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Flash versus HTML5

Published on August 6, 2012
Tags: Usability

There has already been a lot written about HTML5 and the opportunities with which it presents web design, but there has perhaps been even more written about how it impacts on Flash. It is common knowledge that when HTML was first introduced, its capabilities in terms of interactivity were very limited; for clever graphics and animations, web designers needed to make use of Flash.

The release of HTML5 has helped to change that. It has more capabilities and, importantly, one of its core aims is to make sure websites display properly no matter what operating system a web user happens to be making use of at the time. It now also has built-in support for video and audio elements, which saves web developers the need to make use of plugins to do the job for them.

It is that last point that seems to have caused much of the debate over Flash. After all, that is what Flash does. 99% of laptops and desktop browsers are able to make use of Flash, and it is well-known for its ability to offer high quality, interactive web content. Where HTML5 arguably beats it, however, is on the fact that Flash is not supported by systems like Apple’s iOS, but HTML5 is.

Despite this, much of the talk about HTML5 replacing Flash or making it redundant is somewhat misguided. Yes, there are things that HTML5 can do that Flash can’t, in particular allowing web designers to use the same coding for all mobile operating systems rather than creating a separate one for each, but this goes two ways. There are still things that Flash can do that HTML5 either cannot do or that are still easier to do using Flash, no matter how much HTML5 has improved the situation elsewhere.

For example, there are still some limitations on the interactivity HTML5 is able to offer in terms of supporting audio and video. There are limited file extensions available, for instance, that mean Flash would still be necessary to support audio and visual files on some browsers. As browsers are updated to take account of HTML5, this should become less of an issue over time, but as we already know, just because updated browsers are released, it doesn’t mean that people will start to use them straight away.

Another issue to consider is that the audio and visual files in HTML5 are played within the browser and, depending on the specific browser a person is using, they might be using one of several versions of the built-in plugins. This means there is still a wide range of possibilities to cater to and adaptations that may need to be made, just as Flash can require adaptation in other areas.

Also, let’s say that a web designer was asked to convert a Flash-based website into an HTML5 site. If the website is currently Flash-based, it is likely to have a lot of interactive elements, such as animations. Even though HTML5 is better than previous versions of HTML at handling this sort of thing, its capacity is still somewhat limited and this can take up a lot of memory. This means that in many cases, converting a Flash-heavy website into HTML5 is not necessarily the most appropriate option.

All of this means that while HTML5 is certainly a welcome development and it has a lot to offer, the need for Flash is still there as it offers better capabilities in many areas. However, one of the triumphs of HTML5 is that it is useful for helping developers create sites that work on a range of different devices – something that fans of responsive web design are sure to appreciate.

The ability to make use of audio and visual without external plugins is also welcome, although we definitely need to acknowledge the limitations here, as the process of this in HTML5 is not quite as simple as we would like to think. Flash is arguably also still ahead in areas such as zoom features and scale options.

So perhaps we should avoid casting the debate as HTML5 versus Flash wherever possible. Both are useful, and both have their strengths and weaknesses. HTML5 helps us to be more creative and opens up new options for web designers, but we can’t write off Flash just yet. We still need it, and we probably will for quite some time yet.

By Chelsey Evans

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Designing websites for tablets

