Please provide a usable fallback for Flash content

Since uninstalling Flash I’ve noticed how common it is for sites that still use Flash to pay little or no attention to visitors that do not have Flash Player installed. Showing a “Missing plugin” message instead of navigation links or even worse, the entire site, is an efficient way of turning people away.

There used to be a time when “everybody” had Flash player installed. These days there are many millions of iOS users that don’t. Apple does not include Flash Player with new Macs anymore (neither is it included with OS X 10.7 Lion). And then there are people who block Flash with browser extensions or uninstall it completely.

My point? If you use Flash on your website, there is a non-negligible number of people that would get a better impression if you were to use progressive enhancement when including Flash content. That is, instead of just showing “Missing plugin” or “You need Flash Player to experience this content”, you show real content – text, images, whatever (sometimes, depending on how essential the stuff you’re using Flash for is, nothing at all). When Flash player is available in the browser, you can go ahead and show the Flash content instead. I suggest using SWFObject to do this check.

There are of course some legitimate use cases when this approach isn’t feasible. Some online games and some kinds of animations, to name a couple of examples, can be unrealistic to provide a non-Flash alternative to. If that’s what you use Flash for, fine, go ahead and inform visitors without Flash Player that they need it to access your content and why. Remember though that many simply cannot install it even if they wanted to, so you probably want to do more than just provide a download link.

Legitimate use of Flash aside, in many cases Flash content can easily (and arguably should) be replaced by real text, real images, real links, and sometimes a bit of JavaScript or CSS3. Visitors who do not have Flash installed will get real content or real links instead of a nagging message to install a plugin that they can’t or don’t want to use. And they won't know that they are missing out on anything (because they aren’t).

And that will surely give them a better impression than a download link or missing plugin icon.

Posted on October 20, 2011 in Usability, Accessibility