakes are really high."

He added: "That's the danger. You give designers more-powerful tools, and who knows what they're going to do with them."

Nielsen said his group will work on building sample applications with Flash MX and then test them on consumers, monitoring how easily people can complete tasks.

"This is really the usability torture test for applications," he said.

 

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