Published on July 13, 2012
Tags: Usability

We all know that tablets are fast becoming one of the most popular web devices around. Portable and generally equipped with the latest hardware and software, it is estimated that tablet owners spend more money online than people who buy online through other means (£97 in the past three months compared with an average of £79, according to a study by Total Media). This means that even though tablets remain in the minority for now, web designers cannot ignore them and we increasingly need to act to make sure websites – including ecommerce websites – are properly designed and optimised for tablet use.
Think about the user experience
As with any other type of web design, one of the big things when it comes to creating websites for use on tablets is the user experience. This means addressing obvious issues such as the fact that tablets are operated using fingers rather than mouse pointers, and so the navigation design needs to be adapted accordingly. It needs to be easy for people to use without looking clunky and out of place.
Other issues that need to be looked at in terms of user experience include menus that, when using a desktop computer, drop down when the mouse pointer is hovered over them. This is often not a possibility with tablets, and so menu alternatives need to be developed when designers are adapting sites for these devices.
The user experience can also be affected by the information that is displayed on the page. Most tablets allow for multiple screen orientations, so that if you turn the device from landscape to portrait, the site alters to display accordingly. This means that websites need to be carefully administered so that crucial information isn’t lost from the screen when the device is turned around; while users have the option of swiping across to see additional information, this isn’t always the most practical option.
Also, how are web users actually using their tablets? If we consider that they are typically spending more online than the average online shopper, it suggests that ecommerce is clearly a big issue. We need to be certain when creating ecommerce sites for tablets that they will operate properly and that the buying process will be as easy as possible in order to make the most of this market.
We also have the issue of apps to consider. With the growing popularity of device-based apps, this is clearly an issue that web designers need to be aware of. For example, are people more likely to make a purchase through an app that is specific to their device, or will they still head to the ‘main’ website through their tablet browser in order to do this? If they are using the device apps, do you need as many web applications on the sites that you design?
Remember different tablet specifications
Just as we see computers and laptops with a range of different specifications, so we also tablets with significant differences between them. The web design for a tablet needs to be flexible enough to work on multiple screen sizes, as well as multiple resolutions. Graphics can be an issue here; with developments such as the iPad’s high-quality Retina screen, graphics need to display well on devices with high resolutions, without slowing down devices that have resolutions that aren’t quite as high.
Something else that web designers need to remember for tablets is that no matter how capable they are, they typically have less memory and less powerful CPUs than desktop computers. This means that we need to be careful when designing sites that include a lot of media as the devices that are supposed to be running it might not be able to properly support it.
Flash is another issue that we need to be careful about when designing websites to be used on tablets. Some tablets, such as the iPad, don’t support it, and so in most cases it is probably best to stick to CSS and HTML5. These are much more likely to achieve good results on tablets, and the capabilities of HTML5 mean that we are now able to achieve high-quality media that will run on all tablets, so there is less need to worry about Flash compatibility. 
Overall, it looks as though the tablet market will continue to grow in size and significance. So, even though for now it is still a relatively small section of the online market, it is definitely a powerful and important one. Making sure the websites we create are fully operational and ideal for tablet use should certainly be high on the lists of all designers.

By Chelsey Evans

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Do short attention spans affect web design?

