Monday, December 11, 2006

Flash on Your Home Page - FSU Does it Right

Incoherent babblings about using Flash on your home page, including one good example.

Everybody loves Flash animations. Everybody except usability designers, that is. Usability designers are into functionality, simplicity, accessibility - all things that Flash excels at doing poorly. Well, to be fair, it isn't just that Flash does these things poorly; it's more that it encourages Flash designers to do these things poorly.

Ah, but things have changed, you say. Flash is being used more appropriately and provides real functionality. In some cases, there is actually a tiny grain of truth to this. Let's go so far as to say that flash isn't being used quite so gratuitously these days.

It's not that I hate Flash - I used to be a Flash developer. But no matter the thousands of considerations you have as you build your university's Web site, remember that content is king. Forever and always. People go to any Web site for one of three reasons (sometimes all): to find some information, to conduct some business, or to have some social interaction. That's all about content. Sure, maybe that information is porn, maybe that business is online gambling, and maybe that social interaction is a singles chat room. But finding information, doing business and interacting socially are the three main classes of Internet activities. And they are all ruled by content.

What does Flash contribute to these activities? Not much usually. Sure, there's Flash video, but it ain't the only game in town for video. Yeah, there are Flash-based shopping sites, but how common are they?

Nope, Flash doesn't really contribute much to the content of a Web site. And whatever content your Flash doodad might have is inaccessible. Ditto for kewl animated Flash navigation. Oops! That's a no-no in the CSU.

So, death to Flash, right? Well, not so fast. Flash can have a role to play, and some schools and businesses are using it reasonably well in that role. Flash's strengths are in visual presentation, animation and interaction. Obviously, all of those can be good things on your home page if not over done.

From my perspective, Flash can be used well as a marketing tool on the home page, as an attention-getter - providing visually interesting views of the campus and campus life, teasers for spotlight stories, or other visually heavy but content light material. Certainly, it should not be used for core home page content or navigation (because of accessibility issues).

Take a look at Florida State's home page. They have a Flash-based rotating spotlight teaser, mostly about faculty research and achievements. What's nice about this?
  1. It's visual. Each piece has a photo related to the teaser.
  2. It's personal. Most of the pieces have a photo of the faculty member looking at (visually engaging) the viewer.
  3. It's prominent. It takes up the prime real estate on the page and the text is large enough to read easily.
  4. It's short. Though I think the text could be a bit punchier, the headline and teaser are short and to the point. A "More" button lets users see the rest of the story.
  5. It gives the user control. With built-in "previous", "next" and "pause" buttons, the user can skip to the next story, go back to the previous story or stop the animation altogether.
  6. It isn't annoying. The animations are simple and relatively unobtrusive. And there is no audio.

If you're going to do Flash on your home page, this is a great way to do it.

Personally, I would mix it up more. Fewer faculty and more students. I get the impression that FSU is trying to appeal to potential doctoral and post-doc students, and maybe potential research faculty. Maybe that's the kind of institution it is. I don't actually know.

But for Chico State...well, need I really say more? We're obviously going to be appealing mostly to potential undergraduate students, so highlighting student life (the beauty of the campus, local activities, etc.) and student achievements might be a better focus. A lot of it depends upon who the primary audience for our home page is.

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