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

Formal Critique of "Old Kairos"

For the past few years, I have been analyzing and critiquing Kairos in classrooms, faculty inservices, and conferences, offering it as an example of a high-concept site that buries valuable content behind layers of intrusive design. (Jump down to screen captures; discussion.)

See also: Undergraduates Review Kairos; Undergraduates Review This Site

What, in my humble opinion, are the main problems with Kairos?  For the sake of launching a discussion, I'd suggest narcissm and defensiveness.The Kairos web site seems less interested in presenting the peer-reviewed content, and more interested in establishing the institutional identity of Kairos.

The Kairos web site used to be organized in such a way that a visitor to the home page had to perform seven discrete actions to get out of the journal's editorial apparatus and read an actual article:
  1. On the home page, scroll down, so that the "Current Issue" button comes into view.
  2. Click the "Current Issue" button, loading a "frames or no frames" splash page
  3. Make a selection; or wait a bit and watch as a default option loads. You will see the  issue's "At a Glance..." page.
  4. Scroll down a little until the "Features" link comes into view
  5. Click on the "Features" link (or, keep scrolling until the features themselves come into view)
  6. Click on the desired article, loading that article's abstract page.
  7. Scroll down, so that the "enter the active version of this hypertext" banner comes into view.
  8. Click on the "enter the active version of this hypertext" banner, loading a completely different web site.
Now, the visitor can finally read an actual article -- which will, of course, have a completely different navigation system.  None of the effort the visitor has expended on the Kairos web site will make it any easier to read the article... if anything, the visitor is simply that much more fatigued.

Although I consider myself an experienced web user, I still had to visit and re-visit the Kairos home page many times -- over a period of months -- before I finally figured out how to get to the content.  I simply wasn't thinking the way Kairos editors probably expected a typical visitor to think.  I wondered whether the Kairos editors had ever actually sat down and watched a first-time visitor try to use their site.

The overreliance upon flashing banners and pop-up gizmos makes me imagine that the editors are desperate for attention.  Each time I found myself clicking and scrolling, clicking and scrolling past the dense front-matter, I imagined the editors saying, "Hey, remember us? See how fancy our web site is?  That means we're just as interesting as the people whose works we're publishing!"

Screen Captures

Screenshot Potshots
Kairos: Current Issue button falls below the fold This screen capture (c. 1998) of the Kairos home page is marked with a red horizontal line, 480 pixels from the top of the page -- to indicate where the first screen of text leaves off on a 640 x 480 pixel monitor.  The "Current Issue" icon, here circled in green, falls "below the fold," which makes it hard to find.

Monitor sizes and screen resolutions do get more generous each year... but regardless of the user's screen resolution, the "Current Issue" link still languishes at the bottom of a stack of hard-to-distinguish buttons. 
(1) scroll so that "Current Issue" button is in view
(2) click

Hard-to-read issue splash page For issues in volume 2 and volume 3, clicking on "current issue" took the user to a hard-to-read splash page.  The dark red text and the blue linked text is nearly impossible to read on my CRT monitor at work, although the contrast is clearer from my LCD monitor at home.
Even full size, the text is hard to read.
(3a) try very hard to read the dark text against the black background.
(3b) either click on one of the two options, or watch in frustration as the screen changes before you can figure out what to do.
Each issue of Kairos features a rather busy graphic labeled "cover web". Once I realized that "cover web" is the Kairos term for "lead story", I deduced that clicking on the graphic would take me to the story; instead, it just links to an abstract of the cover story, a little farther down the page. 

(This particular cover story consists of an impressionistic sketch of 23 numbered heads; clicking on each head is apparently supposed to display text in a pop-up window, but when I click on them, nothing seems to happen -- the popup window keeps disappearing behind the main browser window. Due to the technical problem, I have never bothered to read this "cover web". Perhaps you'll have better luck.)
(Assuming that you already know that "Features" is where you will find articles...)
(4) scroll a little bit so that "Features" link is in view
(5) click on "Features"

An ugly pop-up windoid blocks my go back' button. Further complicating matters, this obtrusive windoid pops up, overlapping my browser's "go back" button. I always cringe when such little boxes pop up unannounced, because I feel like someone is trying to shove an advertisement in my face. 

This particular box is a cleverly programmed navagiator-cum-toolbox-cum JavaScript menu.  But I hate it anyway -- it's just one more distraction.  My reaction, while perhaps strong, is surely not unique.  (See Kill Clippy!, and fight back against the MS-Word dancing paperclip.)

Just as the home page buried the "Current Issue" button, the "At a Glance" page (at seven screens, it requires much more than a glance) buries its table of contents.  Further, articles and editorial content are distributed among such subsections as "Cover Web", "Features", and "Logging On".  I'm simply not sure what's supposed to be in each section.  I'm sure that the criteria are explained somewhere on the web site, but I don't want to hunt through the editorial infrastructure looking for the explanation -- I just want to find an article.
(6) Click on article you want (assuming it's visible -- you might have to scroll even more)
Clicking on the title of an article does not actually take you to the article, but rather to an abstract page. 

The idea of keeping a collection of conventional prose abstracts on-site makes tremendous sense, given the wide variety of hypertexts Kairos publishes.  Nevertheless, this page is one more barrier between the home page and the article I am trying to read.
(7) Scroll down to bottom of page.

Screenshot Potshot
Every hyperlink on Kairos seems to lead only to article abstracts, instead of articles.
  • I wanted to read an article, so I looked for links labeled "more" or "download full text" or even "click here".
  • I tenatively concluded that Kairos was an online tease, a mere front for increasing mail-based subscription.
Eventually I looked, in despearation, at the annoying, flashy banner at the bottom of each abstract. 
Enter the active version of this hypertext (...whatever that means)Enter the active version of this hypertext (...whatever that means)
Are you annoyed yet? 
(Hit "ESC" to stop the animation.)
At first glance, it looked like an ad, so I ignored it. (See Jakob Nielsen, Top Ten New Mistakes, #10: "Anything That Looks Like Advertising [is a Mistake]".)

At second glance, I read the message "enter the active version of this hypertext."  But I just wanted to read an article. Once again, I had to learn another non-standard term provided by the Kairos editorial board.
(8) Click (on what looks very much like an annoying banner advertisement!)
Thank you, Kairos, for ditching this graphic.


My own reactions may or may not be those of other users... I do not mean to imply that, simply because I do not like or did not understand a particular web design, that the design is therefore faulty. Some people who took the time to learn how to use the JavaScript windoid might end up wishing that every site on the Internet has one just like it... but most sites do not.

Nielsen observes that increasing conservativeness of the average web user means that, no matter how useful the designers may feel a new feature could be, the average user does not want to spend time learning how to use it.

Nielsen's Law of the Web User Experience: Users spend most of their time on other sites. Thus, anything that is a convention and used on the majority of other sites will be burned into the users' brains and you can only deviate from it on pain of major usability problems.  (Nelson, "Interface Standards and Design Creativity")
The paradox of the active user suggests that web surfers would rather wander around aimlessly than pull over and study a road map.  In fact, "a website with a help system is usually a failed website".  The Kairos web site is still too dependent upon HTML gizmos such as frames, flashing banners, and other gizmos.  Too often, these are technological attempts to solve conceptual problems.

Web designers should examine their site from the point of view of the average visitor, not from that of the technically savvy colleagues they wish to impress.  Theorists and experts rarely gravitate towards simplicity.  The result, as one of my students wrote, is that "[s]ometimes when a site changes for the better, it is actually worse for users."

Dennis G. Jerz
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