Published on July 13, 2012
Tags: Usability, Web Design London

We can identify any number of factors that might affect web design, from the brief developed by the company in need of a website to their chosen web designer and the designer’s own preferences and ways of working. However, we can never underestimate the power of the web user when it comes to the design of websites. There is a lot of talk about how modern attention spans are shorter than they used to be, and that our expectations have risen at the same time. 
Regardless of whether or not we believe that people’s attention spans are shorter than they were before (one counter-argument runs that there is simply more to do now than there used to be, so it’s easier to get distracted), does this have an impact on web design?
In some ways, it probably does. After all, we have all read about how web users are likely to click away from a page that doesn’t load quickly, and how we need to tailor all of our web content so that users can find it as quickly as possible. This means that web designers always need to be aware of issues such as the size of graphics, which could take a long time to load, and how text is laid out in order to make sure it is as readable as possible.
Some statistics suggest that if a webpage takes more than 4 seconds to load, a quarter of people will abandon it (these are figures from America, so they might be slightly different in the UK, but they still provide an interesting insight). Also, if a mobile webpage doesn’t load within 10 seconds, it’s thought that 50% of people will abandon the page, and many of them won’t go back to it again.
We can also identify alleged attention span issues in the world of online search. According to statistics from the United States, more than 3 billion Google searches are done every day. However, Google discovered that if the search results were slowed down by just four tenths of a second, there would be 8 million fewer searches a day.
All of this suggests that short attention spans are definitely having an impact on the online world, including on web design. However, in the case of web design at least, could it not also be that rather than being solely about attention spans, designs are adapted and altered simply because it’s good practice? 
Best practice would suggest that webpages should load as quickly as possible, after all. Many websites are there for ecommerce or are otherwise linked to business, and so it is in their own best interests that they load quickly and efficiently, as well as being convenient for web users who don’t want to wait a long time for them to load. 
It’s also good sense for websites to be easy to read, and there is unlikely to be a web designer alive today who would deliberately create a website that was confusing and with hard-to-read content. We all know the importance of good quality text that is relevant and interesting; it helps our websites to rank well in the search engine results as well as being beneficial for web users.
Clear layouts are another web design element that simply makes good sense as well as being a good option just in case any users happen to have short attention spans. So, given deeper thought, one explanation could be that web users simply recognise good design when they see it.
After all, if the best websites are laid out very clearly, are interesting and engaging and it’s easy to find things on them, it makes websites that don’t fulfil that brief stand out for the wrong reasons. The quality of designs has improved dramatically in just a few short years: the bar has been raised and new standards have been set. It isn’t that difficult to see why some web users abandon certain websites after just a few seconds when there are other websites that will load straight away and give them what they want.
So perhaps there is something in the attention span theory, but it isn’t the whole story. We also need to look at the increasing quality of web design and the growing capabilities of internet devices in order to give us a clearer picture of just how design is affected today.

By Chelsey Evans

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Participation Choice: Are People More Engaged with the Web Now?

Published on May 11, 2012
Tags: Usability

A question that is often discussed by web designers and others working in industries connected to the internet is: how engaged are web users? We naturally all want web users to be inspired by and make use of the sites that we create - in many cases, we want them to actively participate on websites, whether it is joining in discussions, sharing photos and other material, or making a purchase from a business.

However, it is hard to get away from the fact that many people simply view the internet rather than taking part in it. This, though, might be starting to change. The BBC recently conducted some in-depth research into how active the UK online population is, and they came up with some interesting results.

One of the headline results that this study came up with was that the ‘1/9/90’ rule does not have as much relevance on the internet as it once did. This is the rule that suggests 1% of people created web content, 9% engage with that content in some way (such as by editing or adding to it), while the other 90% are what are often referred to as ‘lurkers’. By contrast, the BBC study mentioned above found that 77% of the UK population now participate in some way on the internet.

A big reason for this, it is suggested, is because online participation is now easier than it has been in the past. Just think about how easy it is, for example, to share content with friends on Facebook or Twitter, or to comment on an online discussion or newspaper article. Some people are clearly still in the ‘lurker’ category, though. One interesting finding in relation to this group is that many of them are considered to be early adopters – they know how to get involved on the internet, but they simply choose not to.

As a result of these findings, the BBC has developed something called the Participation Choice, which is a model that seeks to explain digital participation. It includes different levels of participation from ‘passive’ to ‘intense’. There is evidently a spectrum of internet involvement, with some people being much more involved than others – but the main conclusion of this study is that people are more involved on the internet than ever before and that increasing numbers of people are choosing to participate online.

However, there is a flip side to this and not everyone agrees that the study discussed above has got it right. One response to the study suggests that the 1/9/90 rule was never supposed to be representative of the entire internet. Rather, it is to do with the expectations of behaviour ‘inside any given online community or service’.

Part of this argument is to do with the fact that there are lots of different web platforms a user could choose to be active on, yet they might only engage with one or two. For example, just because someone is part of the ‘1%’ creating content on Twitter, they might fall into the ‘lurker’ category when it comes to lots of other websites such as Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+. The internet, this argument suggests, is a huge place and everyone is likely to be taking part somewhere, but not taking part in many other places. Therefore the ‘1%’ rule still holds sway when we are talking about particular sites or services, because for everyone who is participating, there will still be plenty more lurkers even if those lurkers are taking part on other sites elsewhere on the web.

