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We highlight commercial websites that are unreasonably hard to use, don't work properly, or don't actually offer what they promise. It's a way for web developers everywhere to learn what kind of mistakes they should avoid -- and of course, an opportunity for the companies listed here to fix the problems we document.

Slow, cumbersome Flash-based site

Tropical Smoothie Café

reviewed Jan. 2008

Tropical Smoothie Café's site makes a number of obvious mistakes, any one of which is problem enough, and all of which together serve to give the visitor a truly awful experience.

Splash page

The first problem is the "Splash page", which is a home page that requires users to click to "Enter" the site. A splash page serves absolutely no purpose other than to waste the visitor's time. When visitors arrive at the site, they should already be at the site; the page they see should be the site itself. They shouldn't be made to jump through any more hoops to get what they already asked for. A website is not a building, it doesn't need a door. As a designer, when you can choose between something useful to display first (the actual site) or something useless (a splash page), it should be obvious which to choose.

This isn't a fringe opinion. Jakob Nielsen, the most famous web usability expert in the world, said this way back in 2000:

Splash pages were an early sin of abusive web design. Luckily, almost all professional websites have removed this usability barrier.

If you always try to think about your site from the perspective of your visitors, mistakes like splash pages will be easy to avoid. In fact, these kinds of mistakes arise from having the opposite view, trying to please the site owner rather than the customers who will use the site. The site owner with the cumbersome site can think, "Look at how clever / cute / entertaining we are!", without considering the feelings of the people actually using the site. But the true test of a site isn't how well it pleases the owner, it's how well it pleases the owner's customers.

However, for site owners who insist on the self-centered approach, there is still a reason to avoid splash pages: Fewer people will actually see the site. That's because, for whatever reason, a huge percentage of visitors will never click the "Enter" button. Perhaps it's because they think that any site with a useless splash page is going to have more minor headaches waiting behind the Enter button. (In this case, they'd definitely be right.) Whatever the reason, the bottom line is that fewer visitors actually see the site content with a splash page because they don't bother to enter. And that's the opposite of what the site owner wants; the site owner dearly wants visitors to see what the company has to offer. Tropical Smoothie is getting fewer true visitors than they bargained for.

Once I noticed a friend's site had a splash page, and I asked her to check her traffic stats, promising her that she would discover that huge numbers of visitors bail on the splash page without ever entering. She did, and she was floored -- it was exactly as I promised.

Popup window

The second problem with the Tropical Smoothie site is that if you do decide to Enter, you get a gratuitous popup window for the site to load in. There are only two times when it's appropriate to open a link in a new window:
  1. When providing supplementary info about what the visitor is already looking at. (e.g., a closeup photo, or some Help text) But even so, that information is usually better displayed within or on top of the current page, if at all possible.
  2. When linking to a completely separate (external) site. (e.g., some other company's site)

What you don't want to do is what Tropical Smoothie did: open a page for the same site in a new window. That just clutters the user's screen for no good reason. It also breaks the Back button in their browser, which will no longer work.

The popup window serves no purpose other than to annoy the site's visitors.


For as long as Flash has been around, web experts have been cautioning not to do entire sites in Flash only. Here's a small sample of that advice:

Why all this advice against Flash? The main reasons are:

  • Flash sites typically take a long time to load.
  • Flash sites typically take a long time to use.

The Tropical Smoothie Café site is no exception. After I got the useless splash page and clicked the Enter button and got the gratuitious popup window, I had to wait 40 full seconds for all the Flash junk to load. And that's on a fast computer, with broadband Internet. This is simply the height of web design arrogance. It's as though the site owner is thinking, "Our site is so awesome that you will just sit there patiently and wait a long time for everything to load, because your time is not important, the only thing that is important is that you see our awesome website. Our site is all that matters."

It didn't end there. Once I pointed or clicked any button, I'd have to wait some more. A lot more. When in frustration I tried to simply close the window to give up, it took my computer seven seconds to close the window!

But slow usability isn't the only problem with Flash sites. Nielsen cites three problems:

...Flash technology tends to discourage usability for three reasons:
  1. it makes bad design more likely,
  2. it breaks with the Web's fundamental interaction style,
  3. and it consumes resources that would be better spent enhancing a site's core value.

And just like with splash pages, Flash sites aren't just bad for users, they're bad for site owners as well. Here's why:

  1. Search engine problems. Search engines can't read Flash easily, if at all. That means that a Flash-only site won't show up in search results nearly as often as a non-Flash site. That means less traffic. A lot less traffic.
  2. Cumbersome reporting. With a regular HTML site, it's easy to get a report of which pages your visitors looked at, what pages they came from, and so forth. With Flash, all bets are off. It's possible to get this to work if you carefully program in calls to a program like Google Analytics for every possible mouseclick on the site, but that's either a lot more work if you're doing it yourself, or a lot more expense if you're hiring someone else to do so.
  3. Updates are difficult. Lots of people can update an HTML site. Few can edit Flash. If you want changes to your Flash site, then unless you can do it yourself, you're going to be paying someone else to do it -- and paying them a lot more than a typical web developer.

A way around most of these problems is to simply include a regular (HTML) version of the site in addition to the Flash version. If you're sure you must have Flash, then keep it and at least give visitors who don't like it the option to use something normal. Then those visitors can have a nice, fast experience, the search engines can index your content, and your reporting will work fine.


How Tropical Smoothie Café can fix these problems

  • Re-do the site in HTML, and have it come up immediately at (without a splash page), -OR-
  • Have the splash page give visitors the choice between the Flash version and an HTML version.
  • If keeping the Flash version, make it load and work at least 15 times faster.