Kevin Cheng  

The Future of the Web: Yahoo or Flash?

January 29th, 2005 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

In a presentation I gave last week, a person asked an interesting question. To paraphrase him, he mentioned a growing popularity towards simple, minimalist web interfaces such as Craig’s List and wondered whether the future of the web was heading towards (or backwards?) to such interfaces or whether rich internet applications still had a place.

I’m interested in hearing other people’s thoughts on this. My initial take is the usual answer of those in our field: “it depends”. Craig’s list is a very basic categorization of information. The basic concept of a simple directory is not new, Yahoo! has done it for years. They serve their purpose perfectly, which is what makes them so popular. I say it depends because there are plenty of applications which do deserve rich internet applications. Mostly, these are useful for sites which have more focused tasks.

For example, one of my favourite sites is turbotax.com. I’ve used this site three years in a row to file my taxes and it is still one of the most polished javascript web applications I’ve had the pleasure of using - or at least as much pleasure as one could have filing taxes. The task is non-trivial, involving many steps and requiring a lot of context sensitive help and validation. “Minimalist design” simply would not work in this case. Perhaps it’s been re-popularized by sites developed by Google but even they do rich applications when it makes sense - applications like GMail.

I bring this up in relation to this week’s strip because I think Flash is in a position to be the platform for rich internet applications. The biggest challenge for the developers of these applications won’t be in the technology barriers in a year or two. Those will be solved as frameworks become more standardized. The challenges will be firstly choosing when to use the tools available. As Craig’s List and countless others demonstrate, sometimes the basics are sufficed. The second challenge will be working within a framework with no defined user interface.

Developing an application for Windows or OS X, or even creating a web page comes with certain interface elements which are understood by most of the users of that system. Windows applications have File menus and ctrl-c to copy, OS X has their coloured circles to minimize or close a window, web pages use “home” and “contact us” in generally the same places. The only standard that Flash sites have right now is that most have “skip intro”. As Flash and other frameworks become more sophisticated and the applications become more than glorified web pages, we’re likely to see a period of experimentation where everyone will be coming up with their own paradigms for representing their interfaces. Perhaps a few years beyond, they will evolve some semblance of standards much like we’ve seen on platforms.

The future of the web isn’t about one technology or one way of representing data. If sites are trending towards one or another, it’s probably more indicative of a lack of understanding of the options than any real sign that one has triumphed over the other. There is a time and place for both the Yahoos and the Flashes depending on the needs. Unfortunately, determining the appropriate solution is non-trivial and I think many companies will end up choosing what seems popular at the time instead.

11 Responses to “The Future of the Web: Yahoo or Flash?”
Mike A wrote:

I think we’re coming full circle in interface design. For example, as a web designer I find it amusing that the ‘big’ thing at the moment is semantic HTML - “strong”, “emphasis” etc. - which is exactly how it was back in 1996.

I must applaud the move to minimal and (more importantly) standardised web design. I gather this shift has been encapsulated by the “Web 2.0″ movement, but to my mind it’s actually the Third Age of the web:

First Age: “If you build it, they will come” (this really was true, once)

Second Age: Wild west design - everything different to everything else, lots of Flash, lots of “exploratory” interfaces (God help us!) and a distinct lack of hyperlinked ideas in favour of very discrete overstuffed media-rich brochureware sites, led by the misunderstood marketing mantra ‘content is king’.

Third Age: Blogs, CMS, and RSS. Really, this is what the web should have always been about and certainly it’s rekindled my interest in the medium. The importance of this movement in terms of interface design is that we’ve grown up; we’ve gotten past the idea that creativity comes from unique interface design. Instead, we’re creating (arguably) compelling content and providing users with a very standardised (and thus invisible) set of tools with which to access the content we create. At least, I really want to believe this is true since it points to the realisation at last that no-one gives a toss about your website unless you make them by creating compelling and original content. As a one-time designer of aforementioned brochureware crap, I can attest that this realisation is long overdue.

Granted, this is probably due in no small part to the fact that we’re all using the same small pool of CMS’s and blog tools, which can’t help but standardise UI (unless you really fight the the software, and most creators don’t).

