Are Distracting Cycling Images and Messages Hurting Profits?

by Todd Follansbee,

While conducting usability testing with many people as they visit different websites, we hear lots of complaints about the use of Flash or JavaScript to cycle images and messages on homepages. We wonder: Is Flash truly a killer app? Or is it a sales killer?

I'm not talking about the Flash site introduction pages, which fortunately have nearly disappeared. I am talking about an increasing number of small sites which are cycling images, changing messages, and sending offers across the screen -- generally causing havoc among people trying to understand an often complex webpage.

This is not a tirade against Flash or JavaScript. It is an appeal for improved usability.

Problems with Scrolling Messages
Here are the problems caused by changing messages and scrolling offers:
  1. Distraction. A large percentage of people, especially those with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), find them incredibly distracting. It is difficult to read -- let alone comprehend -- a webpage where dominant images continue to change and distract.

    The first rule to get conversions is: Convey your value proposition. Make clear what business you are in and why it is of benefit to the reader. But Flash often distracts viewers from understanding this essential message.

    Eyes are naturally attracted to motion and light. If your visitors don't finish reading a paragraph, they won't understand the value proposition. And unless they understand your value proposition, nothing will happen. Our user testing constantly reveals this pattern of distraction.

  2. Disappearing messages. Some sites cycle images and messages a few times and then stop. However, once the cycling has stopped, it is impossible to go back and look at the messages. Visitors become frustrated when they can't review them.
  3. Ineffectiveness. Flash does not seem to increase the effectiveness of messaging. Flash images alone convey little beyond an attractive look and feel, but these displays often consume 10% to 30% of valuable homepage real estate.
  4. Transitoriness. When we allow test users 8 to 10 seconds to view a homepage -- and then hide the page -- they rarely remember the content of the Flash messages. Far more often they are able to remember simple static headlines.
  5. Trained avoidance. Our testing indicates that Flash is becoming like banner ads that people have trained themselves to ignore.
A Better Solution -- User Control

Let others continue to run Flash and lose conversions, while our clients implement this simple and effective solution: On every instance of Flash on your site use the common video icon controls for play and pause (and mute, if you use audio). Start with your primary message and let people move through the display if they choose. Such controls allow users to:

With this approach you avoid annoying anyone. Flash can be an engaging, entertaining, and impactful tool if you simply yield control to the user and end the forced distraction. If you watched users get frustrated day in and day out with cycling images and messages, you might lose patience -- as we often do -- with sites that don't spend the time to determine exactly the kind of impressions they generate. As you explore new and supposedly engaging website technologies, be sure to test them before fully implementing them on your site.

[Editor's note: In the article "Usability on a Zero Budget" (, Follansbee explains how even a small business can do usability testing simply and cheaply.]

Author Todd Follansbee offers a free usability testing tool to readers. E-mail him to request his free One Hour Testing Tool. Follansbee assists clients as the User Experience Architect at Web Marketing Resources.

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