While I’m not really that interested in which technology comes out on top with this kind of poll, I do find the responses interesting. Why are so many readers of these blogs so vehemently opposed to one technology when it seems pretty apparent that these readers don’t really fully understand what the technology is used for?
The Clueless User
And that there is a problem. Users should’t have to know or care whether the sites they go to are in Flash, HTML5, Silverlight, etc. The only impact a choice of technology should have on the user is improving their experience. Users know when the product they are using isn’t up to snuff, they feel it, and once the user knows the brand of technology under the hood, they now have a target.
I was talking to a coworker recently about the NBC site for the 2010 Olympic games and she expressed her dissatisfaction with Silverlight. The site wasn’t functioning well on her MacBook (I’ve seen Flash and HTML sites also perform poorly on that machine) but because this site had Silverlight logos prominently displayed and a right-click menu with mention of Silverlight, she suddenly had a target.
It must be Silverlight that was crappy.
I looked at the site on my machine, and had little trouble with the site, but i did have some general nitpicks about the user experience – but it wasn’t really Silverlight causing the problem at all. If this identical experience was built in Flash (and i would imagine many users assume it is – n fact i did until i noticed all the Silverlight branding), then most likely Flash would have been the reason for the user-experience pain-points.
So, who do you blame when the crappy experience is HTML driven? Who’s fault is it then? There is no right-click menu or logo in the bottom right attributing HTML technology to some company we’ve all heard some vague mention of before, so we dont really have anyone to pin the blame on, excpt maybe the actual brand who’s product we happen to be using.
So we blame Flash. Or Silverlight. Or Quicktime.
When technology is marketed to be on the tip of every consumer’s tongue, you risk being the target for their rage when something, even loosely involving that technology, goes wrong. Hence the sticky wicket for Adobe and other creators of content plug-ins – in an effort to be popular, you also become infamous.
Plug-ins are critical
Of course, user’s have a reason to be pissed off at these content plug-ins, and i would suggest most of that should be re-directed at designers like us; we’re the ones that develop the sites using the tools. We’ve developed our fair share of sites where Flash may not have been totally necessary, or created some really fun, interactive engagement that was only fun and engaging on the latest hardware and left the general public with something stutteringly slow. Those were decisions we, on the production side, made along with the client and felt that a risk was worth taking. In the end, we’ve ended up giving one of the most liberating and powerful of the content plug-ins the scarlet letter.
Over the last 10 years, plug-ins like Flash have felt the heat a few times, by way of usability experts, open source evangelists, or net savvy bloggers. But the reality of the situation is that in almost every case, it’s our work that casts a poor light on what is still the only game in town for rich experiences on the web. Yes, yes, HTML can do a lot and we use it when it’s right for the job, but when HTML isn’t right for that rich, immersive job, plug-ins like Flash is are default choice.
What about the Get the Glass site for Milk? From a visual design standpoint, I can go to that site in almost any desktop or laptop browser, regardless of operating system, and see and feel exactly the same thing. As a developer, I’m not left coding a ton of css hacks trying to get all my positioning right in the various browsers and never achieving pixel perfection. I’m not trying to find a range of fonts that look somewhat similar to the ones in the design i have, or close to the client’s brand typeface, but fall well short of of what is truly needed. Every pixel can be in its place and is pretty much guaranteed to be there on every machine with the plug-in.
A plug-in less web
There are a ton of great examples of HTML-based experiences, rich and not so rich. They offer amazing utility and flexibility in situations where you aren’t so worried about things being so pixel perfect or every little tool tip fading and spinning on. You aren’t worried about the typography matching a particular typeface, meticulously kerned and tweaked to visual perfection.You aren’t looking for that from the user experience, you and your client have other goals.
Sites like Basecamp, Flickr, Mint – the list goes on and on. We don’t need, nor want Flash-like plug-ins to drive these experiences because we aren’t worried about all of the same experience details. Layout is more editorial, structured, and utilitarian. We can have something visually engaging, but not in the We Choose the Moon type of way.
HTML is great for these and many other experiences where a plug-in just isn’t necessary. But we will always need plug-ins like Flash for experiences that demand that rich engagement that touches all the senses. In fact, even these great examples of HTML use plug-ins (Flash) to display animated, interactive graphs and other elements – plug-ins are sometimes still necessary for a good user experience. When HTML5 finally arrives for everyone, this wont change.
HTML 5 wont magically let us craft beautiful transitions and audio synced experiences, immediate, precisely designed feedback, pixel perfection and typeface congruency across all hardware and browser platforms. Sites like We Choose the Moon aren’t suddenly gong to be built in HTML5. Or HTML 6 for that matter. Probably not any version of HTML, because that isn’t the point of that technology. This is the reason we have plug-ins, so we don’t have to try and cram timeline-synchronized animation, seamless and pixel-perfect typography and other media assets into the HTML spec in a way that makes sense for a markup language intended for documents. Plug-ins offload that work, do it better, and don’t have to wait for every browser to support a spec in their own interpretation of it which leaves users and developers wanting more.
Better plug-ins, smarter designs
We’ve had plug-ins for ages, but people expect more – a user experience without all the headaches involved with waiting for a particular plug-in to load, or the performance issues related to particular plug-ins. I know this is in the works for some, but it seems like all plug-in and browser developers need to realize that the more that plug-ins blend seamlessly into the browser experience, the better the experience for users.
Developers have been told for years it’s up to them to design the best user experience for their users, but the current pickle we are in is that we can only take it so far without the help of the plug-in. For many projects, Flash or Silverlight are the best (and only) tools for the job, it’s up to the browser developers, OS developers, and plug-in developers to work together better so we can create experiences where the users don’t know or care what technology is at work – it just works great.