So all hail the minimal interface, and death to rich-media interfaces. Rich media has its place on the web; it’s as some of the content itself, not as the route to it.

Gabriel Mihalache wrote:

Different tools for different jobs.
In the future there will be robots… eh… I mean, XHTML2.0, CSS3, SVG and full support for PNG and MNG, which will make standards-based, accessible, usable sites easier to build, without going to the Flash “black box”.
That being said, Flash has its legitimate uses.

I imagine one camp will go out for all-graphics, and build visually stunning sites (but nothing more) and others will go the semantic route and build pretty sites, with a XML-based semantics behind them, for syndication, and other fun and useful services built on top of that (right-clicking on a <address> will integrate with some delivery service, maybe?)

Irek wrote:

Talking about Flash…

I think Macromedia made a step towards interface standarization with Flex.
At least among it’s own camp, because I don’t know if other tools can use Flex’ library.

Flex is a tool for easy creation of RIAs using a set of widgets - just as you make desktop application. The output is neat-looking site with “standard” behaviour (standard in scope of the application alone). The design is up to you - it can be simplistic, however it can utilize the advancements of RIAs.

I wrote this is just a step because AFAIK Flex is not an open standard (please correct me if I’m wrong). But Laszlo lacks even this feature - you can argue but I belive Laszlo’s standard widget set is not very commercial grade.

Maybe some day vendors will agree to one standard.

Oh, and Flex is very expensive at the moment, while Laszlo is free.

Ian Stalvies wrote:

heya

Kevin, I wonder if you could expand the thinking - or rather go back to basics a bit - and talk about accessibility in relation to Flash? Whilst it’s a separate(ish) topic to usability, there’s obviously a lot of overlap - and the current lack of accessibility knowledge is x10 re Flash. Basically, tabbing through links apart there doesn’t seem to be much users can do.

which kinda leads into your general point about where Flash is appropriate - for mine somewhere between basic text (a la Yahoo!) and audio/video.

Thus, the conclusion I would draw is that there is definitely a place for Flash, but maybe reducing the black box as Gabriel notes eg. combined XML etc so same content, varied delivery.

Bob Salmon wrote:

I’d like to second Ian’s point about accessibility. I’m glad that for a change someone else on this site is mentioning it.

As often happens, worrying about accessibility for minorities also helps the majority. In this case, I’m not sure how great a site that’s Flash’d up to the hilt would be on someone’s mobile phone? A simple text / fixed graphics based system would be much better e.g. directions/maps service

I could imagine this having some groovy Flash etc. thing involving zooming, but this is much simpler and appears to work well.

Christian Mogensen wrote:

Microsoft is pitching dotNet as the framework that will kill Flash based interfaces, since the widgets support accessibility, have a standard look+feel, and integrate well with the host. They call this Smart Clients - at least partly.

The upside is that the security features on downloaded content stops this from being ActiveX all over again.

The downside is that it only works on Windows boxen.

Thoughts?

David wrote:

Does anyone know (who might have a copy of Longhorn) whether XAML is “accessible”; meaning has more attributes towards achieving 503c (or other countries’ codes) than Flash does? Just curious.

Also, I’m a bit blundered by all this. Is DHTML more accessible? I mean that? If I wanted to get the same level of richness from DHTML that I would get from Flash, would it still be as accessible? My accessibility knowledge is pretty lame, but I do remember that one “golden rule” I was told is that screen readers are not all that good w/ JavaScript and that JS is really a core component in rich DHTML GUIs. Again, I’m asking for clarification.

