Splash pages and Flash intros—just don’t.

Not that many people are even doing this these days, but I just ran into a couple of them and suddenly feel it’s worth mentioning again. Splash pages are pure evil.

(Okay, maybe not pure evil. But some kind of evil, for sure, even if it’s just the annoying kind.)

What is a splash page, you ask? You’ve probably seen them. It’s a sort of front door to a website, and they are often made with Flash. Here’s an example:

www.takeshape.it

The splash page on www.takeshape.it, a good example of a not-quite-so-good idea. (Sorry, guys.)

Pretty, right? Well, yes. But why is it there?

The lure of a splash page is that it gives us a chance to show off. It’s like saying, “Look, we’ve made some really cool stuff in Photoshop,” or, “Check out this excellent Flash animation!” What better place to show the world what we can do than right off the bat at the front of our site, right?

Wrong. Think about other sites you’ve visited. Why did you go to that site? Probably because you wanted something—because you had a question you wanted answered, or you wanted to see someone’s artwork or photos, read some articles, or contribute to a forum or community. Maybe we’ve visited Take Shape to look at some of their fine abstract patterns.

Does a splash page help us do any of that? We want patterns, or whatever, not another reminder of where we already know we are. Splash pages usually offer no other options than to “skip intro” or “enter the site”. Isn’t that what we were already trying to do when we entered the URL or clicked on a link?

It’s the same with our visitors. They didn’t come to be wowed by a fancy introduction. They came for a reason, and they want to get to it without any unnecessary interruptions. (Especially on the 2nd, 4th, and 8th visits, if you can get them to come back at all.)
Famed web usability expert Jakob Nielsen had this to say about splash pages:

Splash pages are useless and annoying. In general, every time you see a splash page, the reaction is ‘oh no, here comes a site that will be slow and difficult to use and that doesn’t respect my time.’
Source: Readers’ Comments on the new Top-10 Design Mistakes.

Furthermore, when splash pages are made with Flash, the opportunity for frustration (and people immediately leaving your site) increases even more. There’s nothing like browsing the web late at night in the dark, or in a quiet study hall or library, and then suddenly have some designer’s favorite rap song blast through your speakers at full volume. And the potential issues go well beyond the inappropriate use of sound. Jeff Noble of the usability blog User Interface Trends makes a good point about animation:

Animation just because you can do animation, like it’s possible or whatever, is very very bad. Please stop. Visitors come to a website for information, not to learn how awesome you are in vague generalities and exploding 3d text. Kaboom!

If you know Flash, create something useful or appropriately entertaining, not a fancy splash page that will only drive users away. We make websites because we want visitors. Don’t give them reasons to avoid your site.

Oh, but there’s always a catch.

That said, there are very rare and specific cases in which a splash page can be useful. If you think you might be dealing with such a case, I’d recommend checking out these two posts by Smashing Magazine, Splash Pages: Do We Really Need Them? and Exploring Design: Outstanding Start Pages. Also, there’s Jakob Nielsen’s dated but still fairly relevant, Flash: 99% Bad.

What is Web Design?

Though it can be easy to think otherwise, web design is much more than just putting content on a site and calling it a day. And, because people interact differently with the web than with printed materials, it’s also not just another way to distribute your printed stuff.

Unlike other forms of media (such as print), web design focuses on three things:

The Look

This is the part that most people think of when they think about web design, but it’s not the whole thing. The Look is about more than just making a site pretty—it’s about making it appropriately pretty. In order to be effective, the design should match the message of the site.

Part of making this happen is ensuring that your site as a modern, professional look. Now, this doesn’t mean it needs to be winning any awards for its incredible eye-candy, but it does mean you want to avoid obvious errors such as broken images, typos, and a look that makes people think they’ve somehow traveled back in time to the 90s. (Or that they’re browsing this site.)

The look of your site affects the message you’re trying to convey. If your site is ridden with obvious errors or feels outdated, people are going to think that your message will suffer from the same problems. Think about it, if you were given a choice between shopping at two mattress stores, and one had immaculate landscaping and a clean exterior while the other didn’t, which one would you be more likely to trust? Whether you’re selling something or not, your website is your digital storefront. Make sure that you keep your proverbial windows clean and your sidewalk swept.

The Interface

Because the Web is so vast, it would do us well to remember Jakob’s Law of the Internet: “Users spend most of their time on other sites.” What this means is that users expect your website to work and behave in a similar way to the ones they already know.

Let me illustrate this point with a corporeal example: Imagine you borrow your friend’s car. You climb in, try to put in the key, and find that the ignition is not where you expect it to be. Instead of going in to the right of the steering wheel, you eventually discover that the key goes on the right side. You get the key in, and it doesn’t turn. After a minute of fiddling with it, you find out that it doesn’t turn clockwise, but counterclockwise—and you have to push on it first.

Well this is all pretty irritating, now isn’t it? And we’re only getting started! It turns out that the turn signal isn’t a lever on the left of the wheel, but a button on the wheel itself. The radio volume is controlled with a button on the floor by the pedals, and the windshield wipers are turned on an off from where the radio volume is supposed to be.

This is one aggravating car, isn’t it? Who designed this thing, anyway?

Someone who hasn’t driven many cars, apparently. You see, car designers might think the key would work better in a different place, but they never move it because no one would buy their annoying, hard-to-use cars if they did.

Though not quite to the same extent, websites are similar. Think about the sites you’ve visited recently. I’d be willing to bet that the site’s logo was in the top left corner, and if there was a search box, that it was somewhere near the top, or around the upper-right corner. And I’ll bet colored words were almost exclusively links. I don’t even have to know what sites you go to to guess that, because websites, like cars, have developed certain trends. Like it or hate it, if your search box is on the left side of the page at the bottom of the screen, a lot of people won’t even know you have one, and they’ll wonder why you don’t.

Now imagine that your friend’s weird car is just one of millions you could be driving instead. (You’re famous, because everyone in the state wants to lend you their car.) Do you think you’d spend more than a few seconds in that one, or would you be in another, more familiar one in seconds? Like you and your millions of cars, web users have millions of websites they could be at instead of yours, and they won’t stand much in the way of confusing or frustrating layouts.

Now, that’s not to say that you can’t be creative. You can. You have a lot more flexibility than the car above—the Internet isn’t that fixed in its ways. But you want to make sure that your site isn’t confusing or hard to use. Look at other sites with similar messages to yours, and see what they do. Are there any patterns or trends?

The Information

One of the biggest, but most important challenges of web design is to organize your information in the best possible way—you can’t just put it on the screen and assume your visitors will know what to do with it.

For instance, studies show that the majority of web users don’t stop to read every word on the screen. They read hard and fast, skimming more than anything. Therefore, if you want people to actually digest your information, you need to make it as easy to read and as well organized as possible.

Images should also be chosen carefully. Images do not typically, by themselves, convey meaning—at least, not the meaning you’re trying to get across. I once dealt with a client who insisted that the website I was creating for his event be dominated by two pictures: a handful of bullets on a book, and a globe painted on someone’s hand. I had to explain to him, that although these pictures were nice to look at—they didn’t say a single thing about what the event was, or why people should care about it enough to bother attending. It was the words that communicated our message, and the images were the garnish. You don’t go to a restaurant to enjoy the parsley with a small side of entree.