Function Dysfunction: Working Through Knoxville's Websites

Most websites, certainly including metropulse.com, offer puzzlements and creaky dysfunctions, things that aren't clear or take longer than you'd expect. But describing each one is complicated and doesn't make very interesting reading. Most mortals don't know how to set up or maintain websites. Often the one who sets them up is the most technologically adept person in an office. Nobody really wants to do it, so they trust that guru to make all the calls, figure out what looks best.

Sometimes a professional firm puts it together, but doesn't necessarily maintain it. It would be hard for an outside firm to do it all, since a high-functioning website would depend on daily input from staffers, not just tech pros.

It's hard to maintain enthusiasm for maintaining or improving a website. It's more fun just to put it up.

Are these website's potential users consulted? It might be good to poll them now and then, asking for suggestions.

Bus riders have the option of just rolling their eyes and ignoring KAT's high-fashion, high-bandwidth opener. Interesting cinema, perhaps, but some may find it has lost some of its charm by the 30th viewing, when all you need to know is whether your bus is on its snow route today.

What's worse is that the practical parts of the website are much harder to get to than the wild, happenin' intro. Most computers will show you the high-intensity intro with its bells and whistles, but some won't go much further, demanding particular readers or plug-ins. For most customers, the most urgent need might be a bus schedule, which after all is only a list of times, a task of a sort that was easily accomplished by the simplest websites, 20 years ago.

The CBID's calendar seems to recommend things to do each day, but every day in March that's not blank mentions WDVX's Blue Plate Special. Which is great, but sometimes there are other things to do, too.

Maybe we just don't understand how to use these websites. On Knox County's website, County Clerk Foster Arnett appears, like Vanna White, and tries helpfully to show us links that magically appear as he points to them. It's cute, sure enough. It might be a bit frustrating if we were counting on it to find a link quickly, and it happened to be one of the last he pointed to.

The public library's McClung Collection website's collection of old photographs can help you kill many hours; you can blow them up and search them. It can be confusing at first; click on the link that says "Knox County 200 Years Photograph Collection," as we did this week, and you'll get 16 photographs of Gibbs High School groups in the 1920s, and perhaps conclude that's all there is to the subject. They're navigable, meaning you can scroll around them like Ken Burns or somebody, and blow them up, studying detail maybe the photographer didn't notice at the time.

One of the best websites, elegant in its simplicity, is that of the Metropolitan Planning Commission. Across the top, it displays just enough images to offer a sense of the diversity of the place, but not enough to get in the way of most of the people who use it, who are practical developers, politicians, citizens. It's up to date, with recent news items and lots of relevant reports.