But I do think there is something else at stake here in the Yahoo vs. Flash thing …
Is, in terms of web-based applications, how relevant or irrelevant is the “web” piece from a user perspective. My usability tests show that it is both relevant and irrelevant b/c the browser makes it relevant by getting in the way, but irrelevant because the user wants many of the same interaction behaviors as their desktop when doing more complex tasks. So cant a “Yahoo” interface cut it for complex web-applications?

zeh wrote:

I’m on the ‘different tools for different jobs’ train. Flash is good when used for certain tasks; raw text for others, html+xhtml+css for others. If you hit a site with a Flash intro and some “Flash intro” which you can ’skip’, chances are that intro doesn’t add anything to the site at all no matter how cool it is (you’ll like it once and hate it the second time around), so it shouldn’t have been done in the first place. Don’t consider this kind of Flash usage to be the future of the technology. Flash is good to certain kind of tasks, and while it hardly has anything to do with text data - I like my firefox search to work on html sites and keyboard scrolling thankyouverymuch - it’s quite useful for sites that need a more animated touch and rely heavily on user interaction and graphics and need everything to be managed, loaded and locally cached correctly and with no heavy loads on the server - say, a photographer portfolio, a new cloth brand collection catalogue, a motion graphics agency showcase, that kind of stuff.

Don’t hate the game; hate the player. Just because 90% of what people do with flash IS bad - fundamentally bad, like unneeded intros and other crap you’ll see on free domains - doesn’t mean the tool is evil.

You see, I used to hate Java when it first came out because of what people made with it: every site would have some bizarre applet with image reflections simulting water, some stupid highlighted menu, or something of the sort. But when the technology matured and most people forgot about this stupid gimmicks, and after I started using Java, I saw how of a fine technology it is and learnt to love it. I believe Flash is going now through this same step, even though it’s been around for quite a while: it’s just getting bigger and doing a huge impact. I believe we will mature to a level that those crappy ‘intros’ also fade out and die, while the sites that are made with flash because they’re /better/ that way will start to become more common on the ‘normal’, popular internet - they already are on the design field, as sites like www.styleboost.com can prove. Unfortunatelly, 10 among 10 slashdotters hate Flash, and it’s just because of the crappy sites, when they have barely seen one that used flash right.

John Dowdell wrote:

Tons of accessibility info here:
http://www.macromedia.com/macromedia/accessibility/

The last few versions of the Macromedia Flash Player have included support for screenreaders JAWS, WindowEyez… last week IBM Home Page Reader announced SWF support too. By default text and button items are identified, but you can also use authoring hints to optimize the experience. That’s just sound-for-sight, though… check out the above section for many more handlings.

(For tabbed browsers, I’m not sure whether this is exposed to plugins in Firefox myself, but this browser in particular has recently gained much more presence. If you could drop a note to the Flash Player team at macromedia.com/go/wish saying that this would be important to you then that could help in allocating priorities, thanks.)

(For XAML, I’d guess Microsoft will end up using either the current or future Microsoft Active Accessibility, and would imagine that XML UIs rendered in Avalon would use default and hinted screenreading similar to what the Macromedia Flash Player offers today.)

(For “Is DHTML accessible?” then screenreaders can make *some* sense of any HTML, but it’s really up to you how you design and test that type of experience.)

I’m sorry most of the above concentrates on sound-for-sight, but that’s where most of the requests have been… tactile issues usually depend on interface hardware, and of course design has an immense impact on how usable a work is for various audiences….

Regards,
John Dowdell
Macromedia Support

James Robertson wrote:

Hmmmm… Just one comment Kev: when you say ” If sites are trending towards one or another, it’s probably more indicative of a lack of understanding of the options” - I have to disagree.

I perceive that sites adopt standards and superficiallty look like each other because of the beneficial application of usability testing: after all people will spend 99.99% of their time on OTHER sites: if you impose a cognitive overhead on them through non-conformist design then people will stop coming to them and using them.

After all, Photoshop has it’s menus in the same place as other image editing apps but we all know what we prefer: it;s the substance that differentiates - the USP, the key driver for people to return to your site is what is important: now whether you adopt a standard and make your site look similar in layout to others.

Rebecca Shapley wrote:

Way back in the dark ages of 2002 my group at ScienceVIEW was using Flash to develop rich interactive applications for science education - think ecosystem food webs with drag and drop connections between organisms and double-click access to a database entry - and I’ve seen some nice hotel reservation systems that take advantage of Flash to provide users a better experience. Many sites out there give Flash a bad name, but they did help to make the plug-in common in web browsers. The key is finding applications where the rich interactivity afforded by Flash really serves a purpose. Reading text content or watching fancy graphics isn’t it.


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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?