The debate arises when you are trying to determine whether this means a particular user is participating or passive on balance. It’s not difficult to see the points that both sides of the debate are making, and they are both in some way right. However, to get too bogged down in ‘internet rules’ of participation could be to miss the point a little bit, taking our focus away from what matters. We could argue that even though someone isn’t participating on a website, it doesn’t mean that they’re not engaged or interested in what is happening there. The job for web designers and others is to work out which method works best for the individual sites they are creating and to make sure those sites offer a great user experience – no matter how those users eventually choose to get involved.

By Chelsey Evans

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Google+ Gets a Facelift

Published on April 13, 2012
Tags: Usability, Web Design London

Google’s contribution to the world of social networking sites, Google+, has gone through something of a facelift. We’ve seen before how this social networking site got off to something of a shaky start, with complaints from some users including the fact that the site required them to sign up using their own names rather than an internet pseudonym. The site is also still trailing the social media giants in terms of the number of users it has, but has this latest development done enough to allow Google+ to play with the big(ger) hitters?

There are certainly some interesting features as part of the redesigned site. In a blog post, Google announced that more than 170 million people have upgraded to Google+ in the past ten months since the site was first launched. They also say that over the past 30 days, 100 million people have ‘engaged’ with it. 50 million apparently ‘engaged’ every day. When we compare this with Facebook, which at the end of 2011 had around 250 million users who used the service every day, there is clearly some way for Google+ to go – but it still seems to be growing steadily.

The redesigned site offers more options for things like videos and photographs – you can include full sized photographs now. Google says it has also made it easier for people to join in discussions and see what’s going on in the different Google+ communities. There are also interesting new navigation tools, one of which Google calls a ‘dynamic ribbon of applications’. The idea behind this is to allow users to do things such as drag apps up or down, hide or show apps, and hover over them to display information. This is a contrast to the static icons that used to be at the top of the page.

The Google+ ‘Hangout’ option has now been updated, too. The idea behind this is to give people more chances to connect, such as by making it easier for people to access hangouts, offering tips and a ‘rotating billboard of popular hangouts’.

Google admits in the above mentioned blog post that it still has some way to go, but it sees this redesign of Google+ as an important step. So, will it make much of a difference? It’s perhaps a bit too soon to tell, but we can safely see that the social networking site has been growing well lately. One of the reasons for this is that since the start of 2012, when users have signed up for another Google service, they have also been required to set up a Google+ account. One estimate from Search Engine Watch says that this has added 80 million people in the past three months.

However, when compared with other social networking sites, Google+ is still falling behind in terms of both user numbers and how long people spend on the website. ComScore did a survey that found people spent 18% of their time online on Facebook during January. They spent a total of just 3 minutes on Google+. Other social networking sites also did considerably better than Google’s offering.

Plus, we can arguably see aspects of other social networking sites in the Google+ redesign. For instance, Twitter’s web developers are likely to have taken keen notice of the inclusion of a trending topics feature on the Google site, something that Twitter has been using itself for the past couple of years. There’s also a new cover photo feature on Google+ that is somewhat similar to the cover photo feature on Facebook that was rolled out recently as part of its ‘timeline’ redesign. Twitter in particular has previously expressed concern at actions taken by Google, such as the search giant’s move at the start of this year to integrate Google+ into its search results.

Another concern from some users is that, unlike Facebook and Twitter that users are able to update through apps and other means, Google+ requires people to log in before they can take any action – something that some people say inflates the user numbers.

So it seems that the debate over Google+ rumbles on. Is it good or isn’t it? It seems that people have very set, divided opinions over the issue, but Google is determined that Google+ will be a success. They say that one of the aims of the site update is to make ‘sharing more awesome’. Time will tell if that turns out to be the case.

By Chelsey Evans

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