Complain loudly enough - and publicly enough - and you can make a huge difference. Usability guru Jacob Nielsen ( www.useit.com ) made the Web design community quake a few years ago when he published his now infamous essay, Flash: 99% Bad, denouncing the state of Macromedia Flash on the Internet as "a usability disease."
Macromedia Flash is a vector-based digital design tool. Graphics and animations created with it are based on mathematical lines instead of individual pixels, resulting in smaller file sizes (shorter download times) and greater visual scalability (it retains similar qualities on Web pages, televisions and movie screens).
For its first few years, Flash was primarily used by designers to add eye candy to Web sites and was commonly scorned for its poor implementation. Today, Flash has evolved into a powerful design and development tool with the potential for incredibly sophisticated application. Here's what happened.
Nielson's 2000 essay articulated why Flash made Web sites difficult for everyone to use and why disabled people using text-based browsers had insurmountable issues with it. He said it encouraged "design abuse" and that in most cases we would be better off without it.
Nielsen was called a heretic. He was yelled at, screamed at, denounced, ridiculed and verbally abused by the online design community. Somebody even created a Driving Over Jacob Nielson Game ( www.urbanev.com/jakob/ ). Notably, Joshua Davis ( www.joshuadavis.com ), perhaps the greatest Flash designer ever, told the BBC: "I'd beat Nielson up if I saw him."
His critics complained that Nielsen wanted them to assume that all the visitors to their sites were idiots. He argued back that designers should "design for humans instead of for yourself."
Macromedia CEO Rob Burgess, who only days before the publication of Nielsen's essay had inanely commented to ZDNet that bad Flash was "not the problem of the tool but the problem of the designer," realized that he was on the edge of a precipice. An anti-Flash furor was shifting into high gear. And he was in the position of a cigarette manufacturer blaming lung cancer exclusively on smokers.
Burgess decided to listen. In a brilliant stroke, Macromedia hired Nielsen himself to develop its usability and accessibility guidelines. Now Flash MX has emerged as the foundation for Rich Internet Application (RIA) development. An official Macromedia Flash Accessibility Developer Kit ( www.macromedia.com/macromedia/accessibility/ ) contains guidelines, Smart Clips and sample code to support development efforts. As well, Flash has emerged as an artistic medium in and of itself.
Numerous conferences and festivals have started in the past few years to celebrate the maturing chrysalis of Flash and the elements of design, art, business, electronic music, digital video, video games and other aspects of new media that now go with it.
Among the most renowned of these is FlashInTheCan ( www.flashinthecan.com ), a Toronto-based gathering that enjoyed its third anniversary early this month.
More than 900 attendees came from as far away as Mexico, Europe, South Africa and Australia, creating an all-star cast. Colin Moock ( www.moock.org ), Guy Watson ( www.flashguru.co.uk/ ), Brendan Dawes ( www.brendandawes.com ), Daniel Dura ( www.danieldura.com ), Kevin Towes ( www.kevintowes.ca ) and Joshua Davis all addressed the meeting.
The technology is now much improved from the time of Nielsen's original essay, and, as Kevin Lynch, chief software architect for Macromedia, said during his keynote presentation, all that remains is to get the large community of Flash developers to embrace the now-official Macromedia usability and accessibility principles in their actual RIA design and development.
As Dayton Pereira from hot Toronto design shop Indusblue ( www.indusblue.com ) said, "A lot of guys here agree that it's necessary but ignore it because they don't understand it, and (Flash expert Shawn) Pucknell agrees that there's lots of room for improvement."
But one thing's for sure. Flash isn't 99 per cent bad any more. Instead, it has empowered designers with the capability for great good and great evil.
God bless the artists who want to create art for art's sake. But developers who create inaccessible sites for their clients are guilty of professional negligence and should be forced to surf with text-based browsers for a month.