by Larisa Thomason,
Senior Web Analyst,
Designers call them "rich media enhancements."
Broadband users call them "cool and cutting edge."
Internet users with dial-up connections have a different description: "maddeningly slow."
What are these mysterious, controversial things? Web pages with multimedia effects like Flash, background music, Java animations, and other special effects.
Think carefully before you include any on your Web site.
Many Visitors Are Unplugged
Each new generation of Web browsers offers more multimedia capabilities than before. Often these capabilities are part of the browser itself, but other multimedia effects require users to install special software called plug-ins in Netscape and Active-X components in Explorer. Generally, the term "plugin" refers to either Netscape's plug-in technology or Active-X components.
Computer users can select from hundreds of different plug-ins, but the most common are RealOnePlayer (formerly RealPlayer), Flash, and Java.
As with Web browsers, there are any number of different versions of each plug-in. Special effects designed using the latest software may not work with the older versions still prevalent on users' machines. In our November 2001 newsletter story, we reported that people with brand new computers may still be running old versions of Java. Applets created using the newer versions may not render properly - if at all.
And many people are notoriously slow to upgrade to the latest browser versions. They're even more reluctant to download and install plug-in software applications. The reason is a combination of ignorance (don't know how), apathy (not that interested in your multimedia), and fear (what if it's a trick to get them to download a virus?).
It's difficult for a Web site to convince visitors to download and install special software just to look at the site. You have to convince them that the extra effort involved is worthwhile.
That's why it's so important for you to carefully consider your options before you load up your site with multimedia effects.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Is there another way I can present the information?
- Do my server logs indicate that most visitors would have the necessary software to view my Web page?
- Are visitors willing to wait for the plug-ins to load?
Many multimedia applications - especially Flash - have gotten bad reputations among some users. Like any tool, they can be used for good or bad. Flash is too often used in annoying pop-up window ads. Visitors aren't just bombarded by unwanted browser windows, but often they're invited to download and install the latest Flash plug-in just to view somebody's ad!
Gone In A Flash?
A September 2000 survey by Jupiter Media Metrix showed that while visitors may appreciate multimedia, other aspects of a site are far more important. Consider these findings:
- Only 20% of visitors would visit a site more often if it had rich media enhancements.
- 40% would visit a site more if it loaded more quickly.
- 59% of retail shoppers want more product information than most sites provide.
So, people are looking for fast-loading pages that contain lots of good information. Does your Web site fit that description?
Plug-ins can really bloat your page's size and increase download times. Don't count on people having either the patience or goodwill to wait.
For example, suppose you have a Flash animation that's 350k in size. While this animation loads within 4 seconds over a T1 line, it takes a shocking 50.92 seconds to load over a 56k modem. The table below shows a load time estimate from HTML Toolbox for this type of Flash animation.
Load Time by Modem Speed
350K Flash Animation
T1 (1.44 MB)
If the special effect is really vital to your page, then carefully explain why, as in "You must have Flash 6 installed to play this game." Then visitors will understand just how they'll benefit. They'll know that you aren't just trying to sell them a digital camera or something.
Give Visitors A Choice
Visitors resent having to sit and wade through information or animations that don't interest them. One of the most attractive features of the Web is its interactivity and portability. Supposedly, visitors should be able to control their browsing experience and view sites on virtually any computer, browser, or operating system.
That's in an ideal world. Until that happens, give visitors as much control as possible over their experience:
- Offer a "skip intro" link on your splash page if you're using a showy Flash introduction. First-time visitors may be eager to get straight to your content while repeat visitors have seen it at least once before.
- Set a cookie to keep visitors from viewing an introductory multimedia message more than once if you don't want to let them to skip it entirely.
- Give visitors the option of viewing a "low-bandwidth" version of your site that's done in straight HTML. Visitors with slow connections and those using assistive technologies like screen readers will thank you!
Never present vital site information (like site navigation) inside multimedia effects only. Always offer the information in an alternative format too. This can be as simple as using text links in addition to a fancy Flash menu system.
Information More Vital Than Experience
Many designers view the Web as an "experience" while average users see the Web as a tool to gather information. If you can create a Web page that is both a fast information tool and an exciting experience then you're an exceptional designer!
But unfortunately, many designers just load their pages with Flash bells and Java whistles, completely ignoring the importance of good content.
Add too much fancy stuff (the bells and whistles), and you may find that few visitors have the patience to hear and enjoy them!
If you really need multimedia on your site, then use it. If not, resist the temptation and enjoy the benefits of speedy downloads and repeat visitors!
Do you know how fast your page appears to visitors? NetMechanics's HTML Toolbox can tell you! It alerts you to slow-loading pages on your site, checks your HTML code for errors, and identifies browser-specific code that may break your pages in some browsers.
Internet users are often impatient and have a lot of other options. There are literally millions of sites for them to choose from. Don't let your design choices drive them away from your site.