Kairos Critique [ Intro | Requiem | Formal | Comparative | Justification ] [About this site]

Publishing an online journal in semi-annual "issues" dilutes the impact of the medium.
n 1996, the same year Kairos was born, web designer David Siegel was riding high on the success of his seminal book, Creating Killer Websites.  More recently, Siegel has sung a different tune: "I am not trying to win any design awards for my clients any more."

Why no more killer websites?  Presumably because visitors rarely appreciate being killed. Although online writing is still an emerging genre, computer gurus who know next to nothing about composition theory and textual rhetoric have, almost by trial and error, stumbled upon a set of online writing conventions that describe the most successful and popular Internet sites. To depart from these expectations is to frustrate the reader. [See Jakob Nielsen, "How Users Read on the Web."]

Many early academic notions about the hypertext reader's alleged desire to explore or the empowerment of readers liberated from the author's structure simply do not match the expectations of the vast majority of people who spend their time using hypertexts.  If the purpose of Kairos is to distribute scholarly information, then  the journal would better serve its readers by following lower-tech, lower-profile HTML strategies that do not impede the message.
Arts & Letters Daily offers blurbs about articles appearing elsewhere on the Internet. New material appears at the top of the column; older entries slide down the page, eventually ending up in an archive. 

While the cheesy graphic eats up a lot of space on the first screen, the site doesn't bore repeat visitors with a lengthy mission statement.  The editors stand demurely in the background, letting the content speak for itself.  Even the ads are subtle -- you can't even see them in this screen capture! 

(I have shamelessly duplicated this model on my own home page, which features links about online and offline literacy.)

This site, useit.com, looks a bit amateurish... and if you don't already know who Jakob Nielsen is, you'll be puzzled by the purpose of his his site (which is to promote Nielsen's consulting business).  Nevertheless, visitors can quickly locate old articles in the left column, and watch for new material on the right.  All articles are written in inverted pyramid cyberstyle, with ample bulleted lists and bold keywords for scannability
Only a few of his many articles are of direct interest to writing teachers; yet his simple, no-nonsense table of contents (with informative, practical titles, rather than clever, obscure ones) greatly simplifies navigation.  A new column appears every two weeks, but in the intervals, a "Spotlight" section offers paragraph-length mini-articles that comment on current events (but of late have been used to promote Nielsen's personal appearances, thus offering less value to the causal reader).

Search Box Usability: On March 13, 2000, I e-mailed Jakob Nielsen to tell him that six of my freshmen spent 8-30 minutes looking for information on his web site, and all six complained that his site didn't have a search box -- all six had missed the plain-text link in the upper left corner of the page.

With all due respect to the professional achievements of Kairos editorial board member Jason Cranford Teague, I am one of the many who cannot stand HTML frames and JavaScript doodads.  Further, like everyone else who goes online in order to find information, rather than to explore aimlessly, I had no desire to experiment with Kairos in order to make sense of its innovative features.  Many people cringe when they encounter web sites with large ornamental graphics, pop-up windows, and flashing banners; why?  Because marketers use such devices in order to wrench our attention away from the things we really wanted to do instead.

I finally realized what a wonderful cautionary tale Kairos could be. So much talent, so much time, so much thought went into the creation of Kairos. Yet it reminds me of some of Eugene O'Neill's more notable theatrical failures -- the ones that George Jean Nathan said "sink not trivially but with a certain air of majesty, like a great ship, its flags flying, full of holes." Oh, the humanity!

I used to enjoy dropping hints about the mythological Kairos search engine (only available through a JavaScript windoid).  Oh, how frustrated my students grew.  Now, a search box is ready and waiting on every one of the top-level pages.  I also used to show students a page where an editor, responding to a "frames suck" FAQ, assured visitors that there was in fact an alternate, non-framed version of the site but neglected to provide a link to it.  Now, Kairos framing is shockingly subtle; a modest band to the left of the screen orients the reader and features links that are actually useful.  If Kairos continues to improve at this rate, I shall have to find another target.

See also: Undergraduates Review Kairos; Undergraduates Review This Site

Dennis G. Jerz
Kairos Critique [ Intro | Requiem | Formal | Comparative | Justification ] [About this site]